Local tech firm feeds Bozeman’s communal fountain one gift at a time

Local tech firm feeds Bozeman’s communal fountain one gift at a time

Abby Schlatter and Matt Fulton came to the area to launch commonFont, a Bozeman-based professional services company that works to bolster its clients’ customer experience through software customization and implementation. The tech startup serves international corporations like Toyota, Fidelity Investments, and Verizon from its Downtown Bozeman offices. But even back in commonFont’s infancy, the partners weren’t just looking for a scenic, buzzy locale where they could capitalize on the remote work trend.

commonFont’s proprietors brought their expertise to Bozeman with the intention of starting a business that, as it grew, would also benefit the community. “It is up to us, collectively, as members of the community, and also entrepreneurs and business leaders, to define the ethos of what it means to do business in this place,” Fulton says. “Just being here isn’t enough. We have to have a positive impact.”

Borrowing its name from a “communal fountain” found in an Italian piazza, the tech firm infuses similar principles into its day-to-day business practices and philanthropic work. The fountain represents, as Schlatter says, “shared benefits, constant learning, and growth and renewal. The idea is that when we come together in this shared place, we can make things better for everybody – our clients, employees, and the broader community in which we live and work.”

After several years of hard work, commonFont’s owners sought to partner with and contribute to a local nonprofit organization whose efforts aligned with their own credo. With so much great work being done in the greater Bozeman area, picking a nonprofit to entrust with charitable funds would be an overwhelming feat for anyone. But Schlatter and Fulton had already found the right fit.

Schlatter and Fulton were first introduced to HRDC while assembling meal bags alongside their employees for ‘Healthy Kids Pack,’ a program to ensure children have access to nutrient-rich food over the weekend. The Community Action Agency offers a wide-reaching family of services to help with basic needs and beyond. HRDC operates three food banks, a seasonal homeless shelter, a pay-what-you-can restaurant, fare-free transportation, programs that assist seniors and at-risk youth, early childhood education opportunities, help with energy-related needs, and several affordable housing initiatives.

“The breadth of the organization and the way HRDC cares for the community is very inspirational,” Schlatter explains. “They’re creating that space where people can be safe and have their basic needs met.”

In late 2016, after commonFont’s employees had contributed a number of volunteer hours to HRDC, Schlatter was inspired to make a move. She called HRDC for some further insight into the organization, and afterwards, walked over a $10,000 check. This altruistic gesture cemented commonFont’s partnership with HRDC.

“From everything that we’ve seen,” Fulton shares, “HRDC is among the best stewards of community resources in terms of making thoughtful, efficient decisions about how to turn funds into impact.”

A year after their original contribution, commonFont tripled its investment in good faith. Their generous follow-up offering was, like the first, a significant gift for HRDC. “Our philosophy on giving is that if we have the ability to give, we should put it to use in the moment, do what we can, and make sure those returns are going into the community,” Schlatter noted. “If we want Bozeman to continue to be a great place for our company to grow and to recruit, hire, and retain people, we need to give back.”

Moreover, Schlatter and Fulton’s second-year donation marked the beginning of a pattern, a “pay as you go” contribution model to which their young company plans to adhere as the business continues to flourish. “As the company grows, it impacts our employees, our clients, and the community in which we operate,” says Fulton. “The concept of waiting until we reach some arbitrary threshold of growth or success before we give back was inconsistent with our company values. Just as we invest aggressively to provide exceptional employment opportunities and grow the business, we should be investing in the community we’re relying on.”

commonFont’s investment serves to benefit the collective interests of everyone, bringing back to mind that free-flowing fountain accessible by all members of the community. Even the most well-fed and easily accessed public resource requires continual maintenance.

“As Bozeman grows, it is incredibly important to us that there’s a rising tide that lifts all boats,” Fulton adds. “If we come here and build a successful company, but those forces are not benefiting everybody at all levels of the community, then we need to be doing something to counteract that and make sure those forces are boosting others as well, including and especially the most disadvantaged. We need to make sure that rising tide doesn’t leave others behind.”

commonFont finds itself sitting comfortably in an exploding tech industry – with a fantastic view of the Bridgers at its back, no less. So, what’s in it for a company whose business model does not rely on local clients or require this ground-level outreach?

Fulton says, “If we bring ten jobs to Bozeman, and those are held by great people who are invested in the community, then we will be a part of building the Bozeman of five, ten, twenty years from now. We’ll have that pride of creation along with everybody in the community.”

Instead of holding off on charitable contributions during commonFont’s early stages, Schlatter and Fulton elected to offer resources gradually, resources that are advantageous to the communities that need them now and that will, in turn, sustain a healthy place for their business to grow. This tactic of installment giving has the power to strengthen the structural framework of an up-and-coming venture in a community destined to thrive.

Offering some insight for other prospective businesses who may wish to adopt a similar strategy, Fulton advises that giving should be a charitable act at base, but also an informed business decision. “In the same way you would size up a for-profit investment opportunity,” he says, “review potential nonprofit partners to understand whether they exercise the skills and competencies to make an impact with the resources available.” As the commonFont founders see it, “HRDC comes out at the head of that bunch.”

Herein lies a chance for other businesses to jump on board. Being a tech company in Bozeman, Schlatter says, “a lot of us are fairly siloed in how we operate.” Because these businesses utilize resources in this place everyone loves, she proposes, “it could be incredibly powerful to have a shared goal that would unite us. I love the idea of a coalition of businesses that would be interested in making positive contributions to the community.”

So much has already been accomplished around the communities of Southwest Montana, but there’s still plenty to be done. Partnerships like HRDC and commonFont’s present incalculable potential. Think of what a broader coalition could give rise to.

As we wait to see if more companies opt to exercise a similar contribution approach – perhaps even ushering in a socially-conscience task force of local businesses – commonFont will continue to model this method of giving.

“This isn’t just giving back,” Fulton says, “it’s a building action for our company – its values, the spirit of our employees, and ultimately, supporting the continuation of Bozeman as a community we’re proud to live in, proud to operate out of, and proud to be a part of building.”