Retail real estate is a social industry.

An office or industrial developer isn't concerned with engaging trade areas or drawing in traffic to keep retailers happy. They only have to worry about their tenants. That's not the case for shopping center owners and operators. They need to be mindful of how properties connect with surrounding communities, integrate in the fabric of everyday life and work diligently to keep both tenants and shoppers equally happy.

And that's not just marketing and design. It's also the corporate profiles shopping center companies create and the need to maintain the image of good corporate citizenship. As such, many retail real estate firms have developed robust charitable programs.

Some executives pursue pet causes and donate out of their own pocket. In other cases, firms engage in companywide efforts to raise funds for nonprofits. And still others organize companywide service days where employees en masse leave work for a day and volunteer with organizations and charities. Still others have created foundations to manage their charitable activities.

“Our industry is very generous and when they learn of a good cause they open up their wallets,” says Frank Buonanotte, founder of the Atlanta-based Shopping Center Group and the largest franchisee of the Party City. Buonanotte, for his part, recently launched 500 for Life, a charitable organization dedicated to saving the lives of fire victims and firefighters. (See sidebar.)

The retail real estate industry is not alone, of course, when it comes to charitable giving. In fact, donations to charity reached an all-time record in the U.S. in 2006, amounting to $295 billion, according to Giving USA 2007, an annual philanthropy report issued by the Giving USA Foundation and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. The figure was a 4.2 percent jump over 2005 (even though the 2005 numbers include nearly $7.4 billion in disaster relief giving related to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita).

How to give

Funding is a critical issue for most charitable organizations, and the retail real estate industry has stepped up to donate millions of dollars. For example, Yizhak Toledano, CEO of Aventura, Fla.-based Sky Development Inc. donated $3 million to the Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital Foundation, a nonprofit public organization that supports health care provided to children served by the Memorial Healthcare System. Toledano's donation will be used to build a new children's hospital, which will be situated across the street from Memorial's flagship hospital, where Toledano's children were born.

“This hospital has done a great job of helping the community, and when I saw what Memorial planned to do with the children's hospital, I wanted to get involved,” Toledano says. “This children's hospital is expected to be the best place for children's cancer treatment in the entire state of Florida. The donation will help them continue to do good work and save lives.”

Originally, Toledano had planned to donate $1 million to the foundation, but when he met with the health care system's executive team he learned that the foundation had received a commitment from a charitable fund to match a $3 million donation if the foundation could find one individual to give $3 million.

Mark Kingston, CEO of ARGUS Soft-ware, is also doing his part to raise money for charitable causes. The Houston-based company, which provides real estate technology solutions, is the lead sponsor for Realcomm's 2008 Charity Poker Tournament.

Realcomm, an industry association for commercial real estate technology providers, raised $100,000 through its 2007 poker event. Donations benefited TechBoston, a division of the Boston public school system dedicated to providing advanced programs for children interested in math and science. Kingston was the largest individual donor for the 2007 event and has set a goal of $250,000 for the 2008 poker tournament.

“We operate in one of the most lucrative industries in the world, and industry leaders have a responsibility to define a culture of giving so we can make our communities better,” Kingston says.

Shared goals

Many commercial real estate companies have formalized their corporate giving efforts and focus on one main charitable organization or project. Coldwell Banker Commercial Affiliates, for example, named Big Brothers Big Sisters of America as its corporate charity, marking the first time the company has ever focused on any one specific charity, according to president and COO Rick Davidson.

“Previously, our offices have been involved in a number of charities, and we started thinking about the kind of impact we could make if we aggregated all the efforts and focused on one organization,” Davidson explains. “We wanted to get behind one particular organization to maximize the impact.”

The Big Brothers Big Sisters organization, which has been in existence for more than a century, mentors children age six through 18 in communities across the country. In 2006, Big Brothers Big Sisters served 250,000 children across the country.

Specifically, Coldwell Banker Commercial wanted to partner with a charitable organization in such a way that all its offices could get involved locally and make an impact that went well beyond financial, says Jason Silfies, vice president of marketing and technology for Coldwell Banker Commercial.

“When we looked at Big Brothers Big Sisters, we saw that they have a overwhelming need for male mentors,” Silfies explains. “It seemed a perfect fit because our industry is male-dominated.”

Coldwell Banker Commercial has established three main goals for its new charitable partnership: to raise $100,000 in donations annually, to drive male mentorship across the nation and to encourage its offices to get involved at the local level.

Atlanta-based retail developer and owner North American Properties has also focused its charitable efforts through its unique Build a Bridge initiative. The company launched the initiative in 2002 to bring retailers and schools together in the communities where it owns and develops retail centers, says partner Mark Toro.

Before launching the program, North American Properties employees worked directly with schools to help out in a variety of ways, Toro says. From offering tutoring and mentoring to providing financial donations and construction-related services, the company kept busy and all too soon found that it didn't have enough people to meet the needs of the area schools.

“Many of the retailers have their own community outreach initiatives, and many of those programs are education oriented,” Toro notes. “That's why we decided to ‘build a bridge’ between the community and the retailers.” North American Properties has a program organizer who reaches out to schools and retailers to coordinate efforts.

