U.S. corporations learn charity is good business

Most of the last year’s business headlines have featured financial bailouts, ethical lapses, Ponzi schemes, executive bonuses and a general erosion of confidence in corporate America.

Yet at the same time, corporations have shown extraordinary innovation in how they are leveraging their unique assets to generate positive change in communities.

Increasingly, corporations are seeing not only the philanthropic value of giving back, but also the business value of integrating their community investment into their business practices.

A new generation of employees is demanding that their workplaces include meaningful programs that allow them to contribute their skills and passions to nonprofits.

Businesses are competing to attract these talented newcomers to the work force by offering employees meaningful ways to use their skills and talents for social good —at the beginning, middle and end of their careers.

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Last year, HandsOn New Orleans and PricewaterhouseCoopers brought 150 college students, partners and high-performing staff to volunteer, side by side, in rebuilding projects in New Orleans. The PwC offered this to high prospect recruits as both an incentive and a way to orient potential new employees to their organizational culture. Through the project work, the PwC staff learned a lot about how these students might succeed as employees, and the recruits learned about the company, its values and the transformative experience of service.

Hewlett-Packard, through a pilot program by Civic Ventures, is exploring how to create a scalable process to transition experienced employees into nonprofits that could use their expertise and enthusiasm.

In this program, retired or soon-to-be retired corporate employees are recruited to do “social purpose internships” with top-notch nonprofits in need of marketing, financial, management, technical and other skills.

Hewlett-Packard finds that the internships create greater retiree participation in the company’s philanthropic causes and community programs.

In turn, the healthier the community becomes, the healthier the company will be.

We also know that consumers are more likely to support businesses that they believe are socially responsible. And corporations are increasingly invested in tackling such community and national challenges as the high school dropout rate and environmental degradation.

They know that these issues, if unresolved, will affect their own capacity and success over time. Corporations are going beyond financial contributions and are using their unique and core assets to make a difference.

We are now seeing corporations develop new initiatives that involve their customers in volunteer and philanthropic mobilization that can create new scale and impact.

On Jan. 1, Disney and HandsOn Network launched “Give A Day. Get A Day.” The premise was simple: An individual completing an eligible volunteer project received free, one-day admission to a Disney theme park in Florida or California. HandsOn Network, the largest volunteer network in the U.S., provided the opportunities and the verification of participation.

There was no precedent for this partnership, and nobody had any idea what the response would be.

Within less than 12 weeks, 1 million people had completed or committed to a service project. Many of the program’s volunteers were serving for the first time. They flooded nonprofits like HandsOn Jacksonville, which engaged twice the number of volunteers in the first three months of the year than in the entire previous year.

Another example of a corporation using its unique assets to extend its philanthropic and customer reach was the Starbucks’ “I’m In” campaign, which offered customers a free, tall, brewed coffee drink if they pledged at least five hours of volunteer time. It raised 1.2 million committed hours in less than five days.

EBay has partnered with Points of Light’s MissionFish to enable its customers to contribute a part or all of their purchase or sale to charities. Since 2003, this effort has generated $167 million for 22,000 nonprofits.

The level of trust in corporate America is at an all-time low. According to a 2009 poll by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, a majority of Americans gives corporate America a D or F for honesty and ethical conduct.

Yet businesses play a vital role, and, as these few examples demonstrate, they can play an increasingly important role in community problem solving.

Powerful change is possible when corporate America engages its skills, creative thinking and customer relationships, and finds nonprofit partners with shared goals and synergy.

At a time of economic dislocation and declining trust in many of our institutions, there are hopeful signs of creative new alignments, higher yield and possibilities for impact.

Let’s hope that the headlines increasingly tell us the story of how businesses are realigning to a new set of expectations from their customers, employees, and creating a double bottom line of business and social good.

Michelle Nunn is the CEO of the Points of Light Institute and co-founder of the HandsOn Network, national nonprofits based in Atlanta.

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