Paying It Forward: A Culture of Giving At Keller Williams
Street after street of hollowed-out homes. Sidewalks piled high with debris. Ovens and shoes and electronics and books—all the private pieces of a life—were gathered on lawns waiting to be hauled to the dump.
Keller Williams agents found themselves in this scene while volunteering in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Michael Minson, Partner at Keller Williams San Francisco and Owner/Senior Listing Specialist of Level Up Group SF, was one of them. “It was like a war zone,” Michael said. “It was tragic but spirits were high and the sense of community was strong.”
Seeing a need as an opportunity to help
Keller Williams has a longstanding tradition of philanthropy through its nonprofit arms, KW Cares, an emergency financial relief charity, and KW Kids Can, an organization focused on youth education. The company’s efforts in Texas, however, topped it all. Over 4,000 Keller Williams associates and family members traveled to Texas to volunteer after Hurricane Harvey struck.
In late August, organizers were setting the stage for Mega Camp, Keller Williams’ annual conference in Austin, which has grown into one of the country’s largest real estate education events. Unfortunately, Harvey tore through Southeast Texas on August 25, leaving unprecedented damage in its wake. While Austin was left unharmed, Keller Williams Realty International CEO John Davis and his team knew that Mega Camp could not go on as planned when there was so much damage and so many lives thrown into chaos less than 200 miles away. KW officials quickly sprang into action, working tirelessly to reorganize, rebrand, and entirely transform the conference into a grand volunteer effort called Mega Relief.
When the army of compassionate KW associates arrived in Austin two and a half weeks after Harvey made landfall, they found a well-organized, large-scale, week-long relief operation. Another company might have canceled the event or carried on as usual, but this kind of action is part of the DNA of Keller Williams: it is a company that sees a need as an opportunity to help.
Getting our hands dirty
Tim McCall, Team Leader at KW Napa Valley, also traveled to Texas to get his hands dirty. “It was the perfect opportunity to go serve together with people I know who are powerful leaders in the world of real estate.” Agents and associates from all over the globe, including international offices, had planned to go for the conference and were now jumping on the chance to help. Mega Relief was quickly and well organized, but even just the presence of this many helping hands lifted morale. “A lot of support and love flowing from outside boosted the residents and homeowners, knowing that they weren’t alone,” Michael Minson said.
The Austin Convention Center was utilized as a base for local nonprofits and a staging area where KW volunteers boarded busses to Houston and other parts of Southeast Texas to offer support at shelters, sort through donations, distribute food, and clean up homes and streets. Anne Kennedy, Partner and Broker of Record at KW San Francisco, helped sort through donations with Second Baptist in Houston. “There was a willingness to do whatever was needed. People signed up for any task that was open.” The massive church parking lot was filled with tents to organize, box, and load supplies to be distributed to victims of the storm. Wendy Davis, Team Leader at KW San Francisco, also helped with donations. “There was a lot of laughter and everyone gelled and worked together, putting together boxes in an assembly line,” she said. The team atmosphere couldn’t go unnoticed.
“Everyone was just there to work. Focused on utilizing as much time as we could to help the families we would be alongside.”
Michael and Tim were on the demucking team. They removed drywall up to six feet high and down to the studs, ripped up hardwood floors, removed cabinets and appliances, and bleached to stave off mold and restore homes as well as they could. Michael remembered emptying piles of shoes, belts, clothes and scarves, remnants of people’s lives. As Tim recalled, “Everyone was just there to work. Focused on utilizing as much time as we could to help the families we would be alongside.”
More relief efforts back home
Helping others in Texas lifted the spirits of KW agents when they returned to their normal lives, but for those who call the Bay Area their home, another disaster closely followed. On the heels of Hurricane Harvey were the wildfires in Northern California, and KW associates went to work again. Tim McCall was sleeping in his home in Santa Rosa when the fires started. He woke in the middle of the night because of the winds. “I smelled smoke as soon as I opened my eyes. Crazy wind and fire don’t go well together.”
The wildfires that ripped through Northern California in October destroyed at least 8,400 homes and buildings throughout the region—5% of all the homes in Santa Rosa—according to the LA Times. They’re calling it a housing crisis, and Keller Williams agents are on the front lines.
While it certainly wasn’t a part of official KW relief efforts, Tim and his friends took it upon themselves to save their childhood neighborhood with garden hoses. The morning of the fires, Tim drove with his parents to their family home and immediately got to work. “As soon as I got our fire down, I saw our neighbor’s on fire and grabbed their hose and doused it… I was us just jumping from fire to fire.” The fire department came but they were focused on getting people to safety rather than saving properties. They asked Tim to leave but he refused until he had done everything he could. He estimated, in the end, that he and his friends saved around fifty homes.
Tim and his mom, Trish McCall, also a KW agent, are now facing a very different moment of homeownership with their clients. “We had a bunch of clients who lost their homes. So we’ve been checking on everyone, helping them find rentals or places to stay.”
It is a powerful experience for KW associates to be handling this aspect of engagement with their clients. As Michael Minson puts it, real estate agents are residential guides, helping people with their homes, regardless of where they are in the process. “Typically, that means helping people acquire and sell their home. But we also provide help along the way. This [relief effort] was just a different way of helping homeowners with their greatest asset. It’s not what we’re licensed to do, but it’s our mission.”
Paying it forward
And the effort didn’t stop when the disasters calmed. Wendy took note of what she saw in Houston and recognized this as a chance to create a disaster relief program in her office. “It’s an opportunity for me as a leader to make sure my agents have a plan.” Now she and her team are working on a program, which includes organizing committees to think about resources like food and water, creating maps with destinations to meet up in case of disaster, raising money, and organizing with allies.
As Anne Kennedy said, “We are an education company, so we’re training people on the ground in our offices, so when disaster strikes you can easily set up and help your people.”
KW agents and KW Cares “came alongside every associate and member of our community affected by the fires to see what they could do, offering gift cards, blankets, food, a place to stay, asking what can we do to make this a better situation?”
And this is exactly what Keller Williams and KW Cares is ready for—to respond quickly in disasters, determining and meeting the needs of those affected. “KW Cares was built for agents to help and provide in a tragedy like this,” Wendy said. Tim was amazed to see how local KW agents and KW Cares “came alongside every associate and member of our community affected by the fires to see what they could do, offering gift cards, blankets, food, a place to stay, asking what can we do to make this a better situation?” KW Cares has sent supplies and resources to disasters in Florida and Puerto Rico, as well as Northern and Southern California.
In the midst of this season, with the hearth and family as symbols of the holidays, it is difficult to comprehend all the people who are still recovering from the loss of loved ones, having their homes destroyed, and their lives uprooted in these last months. But in this season of giving, it is a comfort to know that there are companies that recognize the work is never over. Keller Williams is built on compassion—a “pay-it-forward-based culture” as Michael Minson says—and so it is made of up individuals who care deeply. Michael, Tim, Anne, and Wendy, and the wider Keller Williams family, will not soon forget the people of Texas, California, Florida, Puerto Rico, and beyond. This deep sense of giving is the foundation of KW, and will sustain through whatever disasters may come. As Tim tells it, Keller Williams changed his life, and it will to continue to change others’.
As these recent tragedies have taught us, lives can change in the blink of an eye, so this holiday season and into the new year, we encourage you to adopt that deep sense of giving–donate, volunteer, share, give, and be grateful for what you have.
From the Keller Williams San Francisco family, we wish all of you a safe, happy, and peaceful holiday season!