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Corporate Giving When Times Are Tough

With employee volunteers as the new “currency,” CEOs can maintain corporate giving even in tough times

When it comes to corporate giving, many of America’s CEOs are failing to utilize a powerful and largely untapped resource – their own employees. With charitable needs on the rise and many businesses still battered by the recession, volunteers are the new “currency” in corporate giving.

While financial resources may be down, CEOs know that expectations remain high. In fact, 79 percent of executives agree there is “pressure to create the same social impact with less money,” according to Deloitte’s 2009 Volunteer IMPACT study.  

Far fewer of those executives, however, have engaged their employees in volunteer work with nonprofits. That gap between desire and execution in tapping the potential of corporate volunteerism is even more pronounced on the nonprofit side.

Fully 95 percent of nonprofits need and want more volunteer support. But a scant 5 percent know which companies to approach and an even smaller number – just 3 percent – know who to contact within a company, according to data from the Taproot Foundation, which links skilled volunteers with nonprofits.

For CEOs, this is a lost opportunity. Being accessible and creating an infrastructure that supports volunteerism aligns perfectly with two key business objectives –a robust corporate social responsibility (CSR) program, and a committed and engaged workforce.

Corporate-led volunteer programs create goodwill in the community; generate positive publicity; enable employees to use their skills in new ways; and creates marketing and networking opportunities. Further, when tabulating community contributions, companies can include the value of their employees’ time. For skilled professionals, such as attorneys, accountants and marketers, the dollar value adds up quickly.

The bottom-line business value is similarly quantifiable. A study by Junior Achievement concluded that, “there is a direct correlation between active community outreach programs and increased revenues and customer loyalty for businesses that engage in helping their communities.”

But creating meaningful volunteer programs, particularly in challenging times, takes work, commitment and organization. It’s not surprising that larger companies, those with 10,000 or more employees, are more likely to have formal volunteerism programs. Similarly, larger nonprofits may be better equipped to tap the volunteer labor they need.

For example, Keep America Beautiful has both a corporate partnership program and a nationwide network of over 1,200 affiliates and participating organizations. The affiliates work with local nonprofits and are also instrumental in the success of the Great American Cleanup, one of KAB’s signature programs.

In 2009, more than three million people in 32,000 communities came out for the Great American Cleanup. Among other accomplishments, they collected 64 million pounds of litter and debris. Corporate sponsors included NASCAR, Glad, Nestle, Scotts and Waste Management, among many others.

KAB’s affiliates and their corporate partners also engage in wide-ranging local initiatives. In partnership with UPS and its employees, volunteers helped beautify the Pueblo Grande Museum Archeological Park in Arizona; restored a hurricane-damaged park in Florida; organized cell phone and shoe recycling programs in Wisconsin; and cleared 30 tons of debris and invasive plants in North Carolina.

Make no mistake: there is an enduring and powerful desire to make a difference in one’s own community and beyond. What’s missing is a critical link between America’s businesses and its nonprofits. The inability to make a connection right at the beginning thwarts many efforts.

Just over a quarter of corporations don’t have anyone overseeing an employee volunteer program and 17 percent have no program at all, according to Deloitte.

That lack of infrastructure is mirrored on the nonprofit side, where 35 percent don’t have the capabilities to successfully utilize volunteers and one-quarter don’t have a volunteer manager.

As Evan Hochberg, national community involvement leader at Deloitte, said, “We’ve found this type of skilled volunteerism must be managed on both ends in order to maximize its effectiveness for the nonprofits as well as the donor.”

While CEOs see the value in charitable and community involvement (many are personally active, making donations, serving on boards or mentoring) they haven’t yet formalized the commitment. That “official” commitment and the designation of a leader, however, are essential for success.

So what options do CEOs have to help meet community needs and provide quality volunteer experiences for their employees? One easily executed solution is to partner with an established nonprofit with the capacity to use and manage volunteers. Another option is to work with an organization, such as Taproot, that specializes in matching skilled volunteers with nonprofits. Finally, companies can create their own CSR programs, although this is typically expensive and time-consuming.

Whatever route the company takes, the CEO should take the lead, demonstrating that the company’s commitment starts at the top. At a time when CEOs are faced with tough choices ever day, making the commitment to an employee volunteer program is easy. The payoffs are huge and there is virtually no downside. If employee volunteers are the new currency, every CEO, in any economic climate, is rich.


Prior to joining Keep America Beautiful as its CEO in 2008, Matt McKenna was SVP, finance, at PepsiCo. A graduate of Georgetown Law School, he is a member of the board of directors of Foot Locker, and PepsiAmericas.

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