Employees give time as donations drop

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Times are tough for human-service organizations. A weak economy has bloated the list of people in need while squeezing individual donors and government programs. Where else to turn?

Think business.

At a time when donations from most sources have dwindled, corporations have stepped up with money, volunteers, or both. Despite shrinking profits, some companies have found ways to give more with less.

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In the trough of the recession - 2002 - corporate giving actually went up, according to the American Association of Fundraising Counsel Trust for Philanthropy. The group's latest report, Giving USA, says corporate contributions that year grew 10.5 percent to $12.19 billion. And that uptick in financial gifts doesn't capture the donations of time many corporations are making.

At Standard Insurance Co. in Portland, Ore., for example, volunteerism has jumped markedly. "We have a lot of different ways for employees to get involved with volunteer activities," says Kira Higgs, an assistant vice president at the company.

One way is through the SMART (Start Making A Reader Today) program, in which Standard employees read with two children for a half-hour each, once a week during the school year. "We really rely a lot on a grass-roots experience," Ms. Higgs says. "You read to a couple of kids and you come back to work, you're going to be high!"

Standard has also partnered with the Open Meadow Alternative School under a Portland city program that matches businesses with schools to leverage assets. The company recently donated more than 130 computers to the school, which serves 13- to 18-year-olds who struggle in traditional schools. School staff took part in company training programs on customer service and leadership. And Standard employees assisted students with job-readiness skills by conducting mock interviews and résumé writing classes. The company also offers students paid internships. "You can't visit this school and not come back totally turned on," says Higgs.

The company's "Dollars for Doers" program encourages employee to donate time and money to local nonprofits. In San Diego, for example, Standard gave a grant to the Enlisted Wives Club of Southern California, which supports military families through donations of food, gasoline, and sports equipment, as well as organized activities like bowling and movie nights. "I like helping people," says Jaime Fazica, a manager in the local Standard office who volunteers there about 60 hours a month. "Seeing their faces makes it all worth it. Lots of times I think I get more out of it than they do."

"There's a recognition that when you support a strong community, it's not only good for your business but it's good for all the businesses in that community," Higgs says. "That's not a philosophy that we're alone in. There are many, many businesses that view it that way."

Another firm stepping up its volunteer efforts is Combe Inc., a personal-care products company in White Plains, N.Y. It moved into action after learning that donations to the United Way had fallen 6 percent, hurting that group's ability to help other local nonprofits.

"Some organizations that we deal with used to get $80,000 a year from the United Way and now get $5,000," says John Alberto, senior vice president of Combe Inc. "That's a major, major cutback for a small nonprofit organization."

Combe encourages volunteerism by each year awarding an employee it feels has done the most for the community. "That person gets $1,000 to give to whatever community-service organization he or she chooses," Mr. Alberto says.

Combe employees have given their time to many organizations, including the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and local chapters of the American Heart Association and the American Red Cross.

In addition, the corporation closes its headquarters one day each spring so its 200-plus employees can head to YMCA/Camp Combe in Putnam Valley, Conn. There, workers look for projects to build, fix, or clean up. "We do it for the kids to make camp a better place for them," CEO Chris Combe says.

The effort began in 2000, when the company helped the YMCA of Central and Northern Westchester purchase an 80-acre summer camp. The property had been neglected for years, but employees didn't hesitate to rehabilitate it. They built basketball courts, picnic tables, and a 330-foot boardwalk over some wetlands.

This year, employees built a 25-foot retaining wall, and demolished and removed a derelict house on the property. "Camp Combe Day is a magical rite of spring for our company," Mr. Combe says. "The day's payroll and the expenses are significant, but the experience helps knit us together as a family."

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