If you’ve attended the Walk-A-Mile in Her Shoes fundraiser to benefit SARC the past two years or seen the pictures, you already know Steve Linkous even if you don’t know his name.
He was the top fundraiser both years, raising over $8,000 in 2012 and just over $12,000 this year. As a top fundraiser, he is called to the stage and recognized and given a pair of slippers he’s allowed to wear for reaching such a goal (which he declines). Oh, and he would have been wearing 5-inch platform red pumps, too.
“I told my wife [Sandi] the red shoes had to go. They are far too dangerous. I actually broke my toe the first year I participated,” Linkous chuckles. “I went to take a drink and caught my toe on the edge of the sidewalk. I didn’t fall, but I thought to myself ‘Something doesn’t feel right.’ By the time I finished the walk, my toe was black and blue.” With many lower heeled options available for walk participants, why did Linkous go for 5-inch platforms? “It’s just what my wife gave me. I didn’t have a choice.”
Walk-A-Mile in Her Shoes benefits SARC – the Sexual Assault/Spouse Abuse Resource Center in Harford County that works to end domestic and sexual violence and stalking and provide aid to aid its victims. Harford Mutual – where Steve Linkous serves as president – has always been a supporter, so when the event gained momentum, Sandi Linkous, current President of the SARC Board, asked her husband to join in.
Since its founding in 1842, Harford Mutual has been headquartered in Bel Air, moving to its iconic location in 1952. Located in “that building” with the large tower across from Klein’s Shop-Rite on Main Street Bel Air, Harford Mutual is often mistaken for government offices or church or school. However, while everyone may not know what operates behind its doors, the strength and stability of Harford Mutual is acutely recognized by its 130-plus employees and more than 425 independent insurance agencies across seven states and the District of Columbia that write and manage the commercial policies it offers. Through good economic times and bad, Harford Mutual has remained financially strong, committed to their employees and the community, and strategically focused on the future.
He admits he got a lot of support not only internally and from local business clients, but also nationally from the insurance community, peer companies and re-issuers who really stepped up. “Some fundraising efforts like building a local house for Habitat is a more difficult appeal outside the area. Something like domestic violence and stalking, unfortunately is like cancer – everyone knows someone who is affected. It’s easier to take it to a national platform.”
The subject of abuse can be sensitive to address, but Linkous says he took the opportunity to get the conversation started by using one of the shoes as a gavel during a committee meeting he was chairing. “Whether people want to admit it or not, domestic violence and abuse is pervasive, and it’s probably touching the life of someone you know.”
Linkous is a Harford County native, graduating from North Harford High School and Harford Community College. He was raised on a dairy farm in Jarrettsville and began working at Harford Mutual at age 17. He met his wife Sandi at Harford Mutual and attended night school to earn his degree from the University of Maryland. “I’ve spent my entire career here at Harford Mutual.”
Linkous took over as president in 2006, and philanthropy as part of the strategic plan wasn’t far behind. “The previous president was the go-to guy at Harford Mutual whenever anyone needed help in the community. I wanted to change that and make Harford Mutual – the entity and its employees – the go-to place. So when I took over as president, it was an opportunity and a natural progression to ramp up what we could give and what we could support.”
Meaningful community involvement is one of the core values of the company. Linkous asked each officer to choose a charity he or she was passionate about. Harford Mutual would support the organization financially and the officer had to sit on the board or a committee and volunteer their time. “We didn’t just want a mission statement that was slapped up on the wall, we really meant it. Getting the officers involved was to show our employees that this wasn’t just a PR moment or just about giving money either. We wanted them to go out and volunteer and do something. The benefit from a business standpoint is that you have a group of employees who aren’t just talking about their work. We are also talking about our community, which engages us more. We’re not just here processing claims, we’re also doing something for our neighbors. I think it really helps bring everyone together. Our jobs are more than just what our position and title states.”
Habitat for Humanity, Susquehanna, gets most of Linkous’s time where he serves as president. He was involved with Rebuilding Together for 10 years and was part of the team that merged with Habitat and expanded into Cecil County to more efficiently use resources. “I picked Habitat because it spoke to me. I’m very hands on,” he admits. “I like the idea of seeing what you’ve accomplished at the end of a day. I also like the intimacy of it – you see where the support goes. You meet the families. You work alongside them while they put in their sweat equity. And, at our recent building in Bel Air, I got to see the kids run around their rooms when the house was completed.”
With the officer involvement component, employee teams are very involved in several activities leading one to think that fundraising may get a little overwhelming around the office. But Linkous credits his employees with always coming through, even in a tough economy, and doing it creatively, too. “We are now trying to stage our involvement and fundraisers so that they don’t overlap. We don’t want employees to get burnout. The employees always come up with great ideas so that the fundraising isn’t just about a handout. They will choose a Friday to wear jeans that requires $1 for the privilege. They will hold raffles for prized parking spots or sell hot dogs for lunch during Orioles season.”
With more demand on fewer resources in the non-profit world, Linkous has guided Harford Mutual’s giving with an even hand. “We’re very open in our giving. Some companies can’t decide where to give so they choose to give to United Way or a giving foundation. Others may limit themselves to just three organizations to support. We take a bigger swath,” he explains. “Where we have ‘meaningful involvement’ with one of our officers on the board, we raise that group on our list and the amount that we give. Where we limit ourselves is we don’t give to organizations like private schools or specific churches, etc. We give where there is full community involvement and benefit – one of the definitions of being a company founded on the principles of mutuality. We also make sure that when we give to an organization like SARC, and we know they’ve come to depend on that gift amount, just because we didn’t have a good year, we don’t reduce our gift to them. We sit on boards, so we see what happens when a company pulls their support. We try to keep a certain amount going to those groups that are counting on us.”
Harford Mutual employs a formula based on revenue size or profits before taxes for determining how much support they can afford to provide each year. “If we’re having a good year we can give more, but we always have that base line we can come down to since it’s based on revenue. We set aside 1.25 percent of net income before taxes,” states Linkous. “That can be pretty significant.”
On the foundation board for Upper Chesapeake since 2007, Linkous committed Harford Mutual to a $200,000 capital contribution over a five-year period and a $50,000 capital commitment over three years to the Bob Hooper Hospice House. “We were looking to make a large donation but wanted to choose organizations that would resonate with all our employees. Since these are our community hospital and medical facility, they seemed appropriate. By parsing out the donation over several years, we were able to make a significant contribution to the community without taking away from our routine commitments.”
Linkous confesses he’s received many offers over his 28 years at Harford Mutual to leave Harford County and work someplace else for someone else, but that being here is what feels natural. “We’re a mutual insurer, started by small businesses, homeowners, and farm owners who were looking for a way to share risk. For 171 years of operation, our job has been to protect our policyholders. That same mutual concept, mutuality is what we call it, is what we see when we try to get involved in our community. It’s not just about having our building here and looking pretty. It’s about finding approaches to community involvement to help all the way around. We just see it as part of our being. It’s not just an add-on because some consultant said it would be good for our brand, it’s really part of who we are.” I95