GE to end corporate match to retirees' charitable gifts

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PITTSFIELD — The General Electric Co. no longer will supersize the giving power of retirees.

After April 15, the company will not match charitable donations by former employees. The move, taken to improve the troubled industrial company's balance sheet, could affect area nonprofit agencies that have benefited since the early 1950s.

In a Jan. 31 "Dear GE Retiree" letter, the president of the GE Foundation cited "tough decisions to help improve our company's financial position."

While current GE workers still can seek company matches for their philanthropic gifts, the policy will exclude retirees — including hundreds, if not thousands, eligible in Berkshire County.

At the height of its former operations in Pittsfield, GE employed as many as 14,000 people.

"This decision was made after careful consideration of balancing GE's community support with our work to return the company to a position of strength," wrote Linda W. Boff, the foundation's president. "I understand that knowledge doesn't necessarily make this news easier to absorb from a personal standpoint."

In Pittsfield, Boff's letter sits on a pile of paperwork about to get attention in the home of Nancy McNabb, a former GE financial analyst. She plans to ramp up her giving.

"I want to make sure I can get some extra donations in so I can take advantage," she said.

McNabb has mixed feelings about the lost financial matches, accepting that the step might help assure the company's continued operations after a dramatic fall from grace.

Despite recent sharp gains in its stock price, GE shares lost more than $200 billion in value in the past two years, falling 70 percent from a peak in 2016, according to the financial publication Barron's.

"I guess it's important to save the company, but still," McNabb said. "I'd rather see this than cutting pensions."

Nicholas Boraski, of Pittsfield, who retired as a GE general manager and vice president in 1988, said he made use of the match, particularly with the creation of the Boraski Scholars program. That fund, begun with his late wife, Ruth, in 1994, has provided tuition assistance to scores of engineering students.

And several years ago, Boraski approached the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation about another scholarship program, motivated by concerns over the high cost of higher education.

"I was once a student with limited resources who took advantage of the G.I. Bill after my discharge, so I can appreciate this help," Boraski wrote in a 2016 commentary in The Eagle.

"I'm going to miss that," Boraski said Friday of the long-standing GE financial match, which he tapped for the last time with donations in January. "Of course I took advantage."

Boraski said he understands the company's move to restructure.

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"They're trying to consolidate their funds," he said.

New focus

A GE spokesman said Friday that the GE Foundation plans to focus its work in three specific areas. They are investing in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — education in places where employees live, creating a more diverse workforce and improving access to "quality health care for underserved communities."

In 2018, GE's matching gifts amounted to $30 million around the world. The spokesman said 2019 figures are not available, and the company does not have a breakdown on the amount triggered by retiree giving. Figures for Berkshire County also were not available.

On the foundation's website, the history of matching gifts appears to be a point of pride.

"In 1954, the GE Foundation created the concept of a corporate matching gift program to support employees in their personal philanthropy and charitable giving by providing a one-to-one monetary match," a passage reads. "Since then, many companies have started similar programs."

To date, the program has generated $1.44 billion in giving, the website says.

The effect on local giving remains uncertain.

Peter Taylor, president of the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, said that only a small amount of donations has come to the group from the GE Foundation, with one donor responsible for two-thirds of the dollar value.

Attempts to reach officials with the Berkshire United Way for comment were not successful Friday.

McNabb, the former financial analyst, said that as a third-generation GE employee, she grew accustomed to the outsize role the company played in the lives of workers and retirees.

"They've taken care of me my whole life," she said. "They were like a family, a parent."

As far as GE changes go, McNabb said the loss of a match in charitable giving pales when compared to the company's decision in 2015 to shift former salaried employees eligible for Medicare to a new health plan. She joined hundreds of GE retirees for a briefing at the former Crowne Plaza hotel, witnessing their fears about the change.

"It just broke my heart," she said.

The company said it set the April 15 expiration date to give retirees time to plan for the matching gift program's end. April 15 is the deadline to make donations for the previous calendar year and still qualify for a tax exemption under IRS rules.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.


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