Managing People

Done right, companywide volunteer work can strengthen your corporate culture

Lisa Jacobson's tutoring business doesn't exactly cater to the underprivileged. In fact, the wealthy clients of Stanford Coaching Inc., a $2-million academic-test-prep company with headquarters in New York City, often fly tutors all over the world to meet students at their summer homes or boarding schools. So when Jacobson started a scholarship program to provide her services free to needier students, you could almost hear a collective sigh of relief in her Manhattan office. Head tutor Donald Viscardi, who once tutored a well-to-do student aboard a yacht sailing the Greek Isles, says the pro bono work has been "a nice change of pace. It's refreshing to see how hard these other kids work." When Viscardi trains new tutors, he says the subject of community service regularly pops up. "It helps to mollify their conscience," he explains. There's never a lack of volunteers for the scholarship program among Stanford Coaching's 10 full-time staff members and 100 tutors.

Indeed, Jacobson and other company owners have found a way of giving something back and satisfying employees by tapping into a larger phenomenon: many workers want to volunteer at something. Some have already done volunteer stints outside the office and want to continue their social responsibility at work. Providing community-service opportunities makes sense particularly at growing companies that ask people to work long hours. Smart CEOs are realizing that "corporate culture"--that squishy yet incredibly vital part of business life--can be defined by corporate giving.

As part of its credo, beverage maker Nantucket Nectars vows "to promote community participation." In fact, the company can hardly keep up with all its employees' interests--from coaching Special Olympics teams to supporting environmental causes. "It's not the reason people come to work here, but it's part of what makes this a fun place," professes Tom Scott, the 31-year-old cofounder of Nantucket Nectars, which is approaching $50 million in sales after seven years in business. "People live here," he says, gesturing to the company's homey new digs in a former Harvard fraternity house in Cambridge, Mass. "How you contribute to people's lives while they're here is important."

Some companies even position volunteer work as an employee perk. At Wild Oats Markets Inc., a fast-growing chain of health-food stores based in Boulder, Colo., it's right there in the employee handbook under "charity work benefit." Wild Oats pays employees for one hour of "charity time" for every 40 hours of company time. "We think we have a competitive package, and this is part of it," says chief financial officer Mary Beth Lewis. "We design our corporate-giving program to attract and retain employees." Another part of the program: each of the 50 stores provides publicity and 5% of one day's sales to a different local group each month.

OK, so that all sounds great--if you have the resources of a Wild Oats or the youthful energy of a Nantucket Nectars. If you think there's no way your employees will volunteer for anything, you may be right. "I think my employees hate the nonprofit work I ask them to do," admits one company owner who, during slow times, directs employees' professional skills toward pro bono projects. "Nonprofits can be demanding."

However, you don't know what employees will say unless you ask. When David Cline, president of Balboa Instruments Inc., a $30-million manufacturer of parts for hot tubs and saunas in Costa Mesa, Calif., started talking about a mentoring program for local at-risk kids, he was surprised at the reception. "My human-resources director and the vice-president of administration grabbed this and ran with it," Cline says, chuckling. Now in its second year, the program has helped 120 high school students prepare for the working world.

It's natural to begin with something you--or your employees--feel passionate about. Terri Bowersock started a business because as a dyslexic she couldn't fill out a job application. Since the early days of Consign & Design Furnishings, her now-$12-million chain of furniture-consignment shops based in Mesa, Ariz., Bowersock has focused on helping others with reading disabilities. As it turns out, two of her franchisees have dyslexia as well.

Another logical approach is to use your company's work skills to fill a local need. That's what Abby Margalith, owner of the Starving Students of San Diego moving company, has done. Over the past 10 years, Starving Students has helped relocate more than 100 women and children from abusive homes. Margalith started small and got help. A local YWCA handles most of the up-front work, while Margalith's staff, which varies between 25 and 65 employees, helps coordinate the details. Special crews do the moves using an unmarked van. "It tends to be the same crews that volunteer to do them over and over again," explains Margalith. "They don't talk about what they see, but they're always enthusiastic about going back."

In fact, the enthusiasm employees develop for causes can be daunting. At Nantucket Nectars, for example, the list of nonprofits that the company supports through donations of cash, products, or services is longer than the list of states carrying its juices. "I think we're doing it wrong," cofounder Tom Scott says flatly. "We're making a small impact all over the place, but we could be making a big impact if we were focused." Still, the company doesn't want to mess with its winning mix: encouraging people to lead "a grassroots life" is too crucial to the company's culture. Picking just one cause, Scott concedes, would dampen employees' enthusiasm.

So what's the smartest way for a small company to do good? Over time, you can center company giving on one cause yet still support employees' participation in other nonprofits. That's what Jim Dodson has done. Five years ago the president of the Dodson Group Inc., a $10-million collective in Indianapolis that buys office services, started the Sycamore Foundation to consolidate the company's support of several youth-related organizations. "This way, we can give even when the company has a down year," Dodson says. The foundation's annual charity golf marathon "multiplies our giving threefold."

Meanwhile, on the last Friday of each month, the Dodson Group employees serve at the local soup kitchen. That stint gives them a reprieve from their hectic jobs--plus some needed perspective. "A lot of our people work in customer service, and they hear about problems all day long," says Dodson. After three hours of serving food to homeless people, they realize that "the problems we have with customer complaints are not really a problem at all."

Susan Greco is an articles editor at Inc.

Bonus: When Good Things Happen to Good Companies

Maybe you don't have to wait for the next world to be rewarded for good works. There are no guarantees, but a number of CEOs we spoke with found unexpected business benefits from their work with nonprofits.

