Workforce.com

Building a Philanthropic Culture Builds a Better Brand, Too

With some 30 percent of employed people volunteering in 2012, companies tap into measured philanthropic efforts to boost their brand and business objectives.

April 4, 2013

Rather than leaving it to government and social service agencies to address concerns such as hunger, health and education, corporations are taking an active role in such efforts while encouraging employees to give of their time and money.

Since the recession, companies are "moving to be more strategic with their philanthropy," says Lorrie Foster, vice president of foundation relations for The Conference Board, a business research association. "Corporations are really looking at where their money goes and aligning it with their brand and business objectives."

That could come in such forms as supporting educational initiatives to enhance workforce readiness, encouraging employees to volunteer with organizations to expand their skills or using volunteering as a means to foster employee engagement.

And corporations aren't the only ones doing the giving. A report by Giving USA found almost $300 billion was donated to nonprofit organizations in 2011, with nearly 75 percent coming from individuals.

While plenty of giving is done outside of the workplace, many corporations also encourage their employees to make financial donations.

Foster supports that, "as long as it's truly voluntary." She recalls working for a company many years ago that pressured all employees to donate in the annual United Way campaign. "I didn't think that was necessarily a good idea."

These days, employees generally have more options as to where to donate their time and efforts, she says, and in many cases volunteering isn't just confined to after-hours or on weekends, as employees' work and personal time blend together.

Many companies organize companywide days of service or grant paid time off for volunteering. Companies also may have Dollars for Doers programs, providing a company donation based on the number of hours an employee volunteered at a particular nonprofit.

A survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found nearly 30 percent of those who were employed volunteered during the fiscal year ending September 2012.

"Employees like to see their company doing good in the community and in the world—particularly young employees," Foster says. "They also want to be pretty hands-on in being involved in making the world a better place."

That hands-on effort can come in the form of projects, such as painting a school or passing out food at a food bank, or tap into an employee's skill set, such as helping a nonprofit improve its finances.

Organizations often offer multiple opportunities for employees to give back to the community. At Darden Restaurants Inc., philanthropy runs the gamut, including donating surplus food to those in need, providing grants to local nonprofits, and helping disadvantaged students gain access to college.

"Philanthropy is a fundamental part of our culture. We want to make a difference in people's lives and nourish and delight everyone we serve," says Samir Gupte, senior vice president of culture for the Orlando, Florida-based company, which is the parent company of restaurants such as Olive Garden and Red Lobster.

One of the company's key projects is Darden Harvest, in which each of its 2,200 restaurants donates surplus food weekly to local organizations that combat hunger. In fiscal year 2012, Darden gave away more than 10 million pounds of food, Gupte says. Employees prepare the food, gather it up and deliver it, preventing it from being thrown away. "It's very much a source of pride and engagement for employees."

Last year the company launched a community grants program, allowing each restaurant to award a $1,000 grant to a local community organization. Altogether they gave more than $1.7 million to almost 900 nonprofits.

In the company's biannual engagement surveys, nearly three-quarters of Darden's 180,000 employees agreed that they "feel good about the ways the company contributes to the community."

Susan Ladika is a writer based in Tampa, Florida. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.