Employees at Kiite give back to the community through payroll deductions

 
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Re-post from The Record:

WATERLOO — Joseph Fung and his sister Donna Litt want to bring Waterloo Region's burgeoning tech sector closer to the communities around it with a new approach to philanthropy.

Fung and Litt are co-founders of artificial intelligence startup Kiite, which operates out of the Communitech Data Hub in Waterloo. Fung is the chief executive officer and Litt is the chief operating officer. They are well-known leaders in the tech community after achieving lucrative exits from an earlier startup.

When they launched Kiite in June 2017, they also wanted to create a new model for charitable giving designed for tech companies and tech workers.

And they are making progress.

"What's really great is the number of leaders that reached out after we first launched the program to ask for the framework, the materials, the templates that we used," said Fung.

"I know the K-W Community Foundation in partnership with Communitech are working to put together some of these processes into tool kits to help other companies be better donors and better contributors to the charitable sector."

Litt and Fung launched the Kiite Community Fund less than a year ago with a donation from the startup. It is an endowment that will increase thanks to payroll deductions from the firm's 16 employees.

Fung said all employees have signed up to contribute to the fund; they are donating an average of one per cent of their gross salaries.

"Really what we are trying to do is set up a foundation for better philanthropy in the tech sector," said Fung. "Hopefully, we can set a good example."

To help make informed decisions about where and when to make donations from the fund, Kiite partnered with the Kitchener Waterloo Community Foundation. The foundation has more than $100 million in assets under its management, and will manage the Kiite Community Fund.

The foundation will likely be around far longer than most tech companies. So the payroll deductions from Kiite's employees will be working long into the future.

The average technology company operates for 20 years, said Fung.

For the most part, tech companies sell their software, services and hardware in other countries, said Fung. That means the direct economic links to the communities where they are located are often different than traditional industries that sell goods and services locally.

While some individual tech leaders in Waterloo Region have made extraordinary philanthropic gifts, Fung wanted to increase the participation of tech companies and their employees across the sector.

Employees at Kiite are exposed to organized, continual philanthropy while working there. Fung believes they will take that experience with them if they leave to work elsewhere or create their own startups.

Fung is often asked how Kiite's investors have reacted to the Kiite Community Fund and the payroll deductions. The startup raised $3 million in venture backing before it was a year old.

"We seeded the fund with company money, and we spend energy and time talking about this to our team," said Fung. "I am happy to say our investors have been very, very supportive."

The community fund and payroll deductions help build a sustainable company because they help attract and retain talent, and send the right signals to the community, he said. And Kiite's investors like that.

Fung also is asked whether employees feel pressured to contribute to the fund. Contributions have to be voluntary and participation has to appear to be voluntary, he said.

"We put some really careful thought into that," he said. "I don't see the donor registry. I don't know how much individual employees are giving."

Everyone hears the same information about the program, in the same way, at the same time.

"We have the same standard message that we share as part of our on-boarding practices, so it's not an influencing conversation," said Fung.