STINSON BEACH, CALIF. — Today, 85 percent of corporate websites tout their company's commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Among the buzzwords: "economic empowerment," "capacity building," "sustainable development," and the ever-popular "triple bottom line" (referring to the environmental, social, and financial returns of business investments). Some of it may seem pie in the sky – and it no doubt is. Distinguishing between the real and the phony is not easy.
This shift in language, however, is noteworthy. Just a few years ago, the notion of paying attention to anything but profits was considered almost sacrilegious by many on Wall Street.
But a nagging question remains: How do we know if corporate culture is truly committed to bettering the world, or is just engaged in attempts to hoodwink consumers through "greenwashing" and other slick public-relations moves? Too often, big brand names spend millions on ad campaigns instead of investing in programs that demonstrate responsibility.
Conservative estimates put the value of philanthropic investments by S&P 500 corporations last year at more than $15 billion. Firms that align these investments with broader corporate strategies and manage these investments carefully will create far more value for themselves – and society – than will companies that rely on their unfocused, uncoordinated, and overhyped "CSR" programs.
What's the best way to learn if a company truly embraces its ballyhooed social mission day-to-day? Employee volunteerism. Levels of volunteer activity show how much social concerns really figure into company culture.
Computer technologies are playing an important role in this transformation. AngelPoints, a California software company that has the largest database of corporate volunteers in the nation (some 2.5 million strong), just partnered with a nonprofit called Idealist.org., which holds the nation's largest database of nonprofits (55,000 of them at last count). This innovative public-private partnership is matching the needs of the nonprofit world with the skills and passion of employees at some of the nation's most prestigious companies. It's using the Web to track, manage, and analyze the impact these do-gooders have on this precious and precarious planet of ours.
General Electric (GE) is leading the way, too. The firm is using sophisticated strategies to overhaul its 78-year-old volunteer organization. Rolled out this April, 18,000 employees have already signed up using a streamlined and focused software system. "We've set very aggressive targets," says Jean Collier, executive director of the GE Volunteers Foundation. "By the end of the year, we are hoping to have 50,000 of our 300,000 total employees plugged into the new system."
She notes that while GE still encourages "arms and legs activities," the company has "kicked up our volunteer efforts to skill-based activities." GE is concentrating its efforts, deploying its employees to help disadvantaged urban public schools. "We are much more focused and streamlined now," says Ms. Collier.
Remember President George H.W. Bush's comments about a "thousand points of light?" I was among those who scoffed at this notion, thinking it would be a weak substitute for government programs that had been axed by reformers over the years.
I still think that's a valid view. But I'm also discovering that volunteerism at companies can be a key component of our nation's effort to address social woes – especially since government social programs show no sign of escaping budget pressures, political bickering, and bureaucratic inefficiency.
While a company's products remain the most important measure of its impact on the world, the day is near when a firm's volunteering portfolio becomes an important barometer of its integrity and soul – and its worth to society at large.
• Peter Asmus writes about corporate social responsibility and sustainable energy. His most recent energy book is "Reaping the Wind."