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The Snowball Effect Of Volunteer Work

IF more chief executives were involved personally in volunteer work, they would have a greater positive impact on employees, suppliers and a skeptical public, said Robert Nardelli, chief executive of Home Depot, based in Atlanta. Following are excerpts from a conversation with him:


Q. Have you personally gone out on volunteer construction projects?


A. I have. As part of our 25th anniversary celebration, our team came up with 1,300 projects. We set a goal of giving back to our communities 250,000 hours of volunteerism. And we met and exceeded that. We did these across North America, from Vancouver to Monterrey, from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. One of the ones I attended in the pouring rain in Atlanta was at the Emma Hutchinson School. We had more than 450 volunteers.


Q. What did you do at the school?


A. We constructed an “education walk” out back. Children can now identify something at each station that represents each continent. We were trying to provide educational exposure for this school, which has tremendous diversity. We planted flowers. We did landscaping projects. We built reading nooks.


Q. Wouldn’t your critics say this is all about public relations?


A. We do sometimes get a lift, but that’s not why we do it. This is all about the American dream. I could see our associates, our suppliers, our communities, our employees and nonprofit organizations all coming together under the banner of civic responsibility. This is not about making a political statement. It’s about showing corporate responsibility.


Q. Do enough chief executives go out personally and do this kind of thing?


A. Individually, we have tremendous examples of other corporations doing what we’re doing. But collectively, they’re not stitched together, or integrated enough. Doing specific projects in communities should be part of everyone’s DNA.


Q. Who are the best examples?


A. Sam Palmisano at I.B.M., Bob Ulrich at Target, Mike Eskew of U.P.S. and Andrea Jung at Avon are clearly examples where individual corporations have done a tremendous amount of good.


Q. What is Mr. Palmisano doing?


A. He’s reinvesting in education. He’s got the I.B.M. “Kid Smart” program and the I.B.M. mentor program, and he’s got a program called “Teaming for Technology.” Each corporation should play to its strength. The specific tactics should be tied to the specific skills of the corporation. For us, it’s doing physical things. It’s about building things.


Q. What companies or industries aren’t doing enough?


A. I don’t want to start going through industries and companies that aren’t doing things right. But I think recent events throughout corporate America would illustrate that you definitely pay a price when you don’t pay your civic dues. Having some good will in the bank based on real efforts in your communities might at least earn you some benefit of the doubt when you otherwise might not get it.


Q. Is a part of this volunteer effort an attempt to get more productivity out of workers?


A. There’s no question in my mind that employees and associates feel a tremendous amount of pride in giving back and also working for a corporation that sponsors and supports this kind of initiative.


Q. And you believe by bringing in your suppliers on these projects that you deepen your relationships with them?


A. Yes. We brought in TTI, Black & Decker and Masco to build playgrounds, for example. And we also brought together all our logistics and transportation providers to get materials to the right places. To build an elementary school in Decatur, Ga., for children with special needs, we had J.B. Hunt, U.P.S. and FedEx helping us. There could never be a better time for this. Corporate America is getting broad-brushed as a result of the few when, in fact, a majority of us are running our businesses with high standards and ethics.


Q. Do you believe in this as pure volunteerism, or is it a way to get long-term benefits, say, higher sales from good publicity?


A. Improved sales should be only a secondary benefit of volunteering. I strongly believe that any corporation that’s giving back exclusively to garner publicity or to boost the bottom line won’t be able to sustain it.


Q. Some chief executives say embracing outside causes confuses people about a company’s mission: to sell products or services.


A. I think they’re inseparably linked. Not only does a corporation have to provide financial value, it also has to build itself on values. Profitable companies can give back more to a broad range of constituents, starting with their customers, their associates, their communities, their shareholders. There is an expanding range of constituencies that companies have to think about.


Q. Many chief executives serve on boards of theaters or ballets. Is that sufficient?


A. I think chairmen and C.E.O.’s have to do what they feel they have the skills and the values to support. I would never be critical of corporations or chairmen for supporting the arts. It’s just as important in the cultural development of children as anything.


Q. But is it enough to attend a charity ball?


A. The people attending that ball might be that company’s average customer. But I do think there is some benefit to getting outside your comfort zone as a C.E.O. and diversifying your thinking.


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