Do-Good Image Reaps Rewards

Success in corporate philanthropy usually takes more than writing a check.

Such programs work best, say experts, when tied to a firm's core business - by helping define corporate identity, raising sales, or gaining an edge over competitors, says Steve Rochlin of the Center for Corporate and Community Relations at Boston College.

The center found, last year, that 28 percent of companies link a social vision to their success as a company.

Active community involvement "softens the hardened edge that people have toward companies," says Bill Brooks, a marketing consultant in Greensboro, N.C.

"Without sounding too crass, philanthropy sells - particularly if you are giving in an area related to your business," he says.

For example:

* Target, the Minneapolis-based retailer, gives 5 percent of corporate profits to community groups in areas it has stores - $67 million over the past 20 years. The company also lets shoppers dedicate a fraction of their purchases to local schools, encouraging customers to choose Target in a crowded retail market.

* Nationwide Insurance, based in Columbus, Ohio, sponsors "Prom Promise," in which high school students pledge not use alcohol or drugs on prom night. "Since we're a business that deals with people in crisis, philanthropically our goal is to meet the needs of people in crisis," says Nationwide vice president Steve Rish. Four million students participated in 1997, and Mr. Rish says the program supports corporate goals of reducing drunk driving and raising visibility for the firm's sales force.

* General Electric (GE) used community service to build team spirit at its plastics division when it merged with a competitor. At its annual meeting, the division launched several days of community-service projects for employees of the merged divisions. The program became a team-building model at GE, says a spokesman, and attracted attention from other companies who found that social work helped boost internal morale.

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