A suburban Philadelphia philanthropist who believes charity is a powerful incentive thinks he can help get Americans back to work one donation at a time.
Gene Epstein, 71, is promoting a $250,000 effort called Hire Just One, with plans to make $1,000 donations to charity in the name of businesses that hire an unemployed person and keep the worker on the payroll for at least six months.
Epstein, who amassed a personal fortune through car sales and real estate investments, has set aside his money for the first 250 hires _ and thinks thousands more jobs could be created if others took on his idea, too.
"It's an encouragement to businesses to not wait," said Epstein, who thinks the incentive may be just enough to get small businesses over the hump to make a hire in tough economic times. "This becomes like an incredible stimulus program."
The idea came to Epstein at his sprawling home in suburban Bucks County last month. He said he hopes his program will encourage businesses in the region and beyond to make hundreds of thousands of new hires they wouldn't have otherwise made.
More than 100 businesses have expressed interest, Epstein said, but for the most part he plans to wait until the new employees have been on the payrolls for six months before he makes the donations. Only time will tell how effective the incentive may be.
Epstein, known for matching gifts for organ donations and other charitable programs, previously promoted a novel way to increase voluntary organ donor signups: $10,000 insurance payouts to each donor's eventual beneficiary. He and his wife, Marlene, have a charitable fund that contributes to the Jewish National Fund, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and other causes.
"They are going to see that they need more employees," said Epstein, a registered Republican who has donated money to both political parties. He said he believes his program is a good way to address unemployment without the need for government intervention.
One expert on small businesses said a charitable incentive might prove more effective at spurring discussion in the boardroom than in translating into new hires.
"The upside is small enough that it probably is going to have more effect in bringing the issue up than it is in actually getting people to hire people," said Lawrence Gelburd, a lecturer at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who teaches about entrepreneurship and works with small businesses. "That's a pretty tough sell."
When businesses submit qualifying paperwork, Epstein expects to donate to groups like the American Red Cross, the food program Philabundance, organ donor efforts and others. Despite his requirement that businesses keep workers on the payroll at least six months first, Epstein said he recently made an exception and sent $3,200 from the fund to go toward the Flight 93 memorial in western Pennsylvania.
Epstein said he has been choosing most of the charities that will get donations so far, but he is not against businesses choosing the charity themselves, as long as the charity is legitimate.
Several participating businesses said hearing about Epstein's philanthropic promise helped to push them over the hump and move toward making new hires.
"We're gun-shy like everybody else," said Philip Chant, vice president of Chant Engineering in New Britain, Pa., which has fewer than 40 employees. "It spurred the conversation internally as to, 'Hey, we should hire somebody.' That in turn got the conversation to 'Hey, we should hire more than one person.'"
The company ended up making four new hires, he said, estimating that Epstein's program probably got the company to make the hires about six months before it would have otherwise.
Chant said he expects all the new employees to still be working there in six months. He does not know yet if they were all unemployed beforehand, as the program requires.
"If we qualify, that's great," Chant said.
The Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce has briefly discussed Epstein's idea but isn't sure how effective it will be in the long run, said spokesman Christopher Pinto.
It's an innovative concept that Epstein is bringing to the table, he said, but there's simply no way to know how well it could work at motivating businesses to hire in tough times.
An executive at a credit union said hearing about Epstein's program did encourage him to finally move forward with hiring a social media coordinator.
"You need a driving force, someone to get us off the fence," said T. Christian Roach, vice president at TruMark Financial Credit Union in New Britain, Pa., which has more than a dozen locations in the Philadelphia region.
But Roach said he wasn't committed to hiring an unemployed worker.
"I'm just looking for the best candidate," he said. "Hopefully, you put somebody to work."
Hire Just One: http://www.hirejustone.org/