In the fall of 1981, the Montgomery County government and public school system received disturbing findings from a study on drug and alcohol abuse in the schools.

One of the ways the county government responded to the survey findings was to request the assistance of the Marriott Corp., which has its headquarters in the county. Marriott in turn responded by sponsoring, along with a number of other local businesses and professionals, a two-day event at Montgomery Mall called "Get High on Yourself," which was designed to show teenagers, "that there are other ways to enjoy life besides substance abuse."

The participating companies also launched a prom-time Project Graduation, which involved placing in the pockets of rented tuxedos cards with the slogan "friends don't let friends drive drunk" and a hot-line number for transportation.

That Montgomery County reacted to this problem by turning to local business shows its awareness of the corporate desire to appear concerned about community affairs. And while a survey of about 40 area companies showed that many major companies located here have moved beyond the traditional philanthropy of contributing funds to a more activist stance in the community, most smaller businesses are bound by the restraints of time and money to a minimal acknowledgement of regional problems.

The respondent firms were mostly successful growing companies with annual revenue of under $50 million. Some are in high-technology industries rather than in services like banking and insurance, which have traditionally been more community-oriented.

While most of the executives interviewed agreed that corporations must bear a fair share of the task of meeting social needs, many still think that corporate responsibility begins and ends with charitable contributions. Few had taken any initiative for participation. Most merely respond to requests or demands from outside.

Marriott's sense of commitment to its locale stems from its philosophy that the company helps its own employes by making the area a better place to live, according to Robert T. Souers, director of corporate relations. "We have our roots in this area. It spawned our growth. We have many thousands of employes here. It's imperative to give something back to the community."

Geico took over the leadership of Project Graduation from Marriott because the program suited its philosophy of supporting projects that have the potential to reduce insurance rates in the communities it serves. The company's safety program, aimed at both employes and the community, includes free infant car seats, publicity to promote seatbelt use and an anti-drunk-driving program that includes reimbursement of taxi fares.

The company also made a $600,000 contribution to save the District of Columbia schools' driver education programs from budget cuts. "Whenever an opportunity exists to lower rates, we take it," said Terry Baxter, Geico vice president of employe relations.

Baxter said the best kind of contribution the company can make is "to apply an expertise that we have to solve a problem for the community." One example was Geico's offer to help the D.C. Board of Elections clean up its chaotic computer files. Geico sees community involvement as good business "because our employes and customers live here. We want to keep and attract a work force that values its community," Baxter said.

Most chief executives of young, growing companies are concerned primarily with the survival and profitability of their companies. "We're lean and mean," said one. "The necessities take up too much time." Others cited company size ("we're too small") as their primary reason for lack of public involvement. About half said they were "simply not in a financial position to get involved now, with the economy so bad." This is indicative of the fact that corporate survival takes precedence over all else: a failing company is a drain on its community, not an asset.

Most of the executives interviewed said they had simply never thought about public involvement. And about a third of the respondents agreed with the statement that "public involvement has nothing to do with what our firm is about."

"As a matter of philosophy," said one executive, "I give and encourage my employes to give. But the company exists to make money." This is the quintessential statement of the philosophy that contributions and community involvement are not legitimate uses of the stockholders' money, because they have no immediate or tangible payoff.

This is true even for MCI Communications Corp., one of the largest Washington-based high-technology companies. Recently, MCI's senior management developed a policy that contributions will be made only to organizations offering direct employment-related training to the economically disadvantaged. According to an MCI spokesman, "Our view is that one of the biggest problems in the communities we serve is unemployed people. We want to target our contributions to organizations teaching marketable jobs skills that lead to economic self-sufficiency."

However, the company has no plans to undertake any active corporate community relations projects, citing the strain that continuing rapid growth places on its personnel. In particular, MCI has made no special commitment to Washington as its headquarters city.