  • New products. Vermont Bread Co.'s work with the Campaign to End Childhood Hunger led to the idea of an organic white bread for children, a product now under development, according to Lisa Lorimer, president of the $8-million bread company in Brattleboro, Vt.
  • New niches. Insurance agent Brewster Perkins says his volunteer work made him realize that the nonprofit sector was being "ripped off" by the insurance industry. Perkins, owner and president of $3.5-million B. Perkins & Co. Inc., in Hartford, spotted a market opportunity in helping charities keep down costs. He now insures 300 nonprofits but must be careful to avoid potential conflicts of interest.
  • Exposure to new customers. Stanford Coaching's free tutoring program has opened doors at private high schools typically hostile to test-prep companies. President Lisa Jacobson lets the schools nominate appropriate students to the program. "The school gets to sample the product," she says.
  • Another way to help customers. Wiersma Event Marketing, a $1.3-million event-marketing business in Indianapolis, once hooked up its favorite charity with a client interested in raising its profile by hosting a fund-raiser. "It worked on several levels. We were able to do some good and help a client," says Linda Kirby, a manager at Wiersma.


If you're looking for resources on corporate volunteerism, consider the whole state of Vermont. Seriously, the Green Mountain State is home not only to Ben & Jerry's, whose ubiquitous founders hit the road earlier this year to promote their book, Ben & Jerry's Double Dip: Lead with Your Values and Make Money, Too, but to hundreds of smaller companies that have figured out how to make a difference and a buck. In fact, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR), with 330 members, claims to be the largest outpost of civic-minded entrepreneurs in the country. For more information, contact VBSR director Jane Campbell at 802-862-8347. Or to find a group closer to you, call Business for Social Responsibility, which has 11 networks across the country, at 415-537-0888.

To get started, here's a tip from Meg Smith, a manager at the Gardener's Supply catalog (802-660-3500), who chaired a Vermont roundtable on community involvement. She advises companies to (1) conduct a blind survey of employees to discover their interests (elder care, drug rehab, etc.) and (2) hook up with a group such as the United Way to find out what your area needs.

If the United Way has its way, volunteering will be as easy as making a phone call. At press time, the nonprofit clearinghouse was close to launching an 800 number that will automatically connect callers with the nearest United Way Voluntary Action Center. The organization's Web site is designed to serve a similar function. The 500 action centers across the country act as a matchmaking service for individuals and companies that want to do something but don't know exactly what. The United Way wants to recruit more small companies. "The demographics of volunteerism have changed drastically," says Pamela Pinter, head of the United Way Voluntary Action Center in Boston. "Now it's about split between individuals and corporations, but corporate is on the increase. Companies are being more flexible about giving employees time off to volunteer, and nonprofit agencies have become more responsive. You can sign up for one project. We have to meet people where they're at." (Those are fighting words in the nonprofit world, so don't be surprised if some agencies still act as if they're doing you a favor by letting you volunteer.)

David Cline, the president and CEO of Balboa Instruments Inc., designed his student-mentoring program to be portable to other companies. That may be the closest you can get to volunteering-in-a-box. Balboa's Partnering Education and Community program was developed with the aid of the local chamber of commerce, a community college, and two high schools. Contact Balboa's chief financial officer and vice-president of administration, Stephen Scherer, at 714-434-1940 for more details.

Last April's presidential summit on volunteering put a spotlight on youth programs. The summit's Web site includes a state-by-state list of resources and a rundown of tutoring, mentoring, and job-training programs already in place. Incidentally, education initiatives are not just good for political stumping; they're good business, too. According to a study of cause-related marketing conducted by Cone Communications, in Boston, one of the most credible ways to show you care is to support local schools.

Two books worth checking out: Aiming Higher: 25 Stories of How Companies Prosper by Combining Sound Management and Social Vision, by David Bollier (Amacom, 800-538-4761, 1996, $24.95), and 75 Best Business Practices for Socially Responsible Companies, by Alan Reder (Jeremy P. Tarcher, 800-631-8571, 1995, $12.95), which draws on the activities of companies belonging to the Social Venture Network (415-561-6501).

Some entrepreneurs have taken community work so much to heart that they've started their own nonprofits. Our annual State of Small Business issue reports on the new social entrepreneurs in the article " Crossover."

BALBOA INSTRUMENTS, David Cline, 1690 Scenic Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626; 714-434-1940; 116

B. PERKINS & CO., Brewster Perkins, 30 Laurel St., Hartford, CT 06106; 860-251-7060; fax, 860-251-7066; 116

CONSIGN & DESIGN FURNISHINGS, Terri Bowersock, 1826 W. Broadway, #3, Mesa, AZ 85202; 602-969-1121 116

DODSON GROUP, Jim Dodson, 111 Monument Circle, #2330, Indianapolis, IN 46204; 317-634-7283 116

NANTUCKET NECTARS, Tom Scott, 45 Dunster St., Cambridge, MA 02138; 617-868-3600 116

STANFORD COACHING, Lisa Jacobson and Donald Viscardi, 850 Seventh Ave., Suite 403, New York, NY 10019; 212-245-3888; fax, 212-245-3893 116

STARVING STUDENTS OF SAN DIEGO, Abby Margalith, P.O. Box 261854, San Diego, CA 92126-1854; 619-269-3808 116

VERMONT BREAD, Lisa Lorimer, P.O. Box 1217, Brattleboro, VT 05302; 802-254-4600 116

WIERSMA EVENT MARKETING, Linda Kirby, 238 S. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46225; 317-638-2676 116

WILD OATS MARKETS, Mary Beth Lewis, 1645 Broadway, Boulder, CO 80302; 303-440-5220, ext. 257 116