Interview: The Importance of Funeral Home Leadership and Community Service

In 2018, Homesteaders partnered with the Greater Des Moines Habitat for Humanity for the first CEO Build event that brought together CEOs from insurance companies located in central Iowa together. Spearheaded by Homesteaders' former Chairman Steve Lang, the team of leaders built pieces of a home for a deserving local family. 

CEOs from insurance companies located in central Iowa gather for the first CEO Build event.

We asked Steve Lang, Homesteaders’ President and CEO Steve Shaffer and the Executive Director of the Greater Des Moines Habitat for Humanity Lance Henning to share why this event was important for these companies and what funeral home business leaders can do to develop their own successful community engagement events.

Question 1

Steve Lang, you originally came up with the idea for the CEO build. What were your motivations?

Steve Lang's Response

I thought of the idea shortly after Homesteaders’ team members participated in an on-site panel build at our home office in 2016. It was such a wonderful team-building experience, and it personally drew me to become more involved with Habitat for Humanity.

After I joined Habitat’s Board of Directors, it occurred to me that, given the chance, other CEOs would probably enjoy the experience and possibly even host an on-site panel build for their teams. I offered to put together the CEO Build with Steve Shaffer in hopes of drawing more attention to the Habitat organization in central Iowa. The insurance industry and funeral service profession offer products and services designed to help community members during difficult times, and Habitat seemed like a good match.

Question 2

Steve Shaffer, as current President and CEO of Homesteaders, you worked very closely with Steve Lang on this build. Why was this event so important?

Steve Shaffer's Response

From the start, Homesteaders’ leadership was committed to doing the right thing for Habitat and helping to further their mission. We also demonstrated to the community that the insurance industry and funeral service profession are committed to following through with their promise of community support. Homesteaders has consistently demonstrated a strong culture of giving back to the community, and we have been big supporters of Habitat for some time. We believe in the organization and its cause because of the positive impact they have on peoples’ lives and in our community.

We knew our professions, both insurance and funeral service, could demonstrate collective leadership and community service by not just talking the talk, but walking the walk at the CEO level and helping to build a home. We were pleasantly surprised by the willingness of so many busy executives to demonstrate their strong commitment to giving back to the community, and not just by writing a check, but by rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty.

Question 3

Lance, it seems like the CEO Build was a success, not only for Habitat, but also the community. What effect did this event have?

Lance Henning's Response

We consider this event a great success, both in its impact to help the local neighborhood and home buyer family and in its ability to raise awareness with businesses that had not previously been involved with Habitat. We’re thankful for Steve Lang and Steve Shaffer’s leadership and the hard work they put into this event.

Building this new home created a long-term investment in a nuisance vacant lot in the community. The new house will eventually add to the property tax base and bring vested, caring homeowners to the neighborhood. Most importantly, the new Habitat house will provide an affordable place to live for a low-income family. It will provide stability and allow them to build self-sufficiency and wealth in the same manner the majority of Americans do—through homeownership.

Question 4

Why is it important for local business leaders, like funeral home owners, to participate in community service?

Steve Shaffer's Response

As any leader knows, it’s important that we “walk the walk.” Some organizations and their leaders only talk about supporting their communities. If we don’t show we believe in that commitment by actively giving of our time and talent, those we lead will view our comments as hollow words. As an organization, it’s important that we find good causes that impact our community and then fully engage with them. As a leader, I’ve always found that the more I give, the more that my organization and I get back.

Steve Lang's Response

Along those same lines, I think local businesses also benefit from a strong and healthy community. Businesses operate within a social ecosystem where all components—business, social, political and infrastructure—must work together. Businesses will be stronger in strong communities.

Lance Henning's Response

From our standpoint, when businesses engage with the community, others begin to see it as part of the solution to community issues. The broader public sees the business as a caring part of the local community. It builds goodwill with the city, regional and state officials as well. A company’s employees often think more highly of their own company based on their social involvement. Plus, it can make a business more competitive in employee recruitment when compared to a company without community engagement.

The company’s efforts may lift up a social issue that then helps the community as a whole, bringing benefits to the company through workers who are decently housed, in good health and better educated.

Steve Lang (far right) helped install a window on a new home during the CEO Build.

Question 5

In order for funeral home business to “walk the walk,” they have to know how to get started. What do you recommend to a funeral home owner who wants to incorporate community engagement into their business plan?

Steve Shaffer's Response

Funeral professionals, by their very nature, are deeply committed to the communities they serve. It’s important that they are connected to the fabric of what is happening socially, politically, economically and philanthropically in the environment in which they operate. The most important thing to do is find causes that you and your team can fully embrace and engage with.

There are a lot of great causes out there with needs waiting to be met. Find something that solves a pain point for your community or that relates in some way to your funeral home or team, and approach them to find out the best way to help make them successful. I would encourage you to leverage the people who are driving the organization to help you find the path toward helping. It is often easy from the outside to misdirect our efforts, thinking we are helping without fully understanding what the needs really are.

There are a lot of good organizations in the world making a real difference in people’s lives. With a little curiosity and effort, it isn’t hard to find one that will resonate with your team.

Lance Henning's Response

Once you find that charity, I highly recommend hands-on volunteering. The large number of local business leaders who provide company time for their employees to give back to the community is one of the components that makes our particular city a great place to live. Allowing employees time to roll up their sleeves and volunteer during normal work hours benefits the non-profit organization, the employee and the company.

Steve Shaffer (right) lends a helping hand during construction at the build for Habitat for Humanity.

Question 6

Speaking of employee volunteering, what is the best way to encourage funeral home team members to take time to volunteer within the community?

Steve Shaffer's Response

I believe engaging your team in a cause requires a few basic components:

  1. You have to select a cause that delivers something significant in your community and is relevant to a broad base of your employees. Asking your employees which organizations have the greatest impact or are giving to the greatest need in your community is a good way to start. Then do your research to make sure the organization’s mission and execution are sound.
  2. You have to demonstrate a true commitment personally and organizationally to the cause and help your team see what they will individually gain by giving back.
  3. Lastly, you have to be realistic about the level of participation you expect from your team, however, I believe that it’s reasonable to expect a high level of participation if you have involved them early on in the discussion and selection of the cause.

I have always found that employees will find a way to get their primary duties accomplished if you give them the leeway to take time to volunteer. While it may seem like a cost, in reality, there is a very little real cost to letting your employees have a reasonable amount of time to give back to your community.

Your team stays more engaged in the community and will be more supportive of your funeral home if you allow this flexibility. Most funeral home operators understand that the nature of the business allows for some free time when things are slow. It is better to use that time to give back to the community and build the funeral home up in the community’s eye.

An additional benefit from this commitment is that your team will gain important leadership and team skills from participating with a charitable organization. They will often be energized by the positive impact they are creating with your support. Since most funeral home businesses are small with highly tenured employees, it is often hard to gain leadership experience inside the funeral home.

At Homesteaders, we allocate paid volunteer time off for all of our employees. It demonstrates our commitment to community engagement and shows that we want them to fully give their time and talents to an organization of their choosing. When you have a major success, recognize your team members for that. Let everyone know that you value their contribution and see if you can get some public awareness through local media outlets from your efforts. It will benefit your firm and the local cause.

Do you have any additional questions for our experts on leadership and community service? Leave a comment below with your feedback.

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