Many firms are simply not that familiar with the community in which they are located. Company executives are understandably reluctant to judge the work of unfamiliar nonprofit agencies. Almost half of those surveyed agreed with the statement: "We don't know how to assess the worth of the requests for assistance we receive from nonprofit organizations," and nearly as many admitted that they "don't have the necessary expertise in our firm to get a public involvement program started."

Half of the respondents had noticed a significant increase in the volume of requests for funding from nonprofit organizations. Several had been solicited by organizations that had not approached them in the past (most of which cited loss of government funding as the reason for requesting assistance). Many respondents felt unable to judge the worth of such requests for assistance. One manager said, "You can spend hours on the Ladies Handmade Tablecloth League--it's a big pain in the neck."

Another said, "We want to do what we can to aid the community, but we don't want to fall prey to every organization that seeks information and funds--it's more attention than we want." One respondent expressed the need for a "community action approach" to corporate giving, whereby an objective third party would provide a list of acceptable organizations: "There are so many ripoffs, you don't know what's legitimate."

For these reasons, many companies give very conservatively, supporting only well-established, non-controversial organizations or projects, such as Wolf Trap Farm Park and other arts organizations, Junior Achievement, Boys Clubs, the YMCA.

Other groups are supported because they can benefit the company or its employes directly: fire and police department projects, colleges where the company recruits, local hospitals.

While about a third of those surveyed had a budgeted annual amount for contributions, most of the companies give on request. Thus even formal contribution programs were shown to be frequently haphazard and sporadic, bearing little relation either to overall community needs or to the company's unique characteristics.

Companies that choose to become involved, regardless of size, have found their community relations projects are good long-term investments.

In 1974, Temporaries Inc. asked its customers to bring a can of food to its annual Christmas party as a donation for the needy. Each year, the program has grown larger, attracting more attention--and more participation. Last year, Temporaries' Food for Christmas Foundation collected 35,000 cans of food locally and raised another $15,000 through its Christmas ball, cosponsored by WKYS Radio. The money is used to purchase canned food at wholesale prices to feed the needy year-round.

Chris John, chairman of the Temporaries foundation, says the annual project gives nonmanagerial employes a chance to develop leadership skills by coordinating part of the operation. He also believes the project generates business for the company: "People learn that Temporaries Inc. is a quality place."

Like the others interviewed about their community projects, John is enthusiastic. "If you have the resources and wherewithal to do it, you should do more than write a check. It benefits more than just the people who are receiving the contributions. It benefits the giver."

Christmas was also the catalyst for another local firm's initial community involvement. For years, the advertising agency of Goldberg-Marchesano Associates was notorious for its rowdy--and expensive--annual Christmas bash, with more than 700 guests.

In October 1981, with party plans in full swing, substantial federal program cuts were causing funding losses to local social service agencies. Struck by the contrast, partners Norman Goldberg and Carole Marchesano wrote to their staff, "In these difficult times when those least able to afford it are facing dramatic cuts in their standard of living, publicly flaunting an image as lavish party givers is almost obscene."

By happenstance, they heard about the D.C. public schools' "public-private partnerships program." Goldberg-Marchesano is now the local corporate sponsor of the Lemuel Penn Center/McKinley High School communications magnet program. The firm sponsors teacher and student internships and donates equipment and supplies. Employes work on curriculum development and serve as instructors and guest lecturers. The $20,000 party budget was only the beginning of an evolving project, according to senior vice president Karen Kershner. "We wanted to make a commitment, not just give a check and leave," she said.

In addition, the agency has solicited the help of more than 80 other communications professionals and agencies to lecture, donate equipment, work as mentors and provide job placement for student and teacher interns. WMAL Radio, WETA and WJLA-TV, Britches and Peoples Drugs are among the participating companies.

What's the payoff for Goldberg-Marchesano? According to Kershner, "In a bottom-line sense, there's a real benefit in your balance sheet if you can reduce the cost of training, recruitment, turnover and absenteeism." Carole Marchesano adds that her staff is very proud of their role in the program. "You can make such a difference in these kids' lives with just your company's waste materials and 15 minutes of your time you would otherwise fritter away."

