AHC Group

Corporate volunteerism comes clean (and comes of age)

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Here the author examines how a growing number of companies that have adopted corporate social responsibility programs, especially those that harness the immense power of volunteerism, are building the business case for these social investments and encouraging them to take root and grow so they are more than just a passing fad.

Jeff Schwartz, CEO of Timberland, a $1.5 billion New Hampshire-based global footwear, apparel and accessories company, recently proclaimed that economist Milton Friedman's assertion that the sole purpose of a corporation is to return profit to shareholders is akin to the once-held belief that the world is flat.

Schwartz claimed that 85 percent of the global Fortune 500 now reference CSR programs — however defined — on their websites. 'The syntax of business has changed in a very powerful way,' said Schwartz. 'The creation of the vocabulary is to me real proof that this roar about ideas, this battle for a notion that commerce and justice are not antithetical notions, that language has changed as powerfully as it has, is to me a really sure empirical sign that things have changed right.'

Of course, the question that logically flows from this shift in language is this: Where is the beef? Luckily, when it comes to one of the looser categories of CSR — volunteerism — increased discipline, transparency and strategy are being deployed by the real movers and shakers in the global economy. And a new cottage industry is rising up to support these shifts toward greater accountability and strategic management.

As a growing number of companies adopt corporate social responsibility ('CSR') programs — particularly those that focus on harnessing the immense power of volunteerism — a new challenge quickly emerges: How do these companies build the business case for these social investments and encourage them to take root and grow so they are more than just a passing fad?

'Deep down we've always known that there is business value in employee engagement programs, even if the individual does not directly participate in volunteer activities. But the evidence was always anecdotal,' stated Carrie Varoquiers, director of community relations for McKesson Corp. 'The idea of corporate volunteer programs being a sound investment seemed to be true, but without hard data it was really tough to ask for more money to implement volunteer projects. Once we got quantifiable data, it was much easier to put more energy and strategic thinking into these volunteer activities,' she continued.

Today, with the help of software products, volunteer programs are maturing into an integral part of any forward-looking CSR program. 'In the past, these activities were seen as something warm and fuzzy, but there was no measurable business value. AngelPoints' software products helped make our volunteer program a professional operation by providing data when there none before,' she said. In the first year of tracking with the new system, McKesson chalked up 16,521 volunteer hours. In Year #2, that figure jumped to 24,333 hours. 'When we measure our employees' feelings about McKesson's involvement in the community, we score incredibly high,' she added. While acknowledging that 'we cannot prove that our volunteer programs are responsible for this high approval rating, we now have data to support our gut feelings that volunteerism — like diversity and good corporate citizenship — all add to the bottom line.'

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