Life at Work

Programs of Give vs. Take

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 6, 2005

It's that time of year again. The United Way campaign. The around-the-corner holidays when the office spends a day volunteering at the nearby food bank. The good-feeling pre-Jan. 1 announcement of how much the company gave to charity this year.

All of this corporate giving has a big effect on workers. It changes morale, for the better and, in some cases, worse. It can create a culture employees are proud of. And some people even say a company's good works are a reason to stay with a job and an organization.

"Employees will choose companies, as well as remain loyal to companies, based on the perception of that company's whole corporate social responsibility," said Nancy Lee, president of Social Marketing Services in Seattle and co-author of "Corporate Social Responsibility: Doing the Most Good for Your Company and Your Cause."

"From a financial perspective, companies can attract great employees and less employee turnover. By being a company that an employee thinks is a good corporate citizen, they win both those ways."

She cited REI, the large outdoor adventure retail store. On its Web site, the company lists grant programs and other programs it donates money to under an "REI Gives" heading.

If employees choose to work at REI, Lee points out, they likely are hikers, bikers and other outdoor enthusiast types. Therefore, it follows that employees will love that the company gives to the causes in which the employees are interested. REI, for instance, gives grants and money to organizations the employees nominate, such as the East Bay Conservation Corps or the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education.

Employees "feel good they are contributing to those" particular groups, Lee said.

Other companies provide time for employees to actually leave work and spend normal working hours volunteering. Some say that is even more important than being a part of a fund drive is having time to do good work.

One woman who works for a software company in Burlington, Mass., said her company offers employees three paid days off a year to volunteer. There are some small restrictions: the volunteering can't be for a religious organization and the activity must last all day. "I'm really proud of them, actually," Shani Gentry said. "I've never worked for a company that tried to make it easier for employees to give a little back. My previous company donated money to a few charities, but this makes me feel more personally useful."

But some corporate giving programs put employees on the defensive, saying they feel cajoled into "giving at the office" when they would rather volunteer in their own community or put their money toward a personal cause.

A woman who works at a major research university in California said her school has a very active initiative to partner with surrounding neighborhoods, and has many programs to help local children. She thinks that is great. However, there is also a fundraising drive every year that is "basically mandatory," she said. "I'm not so cool with that. Everyplace else I've worked has strong-armed donations during the annual United Way drive: also uncool, especially when you don't agree with some of their politics."

Charity in the workplace is great, she said. But when one feels there is no choice about participating or deciding where money and volunteer efforts should go, "people can understandably get resentful."

She said she was told by a colleague in the first year she worked at the university how important it was to supervisors that 100 percent of the department give to the drive. The percentages are publicized to the entire university, so it became a competition. She was encouraged to even give just $1 so the department could show that all of its employees donated money.

Nothing like a blood-letting competition to kill the spirit of giving.

She said she prefers to donate money and goods to the women's shelter in her own community, which is not near her job. She wishes her school would match those donations.

"This isn't for attribution, please, please, please," she wrote.

How many quiet grumblings do we hear every year when it's time for the United Way donations? It's no new issue this woman brings up. Which makes one think that companies do have to consider how and where they give money and donations, and what kind of volunteer program they want to bestow upon their employees.

Otherwise, the spirit of giving will only seem like one more job-related duty.

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