Social-service leave: special kind of corporate giving. Employees take paid time off for civic projects

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Ninety-eight IBM employees won't show up at the office this year. But they'll still get paid. It's called ``social service leave,'' a full, paid leave that some companies give employees to do civic projects for an extended time, in some cases as long as a year, with a guarantee of the same job or a comparable one afterward.

``Most nonprofit organizations don't function the way we do at IBM,'' says Doris Milles, who is bringing her business know-how to bear on a private nonprofit organization called Masspep (Massachusetts pre-engineering program).

A Boston-based IBM marketing support representative currently on leave, Ms. Milles aims to get very young minority students excited about careers in engineering.

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``Speaking for myself, if you are a minority person, you know that a lot of things are out there but you don't know how to go about it,'' she says.

IBM is a giant player in a game played by corporations large and small that have learned they have something even more valuable than money to give to their communities: the time and talents of their employees.

In a survey of all kinds of business giving -- including leave programs -- conducted by VOLUNTEER, a national nonprofit organization that researches and promotes volunteerism, 95 percent of the companies cited improved community-company relations, 92 percent cited public image, and 77 percent cited a healthier community as reasons for participating.

``We have noticed an increased amount of interest since 1981, which is when President Reagan challenged the business community to do more to deal with the problems and needs of communities,'' says VOLUNTEER's Shirley Keller.

Mrs. Keller says, however, that many released time programs which were going strong in the first years of the '80s have been cut back somewhat in the past two years. ``We're not riding where we were when times were better,'' she says.

Still, a number of companies are deeply involved in this kind of corporate giving; and they have evolved a variety of approaches for giving employees an opportunity to give.

Four years ago Noelle Colbert of Xerox became involved in the Special Olympics. She's spending this year working in the Special Olympics office in Wakefield, Mass., but her salary is paid by Xerox. One year she went to the Xerox-sponsored summer games at Boston University. ``I loved it,'' she says, ``helping out the athletes and seeing the glory, the emotion.''

Most of the people involved in these programs speak of similar feelings that they are making a positive contribution to the lives of those in their communities who need it greatly.

Five years ago, Aetna Life & Casualty in Stamford, Conn., started a program that provides, on company time, free legal service to Hartford residents who are over 60 and have an income of less than $8,000 a year. One lawyer was able to help an elderly Hartford woman who had been beaten up in her home; she got a better security system. And a man who had lost his disability benefits by filling out a form incorrectly got them back.

``Clients have a sense of security; they know they can just pick up the phone,'' says Aetna general counsel Bob Hill. ``It gives them a comfort level in their lives.''

Aetna lawyers are permitted to spend up to 10 percent of their work time on the program, and participation is considered a part of the job at the time of employee review. The program, called Connecticut Lawyers Legal Aid to the Elderly, has expanded to include lawyers from other companies, and Aetna offers malpractice insurance to all of them.

GTE Corporation, also in Stamford, has a special program for its lawyers, too, not only offering released time but making office support services available and providing malpractice insurance for those doing the pro bono work.

Wells Fargo & Co. actively encourages volunteerism among its employees, often in the form of released time. ``The company is working on innovative ways to do service for the community without just throwing money at them,'' says Dean Thorpe. ``There are far greater resources that we have that we'd like to give them access to.''

Nonprofit organizations do not always need people with very technical skills, he says. ``How to plan an agenda and run a meeting, normal business correspondence, how to contact other businesses -- the basic business skills that we take for granted are the most valuable skills in the nonprofit sector.''

Wells Fargo's policy is unusual in that there is no maximum or minimum time limit; the individual worker must make arrangements with his supervisor, and must, of course, see that his job is done. ``Working volunteers are very productive people,'' says Mr. Thorpe. ``Often the people who are the busiest are also the most productive.''

Although small companies often can't afford these types of leave programs, one that did was Iris Arc Crystal in Santa Barbara, Calif. The company was going through a slowdown in '81; it decided that instead of laying off a quarter of its expensively trained workforce, it would have employees spend one day a week doing chores for the elderly and handicapped.

The company no longer has a seasonal slowdown -- in fact it has hired more workers to cope with increased sales -- and the pay-for-public-service-time program no longer exists. But employees have kept up many of their good works on their own time. And Iris Arc Crystal can trace some of its new business directly back to the publicity received from that project.

One return companies get from released-time programs is the sense of fulfillment and renewed energies their employees bring back to the job.

``When you work for a company that really cares, it gives you more than a paycheck ever could,'' says Madge Winston of McKesson Corporation, which sponsors recreational and cultural activities for senior citizens and youths in the nearby Tenderloin area of San Francisco. ``There's a pride and a loyalty that you feel when you walk in the door.''

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