Cullen Handfelt wanted to go on a mission trip with his church to repair water wells in impoverished villages in Africa. But the $16,000 price tag for him and his fiancee to make the trip to Malawi was so steep that Handfelt, an account manager in sales for Corrosion Resistant Alloys, set out to raise the funds.
At quarterly company meetings, officials talked about the "giving program," so Handfelt applied. He was overwhelmed, and grateful, to receive enough to cover the airfare portion of the trip.
The company, which distributes nickel alloy pipe and tubing for upstream oil production, also gave him an extra five days of paid time off to make the nearly monthlong journey in July.
"We wouldn't have made it without their help," Handfelt said. "No way."
His co-workers also feel good about their place of employment. Their survey responses helped earn Corrosion Resistant Alloys a spot on the annual Top Workplaces survey conducted for the Chronicle by the research firm WorkplaceDynamics.
This is the fourth year the Chronicle has published the ranked list, which is based on evaluations of more than 68,000 Houston-area employees on how well their companies provide for them in such areas as opportunities for advancement, the value of their pay and benefits, and their bosses' communication and management skills.
Pennsylvania-based Workplace- Dynamics invited 1,391 local companies to participate and surveyed 285 of them.
Many of the 150 companies that made the cut were cited for their generous and sometimes highly personalized benefits.
For decades, companies have adopted specific charities by donating money and volunteer hours. But more companies that make the list of the Top Workplaces in Houston are opening their corporate checkbooks to provide charitable seed money and matching funds to charities that are important to their own employees.
Corrosion Resistant Alloys president John Patchell said the idea for its program came from influential mentors over the years.
"We're working for something bigger than ourselves," said Patchell, who has more than 50 employees in the Houston area. "And being able to realize the unexplainable joy in that."
Employees, along with their family members, are eligible for a subsidized volunteer trip every two years. Or if they want to stay close to home, they can lend a hand in Houston.
Giving employees the choice of where to direct their charitable giving is the philosophy behind Hilcorp's program as well.
It aligns with the core values of the company, said Toni Ganzenmuller, vice president of human resources for Hilcorp.
"You should be accountable to where those dollars go and whether they're spent wisely," she said. And it's a matter of legacy - that employees are contributing to organizations they really believe in.
Hilcorp, an independent oil and gas exploration and production company, initially provides each employee with a one-time $2,500 contribution for any U.S. nonprofit organization.
In subsequent years, Hilcorp will match every donation dollar for dollar up to a $2,000 maximum each year.
Since the program started in 2008, the company and employees together have donated $6 million to more than 1,500 organizations, Ganzenmuller said.
About 65 percent of the 1,200 employees typically participate each year through a payroll-deduction plan. The average contribution is more than $1,700, and employees can make donations in $100 increments.
Katie Gilliam, supervisor of budgeting and planning, appreciates the matching funds as well as the attention Hilcorp brings to a charity close to her heart: the Foundation for Prader- Willi Research.
Gilliam's son, 3-year-old Jackson, was born with Prader-Willi Syndrome. The genetic disorder, which occurs in about one in 15,000 births, disrupts the brain's ability to control movement and appetite. As infants, low muscle tone interferes with the ability to cry or eat; as children get older, their brains can't signal when they're full after eating, which leads to obesity if diets aren't closely monitored.
Gilliam and her husband, Josh, who also works at Hilcorp, have become closely involved in generating funds for research. Their co-workers have also jumped on board after a company newsletter highlighted their efforts; over the past three years, Hilcorp and its employees have donated close to $60,000 to the foundation.
Gilliam returns the favor by supporting groups important to others, such as the American Liver Foundation, after the child of one of Gilliam's co-workers underwent a liver transplant.
The donation program helps a lot of smaller charities that don't get much media attention, she said. It encourages employees to give back to the community.
Rowan Cos., which provides global offshore contract drilling services, has employees spread around the world. Focusing on one charity isn't practical.
The company set some wide parameters for contributions - such as education, health, arts and environment - and a trio of executives weigh the charitable requests, said Deanna Castillo, communications manager.
Rowan has a large office in Aberdeen, Scotland, and the employees requested a donation to a group that provides hunting and fishing opportunities for terminally ill children, she said. Another group provides stuffed animals to children getting chemotherapy.
Most of the employees work offshore, and many are from Mississippi, where a fire destroyed a school in a small town. A number of employees rallied around the rebuilding efforts, Castillo said.
The company ended up giving $12,000 to the nonprofit established to repair the school.
"We can't give to every school," she said. "But we were able to do so in this case."
Closer to home, Lili Pollock remembered how moved she was when she heard a presentation about Casa de Esperanza de los Niños, which helps children who have been abused, neglected or facing the effects of HIV.
Pollock, executive assistant to Rowan's president and chief operating officer, recalls how young adults talked about how grateful they were for the program when they were children.
She vowed to help. The opportunity came when she joined Rowan's women's initiative that sponsors a charity fundraiser or activity each quarter.
Pollock knew that Casa de Esperanza needed diapers and other baby supplies, so she helped to organize a companywide "baby shower" this summer. She also helped put together a pizza party for the children and their caregivers.
Rowan footed the bill for gift bags and beverages; a pizza maker supplied the pizza.
In addition to repairing wells through Child Legacy International in Malawi, Handfelt of Corrosion Resistant Alloys participated in a fund-raising climb of Mount Kilimanjaro. The group of 13 climbers raised $263,000, enough to fix 263 water wells.
It was an inspirational trip for Handfelt, who saw firsthand how the organization improves health conditions for villagers. One in four children don't survive to age 5, often because of diseases from contaminated water.
"It's the best company I ever worked for," said Handfelt, who added that his friends are jealous.
"They say: 'You are so lucky. My company doesn't do anything like that at all.' "