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Expanding the Meaning of Corporate Citizenship

Involvement in communities must reach a new level of achievement.

If you pick through the analysis of this year’s devastating effects of the hurricane season, you arrive at a conclusion that surprisingly few have grasped: Our duty as individual citizens and as corporations isn’t to simply wait for government to do everything for us, but to recognize government’s limitations and our own strengths, and pitch in to offer what we do best to help our fellow citizens.


What I see and hear in all parts of the corporate world-from front-line employees to CEOs-is a deep desire to accept this challenge and to lift corporate community involvement to an entirely new level of achievement. 


This past hurricane season was, in a dramatic way, a testing ground for this idea. The gaps filled by corporations couldn’t have been more critical, and the response was superb. Companies such as The Home Depot, Wal-Mart, FedEx, Coca-Cola, Albertsons, SAP and Delta Airlines  moved fast, both in getting our operations back in business and in helping victims in these communities.


Yes, we had the human, material and dollar resources to do the job, and the planning and processes to aim them where they were most needed. But even more important, I believe, was a mind-set to get things done, to get in gear, to act. 


That’s what prompted Clorox, all too aware of the dangers posed by contamination, to truck 50,000 gallons of bleach to the region within days of the disaster. That’s what prompted Intel to deliver 1,200 badly needed laptops. That’s what inspired Microsoft to team up with the University of California at San Diego to create KatrinaSafe.org, the Red Cross’ unique online tool for reuniting families. I could list a thousand more examples.


This is the power of volunteer spirit combined with entrepreneurial zeal. You get speed, not stalling, and focus, not uncertainty. And while cash donations are important, contributions of talent, equipment, dedication and plain old sweat are even more important. Businesses mobilize resources  better than anyone.


Take Coke. When Katrina hit, they used their bottling plants to supply water in larger containers for locations with large numbers of evacuees. They temporarily converted bulk containers normally used to ship syrup into water containers, allowing them to serve shelters and relief stations. Anheuser Busch switched some of its breweries over to producing water.


That “get it done” mind-set and the capabilities it generates are, of course, the result of long years of battling competitors in the marketplace. We know what we’re doing.

But perhaps Katrina offers a valuable lesson about the role we should play in the greater world. Specifically, why not expand our thinking to focus the same matchless resources on social problems and challenges beyond disasters?


That’s the vision behind The Corporate Service Council, a coalition of 29 CEOs and civic leaders led by the Hands On Network. In a crisis like Katrina, yes, the surge of energy and action is remarkable. But where’s that urgency in what might be called the non-crisis crises, those persistent, fundamental social challenges that always seem to be with us: Schools, playgrounds, community safety, citizen engagement, civic infrastructure.  


Those of us on the Corporate Service Council believe that through a more intense focus of our efforts-singling out a short list of challenges to address, or simply aiming higher-we can dramatically increase our impact.


I saw this vision come to life during the past month in the annual Month of Service, the centerpiece of the Corporate Service Council. We set a goal of 500,000 volunteer hours and delivered more than 800,000.


Katrina roared ashore right in the middle of this effort, but our volunteers never missed a beat. When 25 children from Louisiana needed shelter in Richmond, St. Joseph’s Villa was able to welcome them with a brand new playground, courtesy of Month of Service volunteers. I worked side by side with volunteers at Shearn Elementary School in Houston to help them meet a similar challenge.


Trevor’s Place in Philadelphia, a shelter for homeless families, finally got its plumbing fixed. Watts Branch Park and Marvin Gaye Amphitheater in Washington were brought back to their former glory. The Boys and Girls Club of Albuquerque has a new fence, new picnic tables and a new cleaned-up look. Portland’s Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden is more beautiful than ever. 


Any one of the 2,000 projects we undertook would have been worthy, all by itself. But when looked at collectively, we have touched 2 million lives in 2,000 communities.


The Corporate Service Council, supported by the Hands On Network, has committed to a two-year effort to attract 6.4 million new volunteers, a 10 percent increase. Even more importantly, we want to dramatically expand the list of companies that are equally dedicated and add another 100 corporations to our movement. Those are big, bold numbers, but they are what is required if we’re going to be a force for positive change.


The emphasis on volunteerism makes this a very personal undertaking. Corporations can facilitate and support but, in the end, individuals will make the difference. Not Corporate America, but millions of corporate Americans.

Of course, a simpler word for that idea is citizenship. Citizenship lifts this topic to a higher level. Why not make civic engagement a test of individual citizenship? Let’s make it accountable for tangible results, not just good intentions. Make it rigorous and focused, not soft. Measure it. Make it count.

Click here To read the rest of AGENDA 2006


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