Giving 'a Boot' to Community Service

Yolanda Ortiz guides the support brace into place; Margot Blair starts swinging her hammer.

Ms. Blair smiles with delight as the long piece of lumber fits in place on the picnic table she and Ms. Ortiz are building.

The two women met only recently, and they come from different ends of the eastern US - Ortiz from Puerto Rico and Blair from New Hampshire. But they teamed up in this New Hampshire town with a common mission, under the banner of their uncommon employer.

The two work for Timberland, a footwear and clothing company perhaps best known for its yellow leather boots and fashionable hiking shoes.

Ortiz works on employee recruiting and compensation at the company's manufacturing plant in Puerto Rico; Blair holds the same position at the company's Stratham, N.H., headquarters.

On this sunny June workday, though, they and 120 co-workers set corporate matters aside and went to work on Camp Lincoln, a YMCA youth camp in southern New Hampshire.

But the effort went beyond the workers pounding away at Camp Lincoln.

Much of Timberland shut down for a day as more than 1,000 employees worldwide worked at community centers, homes for children, and other sites.

Their work is part of what one analyst calls a nationwide trend of companies paying employees to perform community service.

"These programs are useful, and sometimes essential tools for companies to become a trusted and valued asset within a community," says Steve Rochlin, head researcher at the Center for Corporate and Community Relations at Boston College's business school. "When it's working at its best, it improves worker retention and morale, and serves a role in improving teamwork."

The day of community service by Timberland employees marked the company's 25th anniversary, but company policy allows employees as many as 40 hours of paid time annually for community service work.

Mr. Rochlin's organization found that 29 percent of US companies last year offered employees some form of compensation for volunteer work.

'Boot strapping'

Timberland chief executive Jeffrey Swartz calls programs like this essential to his company's success.

Like most of the employees gathered outside corporate headquarters to kick off the day of community service, he wears a "Serv-a-Palooza" T-shirt and company-made boots. Only his Armani sunglasses deviate from the day's unofficial uniform.

"We think that doing well and doing good are inextricably linked in our business," he says. "There's a skeptical notion out there - is this about business or philanthropy? My answer is that this is how we earn our right to do business."

Mr. Swartz's father, Sidney, the company's chairman, says he considers dedication to the community a longtime part of Timberland's business approach, but credits his son with the community-service program.

"We've always felt that business was about more than just making a profit," says Sidney Swartz. "But [Jeffrey] was the one who pursued it the strongest. I was touched by the opportunity to give back, so it's become a way of doing business."

Sales break

Back at Camp Lincoln, the employees seem to appreciate the opportunity to do community work on company time.

For Neil Padden, a Dallas-based salesman for the company, the effort is more than a break from the daily routine of calling on retailers to sell footwear.

"Knowing that I've been out there doing something that makes a difference is really important," he says, chopping away at brush to make a nature trail.

"We've done things that never would have been done if not for the volunteers," says Rob Roy McGregor, Camp Lincoln's director. "Every day, we're truly touched."

"For Timberland, [community service] fits in very well with what they're trying to do as a company by helping with an esprit d'corps in the work force," says philanthropy researcher Rochlin.

Bruce Miller, a Timberland sales executive in California, agrees. "It gives us a lot of pride," he says, clearing a nature trail.

"Anybody can dish out dollars, but if you're willing to put in a day of hard labor and the blisters that come with it, it's something different."

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