Volunteerism gets a boost from companies and their employees. Firms even offer extra vacation days or release time to workers who donate skills

It may seem like a strange thing for profit-minded companies to do, but more and more corporations are encouraging employees to give away their time and talents. Instead of just posting flyers from the local volunteer bureau in the company cafeteria, more than 450 American corporations are actively recruiting their employees to volunteer for community nonprofit organizations. For incentive, some even offer release time, corporate recognition, extra vacation days, donations to employees' favorite charities, and added points on employees' annual reviews.

According to Volunteer -- a national organization based in Arlington, Va., that provides information to volunteer organizations -- volunteers today are likely to be people who work full time out of the home. Increasingly, corporations are promoting this trend.

Most say they are motivated by a sense of corporate responsibility and a desire to promote a healthy community in which to do business. Although companies admit their images get a boost, most deny their programs are public-relations ploys.

Donald F. Craib Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of Allstate Insurance Group (this year's corporate winner of a presidential medallion for its volunteer program), says his company is motivated by simple ``corporate self-interest.''

``When corporations help improve social conditions, they are working to enhance their own profits as well,'' Mr. Craib says. ``It's true that social activities don't often translate into profits in the short run. But in the long run, the economic and social well-being of our communities assure the well-being of our corporations. You can't have one without the other.''

So, why don't corporations increase their philanthropic contributions rather than, for instance, sacrificing employee work time?

Ronald Speed, director of corporate and community responsibility for Minneapolis-based Honeywell and president of the Honeywell Foundation, believes employee volunteerism enhances corporate philanthropy.

``Going beyond dollar contributions and getting employees involved in community projects more than doubles our effectiveness,'' Mr. Speed says.

``Dollars alone can't do it,'' adds Jill Ragatz, manager of Honeywell's volunteer programs and 1985-86 president of the National Council on Corporate Volunteerism. ``You have to have people with ideas and solutions.''

According to Ms. Ragatz, corporate volunteers offer business expertise, creative ideas, and the specific skills needed by nonprofit organizations. ``Corporations are becoming more aware that they have tremendous community resources,'' she says.

Connie Schilling, community representative at General Mills and president of the Corporate Volunteerism Council in Minneapolis-St. Paul, agrees. ``We often have the skilled people they [the nonprofit organizations] might be lacking,'' she says.

Ms. Schilling emphasizes the importance of matching volunteer skills and interests with the needs of nonprofit groups. ``The days are gone when people were willing to volunteer for mundane tasks,'' she advises. ``We can't expect that employees who are putting in eight-hour days are going to spend their nonworking hours doing that kind of thing.''

Other corporate motivations include:

Employee professional development. According to Ragatz, volunteerism gives employees a chance to take risks they might not ordinarily take in their regular jobs. ``It allows them to try out some new behaviors and different leadership styles,'' she says.

Improved employee morale and productivity. Ragatz says corporate volunteer projects promote team-building. She says productivity went up and employee relationships improved during a recent Honeywell food drive.

Increased company loyalty. The theory here is that corporate volunteer programs strengthen employee ties to company and community.

Utilization of retirees' talents. Many companies invite retirees to volunteer with employees or have facilitated separate retiree programs.

Despite such possible benefits, corporate commitment to employee volunteer programs doesn't always last in the face of corporate difficulties.

Cynthia Vizza, assistant director for Workplace in the Community -- a two-year project by Volunteer that's funded by Honeywell, Levi Strauss Foundation, CBS Inc., and the Aetna Life and Casualty Foundation -- believes this occasional backsliding is largely a result of volunteer programs not being institutionalized within corporations. Few corporate volunteer programs have written policies, recordkeeping is often poor, and program evaluation is seldom done, she notes.

``The majority of companies are still having problems tying their volunteer programs to the bottom line,'' Ms. Vizza says. ``When times get tough, it's sometimes hard for them to see the program as an important company function rather than just a nice thing to do.''

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