Ralph Smithers, Jr., Assistant Vice President, Diversity and Community Relations Motorists Insurance Group

 

You’ve been at Motorists for nearly 30 years. Tell us about the roles you’ve held there and how they’ve helped you be successful in your current job.

Although I’ve been at Motorists for most of my career, I haven’t been in the same job for more than four years, which keeps things interesting.

After my freshman year at Ohio State, I applied to work at an insurance company and loved the work so much that I changed my major. Right before I graduated from college, I applied at Motorists. I have been here almost ever since.

Early in my career I was in underwriting, which looks at applications for insurance, vets them and makes sure they meet our guidelines. My customer service background and skills in reviewing, applying judgment and being able to say “no” when necessary have been helpful in my current job. In all of my roles, I try to work with people and be supportive even if we can’t fund something today. I always tell people that a “no” today doesn’t mean a “no” forever.

 

The Motorists Foundation focuses on “improving communities and families, promoting education and encouraging wellness” with a “commitment to helping children succeed, eradicating cancer and supporting industry initiatives.” Can you share the ways in which you partner with nonprofits to fulfill this mission in Central Ohio?

We do a lot in our neighborhood in each of these areas. For example, in the area of education, we supported the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s capital campaign and support their programming. At Cristo Ray, we provide charitable donations, employ their students and also have an associate serving as a board member. The Columbus Museum of Art is across the street from us and we support them creating access for families who otherwise might not be able to visit by allowing it to be open for free on Sundays. We helped Ronald McDonald House to build a new wing for the families they serve, making it the largest Ronald McDonald House in the world.

For our wellness focus, we are supportive of numerous walks, from Komen and the African American Male Wellness Walk to the March of Dimes, and many others. We also have supported the Ohio Cancer Research, which provides funding for cancer researchers.

 

For your education focus, Motorists support numerous scholarships. Tell me how students can apply for those opportunities?

We provide scholarship support through places like the Ohio Foundation of Independent Colleges (OFIC) and The Griffith Insurance Education Foundation, which focuses on students aspiring to be in the insurance industry. Applicants apply to these organizations who administer the funds we provide. A full list of the scholarships we support can be found on our website: https://www.motoristsinsurancegroup.com/who-we-are/giving-back/.

 

Your foundation donates $1 million to charities annually. Can you share how the foundation board decides which nonprofits to fund?

I typically meet with various nonprofit leaders and fundraisers and report on those meetings quarterly. We receive requests from around the county and we are happy to review those. We work to find ways to make things work when we can.

A significant amount of our budget’s bigger dollar items are set in place annually, like our United Way campaign. We have a group of associates that review all of the other applications and then we meet as a group to discuss them. Everything here is done by consensus, meaning we just don’t take a vote. We really talk through all of our support.

We are shifting how we review these requests, and by May I am expecting to have our review committee mostly staffed by the leaders of our associate resource groups. In my role, I also handle diversity and we want to make sure our philanthropic decisions are aligned with our diversity strategy. This review committee makes recommendations to the CEO, CFO and Chief Legal Officer for final approval.

 

The Motorists Foundation has four deadlines for charitable requests to be submitted to you annually (the first of February, May, August and November). Do you suggest nonprofits apply earlier in the year or are your donations a consistent amount quarterly? 

I encourage our partners to apply in November for funding in the following year. This helps us plan our year. We don’t have unlimited resources and it can be hard for us to review everything in one meeting. However, we do like to bring all requests to our committee.

 

You recently contributed to the new Social Justice Park that opened last fall. Tell me why that was a good fit for your giving priorities. 

The park is right across the street from us, and is the first Social Justice Park in the country. The park has points of engagement with several of our board members who are community leaders and were involved in the creation of this park, including Yvette McGee Brown and Archie Griffin. Archie is our longest serving board member.

 

Your company prioritizes giving where your associates are involved. Tell us about how volunteers and board members at Motorists are placed.

I tend to take the lead on placing board members, and we have a team approach on volunteer efforts. Our executive team tends to find their own passions and initiates these board memberships on their own. I can tell them who would like a board member from Motorists if they need ideas. I tend to look for people who are leaders, but not always executive leaders, who are passionate about a cause and will work hard.

We automated our volunteer management system recently and that’s been really helpful to identify opportunities.

Overall, we do prefer to fund partners where our associates are engaged. We don’t always have someone on the board of funded partners, but often we do.

 

Is there anything else that would be helpful to share with nonprofits looking to create partnerships with Motorists?

We never see any bad causes. All of the requests for support that we receive are worthy, but we have to pick the ones that give us the best alignment with our organization. Sometimes we have to decline a request, but I always share that a “no” might just be a “not now.” Sometimes we need to get more associates engaged before we can provide support. We try to be as clear and helpful as possible. I’m always happy to talk to anyone trying to learn more and see if we can find synergies.

 

How can someone get more involved with your resource groups?

We have seven resource groups and we are in the process of linking causes with these associate resource groups. Nonprofits can come to our lunch and learns to educate associates and get them involved. I am happy to serve as the point person to help make introductions to these groups: 

  1. African American

  2. Asian Pacific

  3. Early-Career Professionals

  4. LGBTQ

  5. Veterans

  6. Women

  7. Working Parents

We are really proud that we are going to have meaningful integration between our associate resource groups and foundation committee. All of the leaders of the resource groups are excited to be serving on our foundation committee, which reviews charitable giving requests.

 

Where would you suggest a potential nonprofit partner go to learn more? 

Our website is a good place to start.