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Corporate Spotlight: Professional Volunteerism in Corporate CSR Efforts

In a February 20, 2008 commentary, posted on Forbes.com, Lisa Hamilton, President of the UPS Foundation, highlights the growth of corporate social responsibility (CSR) as an integral part of a company’s identity, affecting brand recognition and shareholder value, and states that professional volunteerism, such as legal pro bono work, is the best way to maximize the knowledge and experience of professionals to meet the needs of the community. Hamilton notes that “one of the great business differentiators today has become a company’s moral compass” and challenges the corporate world to add “skilled service” to any CSR efforts.  Hamilton also argues that “the moral compass also influences a company’s ability to attract and retain top talent–especially among today’s Generation Y professionals.”

Hamilton wrote this commentary as a response to the Summit on Corporate Volunteerism, a gathering of the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation, also attended by Pro Bono Institute President and CEO Esther Lardent. The Summit was the kick off for a national campaign to increase the amount of professional volunteerism by American corporations and businesses to help non-profits and communities, and included leaders from prominent businesses – and Corporate Pro Bono Challenge℠ Signatories – such as Intel, Accenture, Citigroup, and General Electric.

A Skilled Approach to Philanthropy
Lisa Hamilton
February 20, 2008

Following the recent gathering of the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation in New York at its Pro Bono Summit, it has become clear that in today’s global business environment, companies are faced with more than just increasing shareholder value, raising productivity and innovating new products.

One of the great business differentiators today has become a company’s moral compass. Whether a business volunteers to act socially responsible, or if it is pushed to do so by outside forces, these actions or inactions can become defining traits of a company and can greatly impact the relationships it has with its stakeholders.

Consumers, employees and investors alike are taking notice of social responsibility issues. In light of controversies like human rights, environmental impact and ethics, that corporate moral compass is being tested. Business leaders are re-evaluating how to best channel their actions, understanding what is appropriate for their company, their culture and their industry.

The 2007 Cone Cause Evolution Survey found that 87% of respondents are likely to switch from one brand to another (price and quality being about equal) if the other brand is associated with a good cause.

The Conference Board also reports that socially responsible investing has reached the scale where it has begun to make a difference in the shareholder relations of publicly traded companies. Companies now have a clear commitment to, and a strategy for, attaining positive social performance as part of their plans for increasing shareholder value.

The moral compass also influences a company’s ability to attract and retain top talent–especially among today’s Generation Y professionals. The recently released Towers Perrin Global Workforce Study states:

Employees want to work for a company that is seen as a leader. … Employees worldwide show a desire to work for an organization that strives for excellence in the eyes of its employees, customers and the world at large. According to the survey, top drivers of higher engagement–all within the organization’s control– include senior leadership behavior, a commitment to corporate social responsibility, the company’s reputation, and sufficient opportunities for learning and development.

The 2006 Deloitte/Points of Light Volunteer IMPACT Study revealed that 63% of respondents reported that volunteering had a positive effect on their careers.

All of this has created a new mosaic within today’s more socially conscious business environment. But there’s a deeper level, a tougher question, and that is: What’s the right path? Should a company write a large check to a well-known charity? Is that enough? What about aiding a cause that is appropriately aligned with a company’s business model?

Some would suggest–and I would agree–that the most valuable gift a company can provide, and perhaps the most powerful tool in any responsible business’ toolbox, is to provide the knowledge capital of its employees. Call it skilled service, knowledge-based volunteerism or even sweat equity with brains.

Many professional services organizations, like law and management consulting firms, have established a model for pro bono service like this. The time has come for other industries to embrace the concept as well. Whatever the motivation, companies have skills that fill the gaps of governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and communities.

Why is this so important? Consider this–millions of people around the globe today are without food. From Darfur to Chechnya to India to Alabama, people are starving. It is not because there is not enough food to feed the hungry. It is because there are logistical challenges in delivering food to the right people in the right places at the right times.

What would happen if leading companies, charities and the public sector all worked together on solutions to the world’s most challenging problems? There’s no limit to the possibilities for change. Companies of any size or industry could contribute.

So whether your employees recently spent 430 hours organizing a distribution network for 700 schools in Berlin; or if they volunteered 150 hours to assist with disaster-relief planning for the Greek Red Cross; or whether they spent 2,100 hours clearing farm land and planting trees at a school in the Philippines–it is all time well spent and expertise wisely loaned.

Plus, consider what work like this is worth to a charitable organization. According to the Independent Sector–a leadership forum for charities, foundations and corporate giving programs–the hourly value of volunteer time was $18.77 for 2006. Imagine the value if they were not only contributing their labor, but their knowledge as well. This is an asset that nonprofits often cannot afford to buy.

Imparting knowledge capital–whether it be to people, governments or NGOs–is what makes skilled service so powerful. That is because, in the long run, applying a little sweat equity with brains is far more valuable than most donations. And this is why we challenge our corporate counterparts to add skilled service as a component of their future global corporate social responsibility strategies.

Lisa Hamilton is president of The UPS Foundation. She also chairs the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Disaster Assistance and Recovery Program and serves on the Board of the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship.