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Industrial Management's bimonthly column by Dan Carrison (Mar/Apr 2010)

The benefits of corporate volunteerism

The humanitarian crisis in Haiti has evoked a heartening response from the world over. Corporations are doing their share by donating millions of dollars and providing the structure for canned food drives, clothing donations, fundraising activities, etc. They are not new at this. ConocoPhillips, FedEx, GE, Home Depot, John Deere, Starbucks and many other companies have impressive records of employee volunteerism. But the charitable contributions of the private sector often are frustratingly covert.

Many companies do a good work because it is the right thing to do, and they rarely toot their own horns. But there are a number of managerial benefits to corporate volunteerism that may not be fully appreciated. While not at all the primary motives to encourage corporate volunteerism, these “byproducts” are nonetheless worthy of consideration.

Planning experience. Every charitable project is successful in proportion to the executive planning beforehand. Good intentions are not enough; execution without thoughtful preparation can be counterproductive as your zealous volunteers actually get in the way of better organized teams.

The “front-loading” done for an effective volunteer effort provides an invaluable experience for the managers and team leaders who will be responsible for transforming good intentions into good works. Many, if not all, of the guiding principles developed in the plan room will have applicability in upcoming business deadlines, such as a product roll out or customer service mobilization. If the volunteer effort is in response to an emergency, the planning session will necessarily be urgent and may simulate a business-related crisis lurking in the future.

Leadership experience. A major corporate volunteer effort can thrust the employee into a leadership role “above and beyond” the one assumed during the normal business day. The quiet, unassuming keypuncher at the office may become a tiger on the streets as he assumes the role of team leader and corporate ambassador to civil authorities. The leadership opportunities are so likely, in fact, that the company should be careful to provide such an employee with consummate challenges back on the job. It would be a shame if the return to one’s responsibilities in the office is considered a step down by the volunteer fresh off the front lines of an exhilarating community project.

Teamwork experience. It seems that the hallmark of many corporate employee workshops is the team exercise. And in the hallways of most companies, one will pass by framed motivational posters on the wall depicting triumphant teams overcoming challenges impossible to the lone individual (whitewater rafting, mountain climbing, relay races, etc.). But what better team exercise is there than a volunteer community project?

The nice thing about a community project is that employees who might never otherwise have met outside their various insular departments are thrown together. Even natural antagonists, e.g., bean counters from accounting and high flying sales reps, may find themselves working together in common cause. Friendships are forged; connections are made; good things happen that perhaps would not have happened within the walls of the organization – all because the teamwork “exercise” is voluntary and meaningful.

Employees returning from a major charitable effort will likely be “pumped” rather than tired – empowered by the realization of the vast possibilities through unified effort. If volunteers from disparate subcultures within the organization can join hands during a community redevelopment project and strive for a commonly held goal, they can do so during an important business project without the internal “turf wars” that so often hinder real progress.

Gratitude from the rank and file. When management releases the altruistic passions of the work force, the work force likely will reciprocate. They will feel grateful to and protective of the company for enabling them to do good works. A rank and file that feels good about itself and about its company is a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Dan Carrison
, a business writer and consultant, has authored or co-authored four management books: Semper Fi: Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way, Deadline! How Premier Organizations Win the Race Against Time, Business Under Fire and From the Bureau to the Boardroom. Carrison is a general partner of Semper Fi Consulting and founder of www.ghostwritersinthesky.com. Carrison lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches corporate communication for the University of La Verne. He can be reached at dan.carrison@gmail.com.

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