Some firms in the survey have just begun small projects that may expand gradually, as Temporaries' and Goldberg-Marchesano's did. For example, Computer Data Systems Inc. supports musical entertainment sponsored by Montgomery County in a nearby park, continuing a tradition that otherwise would have been the victim of budget cuts. M/A COM-DCC and Penril Corp. are participating in a Montgomery County pilot program to upgrade workers' skills while simultaneously training CETA workers to take over their entry-level jobs.

A spokesman for Penril was startled and respectful of the county staff for being "harder than nails" on the CETA trainees. The company expects to continue and expend its role in the program.

Other metropolitan areas have long-established development organizations that provide resources to help weave growing companies firmly into their cities and neighborhoods, making community participation a significant attribute of their corporate culture. But in Washington, which has had no parallel institution, it remains alien to many corporate leaders' way of thinking.

A relatively new force on the local scene is the Community Foundation of Greater Washington. Under the leadership of President Lawrence Stinchcomb and Board Chairman Arthur Flemming, national corporations' interest in Washington as the nation's capital has been used to create a funding base broader than that of many community foundations. The foundation is using this corporate financial base to begin to tackle problems that have gone unresolved here, in part, because there has been no organization that can bring many facets of the community together to discuss and resolve areawide problems.

The foundation hopes to fill that vacuum, serving as an umbrella organization with its own resources.

When one board member complained that it was costing his company more to review funding requests than the amount the company gave away, the foundation decided that help was needed. As Stinchcomb explained, "Both private sector donors and nonprofit organizations need help to do a more capable and effective job."

Most nonprofit organizations send multiple proposals to several corporations and foundations. Each potential donor needs to find out the same objective information about the organization and its project, so there's a lot of duplication of effort.

The foundation has begun to collect this information about hundreds of local nonprofit human services organizations, and is developing a clearinghouse as a service to corporate and private clients. Stinchcomb hopes that "the cost savings in reviewing applications will translate into the companies' giving away more."

For those who want to ensure their contributions budget is used by the most deserving organizations, the foundation has a clearinghouse to screen requests. For those who want to hold the process at arm's length, the foundation will set up a separate fund to distribute money in the company's name, and send an annual report of the distribution.

Those of a more activist bent can join the D.C. Schools' Public-Private Partnerships Program. With programs in business and finance, health careers, hotel management and culinary arts, pre-engineering and communications, this project has the potential to transform the lives of inner-city youth. Superintendent Floretta McKenzie calls it "investment in human capital." Equally important, it can ensure a well-trained labor force for Washington's business in the future.

If a firm wants to get involved in its community, the need is everywhere. Company officials can watch the media, looking for an area in which a company's expertise might be especially useful.

If, on the other hand, a company is ready to examine the full spectrum of public involvement activities and consider a comprehensive long-term approach, here are some suggestions to take:

* Create a committee of senior people. Get their commitment to think it out thoroughly and report back to the partners, president or board within two months. Use outside help if necessary.

* Develop guidelines or principles for interaction with the community. How does this fit with a stated corporate mission? What is company policy toward employes volunteering? Formulate a policy statement and make it publicly available, or include it in the company's annual report.

* Create incentives for employe and management participation. Start an awards program, give bonuses to active volunteers, print articles in the house organ. Top management's support must be clear, consistent and constant.

* Take a critical but open-minded look at what your firm has to offer. Do employes have special expertise, including management skills, that could be used in nonprofit or public-sector institutions? Are there resources that must be maintained, regardless of how good or bad business is, that could be used by others during slack times? This includes people, plant and equipment and materials.

* Get help from management consultants and public relations firms in designing public involvement and community relations programs.

* Apply results-oriented business practices. This is not soft-headed do-gooderism, but a way of making the community the company is a part of a better place to live. If what the firm is doing now isn't working,fix it. Or do something else.