More than money

Many real estate companies choose to donate services in addition to money. Cleveland-based Forest City, for example, sets aside one day each year for its employees to go out into the community to work with local charities. Forest City employees get to pick the charities they want to help out, and last year, 1,335 employees participated in the company's community day. Employees visited 33 different charities, including a Cleveland area food bank and a local animal shelter, says Allan Krulak, vice president and director of community affairs for Forest City.

“Our employees go out and do whatever is important to the charities they're working with — cleanup, landscaping, painting or stuffing envelopes,” Krulak says.

Edens & Avant has its own version of community day. The Columbia, S.C.-based retail owner and developer launched its Service Day program in 2006 after CEO Terry Brown decided to combine a company picnic with community service.

Edens & Avant's Service Day is held on Columbus Day — a day that would otherwise be a working day at the company. All employees — even those at the company's regional offices — receive an “assignment,” a charitable project that has been identified and approved by the human resources department, says Sara Fawcett, vice president of human resources at Edens & Avant.

The daylong projects are lined up several months in advance, Fawcett says, and on Service Day all employees gather for a breakfast kickoff and then head out into the community to do their good work. At the end of the day, the employees return to the office for the company picnic.

This year, Edens & Avant had a team visit the local children's home to paint their enrichment center and cafeteria.

Another team handled site preparation for seven Habitat for Humanity houses. In all, employees did service projects at 20 nonprofits and invested about 2,000 hours of work — roughly one year's worth of labor for one person.

Fired Up about Giving

Firefighters have extremely dangerous jobs, and Frank Buonanotte is working to make those jobs less dangerous. Buonanotte, founder of the Shopping Center Group, an Atlanta-based retail brokerage firm, and the largest franchisee of Party City, launched 500 for Life, a charitable organization dedicated to saving the lives of fire victims and firefighters.

500 for Life raises funds to purchase thermal imaging cameras, one of the most important pieces of equipment any firefighter can have, allowing firefighters to see through smoke and fire. But, few fire departments have the funds to buy thermal imaging cameras, which typically cost $10,000 to $13,000 each.

“Like most Americans, I took firefighters for granted and never thought about what it's like to be in a fire,” Buonanotte says. That all changed when he saw the documentary Into the Fire, which showed the dangerous situations firefighters face and the life-saving ability of thermal imaging cameras. “This camera is like a cure for cancer that isn't being used because of the expense,” he says. “We're a wealthy industry and in our business $10,000 is just not a lot of money yet fire departments can't get these cameras.”

Through 500 for Life, Buonanotte partnered with Fireman's Fund Insurance Company, National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and Bullard, the leading manufacturer of thermal imaging cameras. Additionally, each of the Shopping Center Group's divisions has committed to donating money to purchase at least one thermal imaging camera, Buonanotte says.

To date, 500 for Life has raised $250,000 and given out 25 thermal imaging cameras. “Firefighters are such unbelievable heroes who put their lives at risk to save other people and this is all about providing them with the tools they need,” Buonanotte says.

Let Them Eat Cake!

A little more than 12 years ago, as Myra Smith watched her son blow out the candles on his birthday cake, she was struck with an intense sadness that somewhere in the world, there were children whose birthdays passed with no notice and certainly no delicious birthday cake. That's when Smith, who is a director of business development for CB Richard Ellis's Houston office, decided to start baking cakes and delivering them to homeless children on their birthdays.

Smith launched her project by partnering with Bay Area Turning Point homeless shelter in Houston, and what started out as a one-woman show has grown into something much larger: 44 CBRE offices now provide birthday cakes to 75 homeless shelters across the nation.

The program, which is part of the CBRE Cares initiative, has delivered 4,000 birthday cakes since 2000, Smith says. The company, along with hundreds of CBRE employees, donates money to the birthday cake program. Some employees are actively involved in working with the homeless shelters to identify children and to buy and deliver birthday cakes.

“These children usually don't get to celebrate their birthday in any special way because their lives are all about necessities like food and shelter,” Smith says. They don't have one day that's just about them — about celebrating their lives and that's what I wanted to give them.”

Smith adds: “This program is about self-esteem — it's something to make these children feel important and valued.”

No Mountain High Enough

When Coldwell Banker Commercial Affiliates named Big Brothers Big Sisters of America its corporate charity, the company's first fundraising effort was rocky — literally. From June 29 through July 1, a team of Coldwell Banker Commercial alpine mountain climbers, organized by company president and COO Rick Davidson, scaled two mountains in three days in the Pacific Northwest: Mount Adams in Washington followed by Mount Hood in Oregon.

The company's goal for the fundraising effort, dubbed Climb for Kids' Sake, was $23,526 — the exact amount of the altitude of the two mountains, a combined 23,526 feet. Instead, Climb for Kids' Sake exceeded that goal and raised more than $35,000.

The climbers battled harrowing weather throughout the expedition, including whiteout conditions during the climb of Mount Adams. A special Climb for Kids' Sake flag was unfurled when the team reached the summit of Mount Hood.

“The Climb for Kids' Sake combines two of my passions — mountain climbing and Big Brothers Big Sisters,” says Davidson, who has been involved with Big Brother Big Sisters for several years.

“People are always looking for unique ways to raise money beyond the typical dinner gala or golf tournament, and we thought climbing a mountain would be a good way to draw attention to the important work that Big Brothers Big Sisters does every day,” he says.