Corporate Do-Gooders Rise To The Top

Timberland, Finova and other companies have found that community service programs can increase customer loyalty and employee satisfaction.

July 28, 2000
What’s the difference between a business that does well and one that does good?

CEO Jeffrey Swartz responds that his company does both "well and good" -- and that is precisely what has made the difference at The Timberland Co.

The New Hampshire outdoor footwear and apparel specialist blends social philanthropy and ambitious business goals, proving with record earnings it can do "well" for investors and still do "good work" for the community.

"Pull on your boots and make a difference" is Timberland’s guiding principle and it is backed by business/community partnerships which deliver proceeds to local causes and an employee policy permitting up to 40 hours of volunteer service per year on a paid basis.

If price and quality are equal, they are likely to switch to a brand or retailer associated with a good cause.

Gone are the traditional holiday parties and company picnics. Instead, employees join in local volunteer activities and the entire company shuts down one day per year to give an extra boost to their service commitment. The results so far: More than 95,360 total volunteer hours have been served by employees since 1992.

"Having a buy-in from top management is key," explains Robin Matchett, Manager of Communications at Timberland. "This company really supports work/life balance and we see volunteering as an extension of that philosophy.

"People want to participate in their communities in a variety of ways. Busy working people don’t always have the time or are under a lot of pressure to meet too many obligations. By allowing a lot of personal choice in selecting volunteer activities, our approach supports the employee and, at the same time, benefits the broader community."


Myriad benefits

Matchett says Timberland has also seen benefits in teambuilding, recruitment, retention and customer loyalty. Although they have no hard data yet on the perception of clients concerning charitable efforts, Timberland agrees with the 1999 Cone/Roper Report which caps a five-year survey of Americans to determine how strongly they identify with companies which integrate social issues into business strategies.

According to the report, 83% of consumers say they have a more positive image of a company that supports a cause they care about. Further, if price and quality are equal, they are likely to switch to a brand or retailer associated with a good cause.

In Arizona, the financial services firm of Finova agrees that the benefits of corporate philanthropy go beyond gratitude from local organizations, to having more motivated employees and loyal clients.

Finova, which has donated millions in corporate dollars to local non-profits, provides an unlimited amount of individual employee volunteer hours through paid time-off and flexible scheduling. Employees have taken such a personal interest in charitable giving that a separate "Care and Share" fund was developed which they self-administer by participating on Boards throughout Finova’s regional offices.

"About 50 to 75 employees at our headquarters are avid volunteers," explains Jim Kassebaum, V.P. of Communications at Finova. "Other employees join in activities at different times. It is not unusual for people to develop an interest based on something that has touched them in their personal lives. They may know someone who has died of cancer or has contracted HIV and suddenly they have a strong interest in participating in charities which have a link to these situations."

Finova’s community philanthropy is regularly reported in its quarterly newsletters and at company meetings. In addition to being recognized in the community, a loyal base of mid-size (50-1,000 employees) companies has spurred growth of repeat loan business and overall excellent corporate earnings.

"These types of programs are about more than just dollars," says Kassebaum. "You can’t put a price on the good will and positive effect on people who view the company as compassionate and responsive by supporting activities employees and the community view as very meaningful."


Why they work

Why are Community Service Programs so popular with employees? Why do they seem to give people a lift, often improving co-worker communication and morale?

Some companies have built-in missions based on their products and services which are exciting enough to motivate the troops. Employee-owned companies, and those with hefty stock options, have even a stronger employee bond because their economic success is tied to their business mission and they are "all in this together."

But at companies with products, services and environments which do not hold the same type of appeal, working together on projects that are more important than any single person’s work, or the company’s for that matter, provides meaning and belonging in a very positive way.

Volunteering in a new role gives a break from the regular work routine and seeing people in different roles (particularly charitable ones) allows everyone to move past title and position boundaries. Knowing the company supports these types of projects makes everyone feel pleased that business resources are being devoted to a good cause.

"Across the country, our affiliates are noting a rise in Corporate Volunteerism," explains Jessica Kirkwood, Director of Development & Marketing for City Cares, a national non-profit alliance of volunteer service organizations.

"In particular," Kirkwood notes, "more and more corporations are seeking opportunities to volunteer with their current work teams or across departments. The volunteer experience helps employees discover their co-workers’ hidden talents and instills a sense of pride throughout the workforce in knowing they are part of a socially conscious company."

Companies which already have flextime in place can implement paid volunteer hours with minimal administration. Organizing and announcing service opportunities is also much easier with Internet access to volunteer-organization Web sites. Employees can search for local activities and events, be a virtual volunteer, or locate an internship for a more committed level of service.

Scheduling coverage is often the most difficult part in companies which cannot leave critical tasks unattended and where staffing levels may already be lean. Even Finova’s unlimited paid community service requires approval at the supervisor level and advance scheduling of flextime.

More developed policies, such as Gift Matching, will also require a process to establish employee eligibility, verify non-profit status, and ensure that accounting obtains the necessary paperwork

While Community Service Programs -- like the ones in place at Timberland and Finova -- require substantial resources and firm-wide commitment, volunteer activities are scalable to employee size and interest. Even when responsibilities are added to HR for policy development, benefit tracking or event coordination, most departments involved with Community Service Programs say the effects are so positive in employee morale, company image, and community benefit, that it is a win-win effort for all involved.