Boston — Corporate good citizenship should be more than just writing checks. That is the feeling of many executives as more and more companies roll up their collective sleeves and pitch in - their employees tutoring in schools, caring for the elderly, becoming active in community development.
In the past few years, corporations have become more formalized in their organization of volunteer programs. A 1979 study identified almost 350 companies with organized volunteer programs; now almost 500 are reckoned to have these, according to Shirley Keller of VOLUNTEER: the National Center for Citizen Involvement in Arlington, Va.
Some important trends:
* Companies are inventorying skills and interests of would-be volunteers among their employees, in some cases under a full-time coordinator.
* More corporate retirees are getting into the act.
* Some companies, but not all, are providing ''released time,'' time off work with pay, for such activities as tutoring in schools.
* ''Companies are looking for ways to encourage the 'employee owned' approach ,'' one official says. This means employees form a ''community involvement team'' to decide which to activities become involved in.
Levi Strauss & Co. of blue jeans fame, recognized as a leader in the area of corporate social responsibility, has a community involvement team at each of its 100 plants worldwide. People join or quit the team as they wish, and the group members decide that some or all of them will work with the elderly, the Boy Scouts, or whatever project they wish.
A volunteer program must have solid support from the top, observers agree; but wide-based involvement at the corporate grass-roots level is important, too.
New companies, such as those being launched as a result of the AT&T breakup, are also looking at philanthropic work as a way to establish corporate identities.
''Another important trend,'' says Ms. Keller, ''is that some companies are making a conscious effort to tie monetary contributions to their non-cash contributions.''
Companies such as Levi Strauss set aside some of the corporate contributions money for grants to organizations in which their employees are serving as board members or rank-and-file volunteers.
Companies are now expanding their matching-gifts program, once limited almost exclusively to institutions of higher learning, to arts organizations and in some instances a very broad range of nonprofit organizations.
Sometimes a corporation can find a volunteer cause neatly related to its business line. The recently announced national literacy initiative of the B.Dalton Booksellers chain - part of the philanthropically active Minnesota department store firm, Dayton Hudson - is a case in point. The bookstore chain's goal is to have 800 of its 8,500 regular employees nationwide trained to tutor some of the nation's millions of functional - or total - illiterates.
One company that has cultivated a role as patron of the corporate volunteer movement is Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company of Newark, N.J. It sponsored a survey of corporate chief executive officers and their attitudes on philanthropy and corporate social responsibility.
The survey found that most CEOs accept the idea that businesses have an obligation to the community beyond providing goods and services and jobs. But most CEOs still think in terms of corporate good citizenship as check-writing. They tend not to think in terms of lending executives or in-kind services, and their ideas for promoting volunteerism among their employees are rather vague.
''Most CEOs firmly believe in volunteerism,'' says Livingstone T. Goodman, director of public relations at Mutual Benefit Life. ''Most of them serve in some volunteer capacity themselves. But they haven't carried that commitment down through the organization.
''The CEO should state his feelings about volunteerism. Then others must do it throughout (carry out the goals). A program is most effective if it comes from the top,'' Mr. Goodman says.
Mutual Benefit Life is in the second phase of an advertising campaign called ''Give America a Hand,'' which spotlighted corporate volunteers - of other companies. The first phase of the campaign advocated volunteerism in general. The second phase is aimed at corporations themselves, making the argument that their employees will be better workers if they get involved in volunteer work.
The survey also found no rush to sign up volunteers for projects in response to President Reagan's call for more corporate involvement to fill the gaps caused by federal budget cuts. ''While most companies feel a need to do something, the economy over the past two years has been a deterrent,'' Goodman says. The survey further found that although ''image'' and a boost in employee morale are seen as key benefits of volunteerism, press recognition is not of prime significance.
''We decided, after seeing results of the survey, that the task is to persuade the CEOs who firmly believe in volunteerism, on one hand, but who say that they can't increase the budget, on the other hand, that there are other ways to do this (contribute to nonprofit organizations). It doesn't take a big deal,'' Goodman says.
Some observers suggest that nonprofit organizations could get more help from business if they learned to articulate their needs better. They are used to just asking for cash. What they really need may not be cash, though, but typing services, financial advice, office space, promotional artwork - which a firm may be able to provide quite inexpensively. ''Your art staff can find a few spare minutes to do a brochure for a nonprofit, for example,'' says Goodman.
''The artists get a kick out of what they're doing, and the organization gets something that it wouldn't get done right or would have to pay agency fees to get.''
The use of loaned executives as fund-raisers is another resource many organizations have not tapped. ''If a loaned executive worth $50,000 a year is able to raise $1 million for an organization, that's worth more than a $50,000 donation,'' one consultant notes.
Mutual Benefit Life has sponsored workshops for both corporations and nonprofits to ''build bridges'' in this way.
There are times, though, when there is no substitute for cash, and a stampede of volunteers will not help an organization about to fold. Alex Plinio, president of the Prudential Foundation and vice-president of the Prudential Insurance Company of America, says, ''There should be absolutely no misunderstanding that money will always be essential.''
There is a tricky aspect to all this: Corporate volunteerism, unless the company actually gives an employee time off work for it, is really individual volunteerism. In most professions a certain amount of executive overtime is simply part of the job. On the other hand, in this era of two-career families and otherwise complicated life styles, expecting executives to take on civic volunteer work as part of their jobs may make for an unbearable strain.
Asked about this, Mr. Goodman acknowledges, ''I suppose there's a potential for a problem.
''We discourage [pressure], and it's against the rules to insist that the employee do volunteer work.'' The company does, however, consider volunteer work in employees' professional evaluations.
But Jan Dauman, chairman of the Intermatrix Group, a consulting firm, says, ''I think a company has no right whatsoever to infringe on the free time of employees.'' Corporations can quite properly and helpfully encourage employee volunteerism, he says. ''But if there is any pressure to do so, that's morally wrong, indefensible. Encouragement, yes; pressure, no; recommendation to volunteer, no; and if there is any suggestion that (volunteering or not) might influence their evaluation, absolutely not.''