Doing Good on Company Time
by Martha C. White - New York Times
Companies have been using off-site meetings and retreats to foster a sense of camaraderie among employees for decades, but obstacle courses or golf tournaments are becoming as dated as guaranteed frequent-flier upgrades to first class. Today, more corporations are turning to hands-on volunteer projects to get their people motivated and working as a team.
In many cases, participants say such activities help them forge bonds that remain even after they return to the office.
When the breweries Molson and Coors merged two years ago, the new leadership team wanted to start things off on the right foot with a team-building exercise.
“We quickly got past the idea of a ropes course or golf outing; we really wanted something where we would give back to one of the communities where we do business,” said Samuel D. Walker, chief legal officer for Molson Coors. As a result, the 11-member executive team spent a full day of their Las Vegas meeting this year helping build a house under the tutelage of Habitat for Humanity.
“We had to unload this truck full of cement roof tiles,” Mr. Walker said. “We actually had to figure out how to have kind of a bucket line, handing these very heavy tiles from one person to the next. That’s the ultimate team-building exercise.”
Mr. Walker’s experience is far from unique. The number of professional organizations setting aside an afternoon or even a full day while at an off-site meeting or convention to frame a house, build a playground or paint an after-school center is on the rise.
Guy Amato, president and chief executive of Habitat for Humanity’s Las Vegas affiliate, said the number of requests from groups who want to participate in building a home while in town has gone from roughly half a dozen requests in 2005 and 2006 to 11 scheduled so far in 2007.
Dee Danmeyer, executive director of Habitat’s affiliate in Orlando, Fla. — another popular city for meetings and conventions — said demand was so high that the nonprofit was booked through early 2008.
Alan Ranzer, executive director of Impact 4 Good, an organization that matches corporate groups with volunteer opportunities, said the number of requests he had received has gone up by 50 percent in the last year. “We really are getting a lot more calls. It’s something companies are picking up for multiple reasons,” Mr. Ranzer said. “They see value in it for image purposes. Consumers are out there looking for companies that care, and that goes a long way.”
Statistics back up Mr. Ranzer’s assertion. According to the 2004 Cone Corporate Citizenship Study, 86 percent of American consumers who responded said that they were somewhat likely to very likely to switch to a brand associated with a cause, if product price and quality were on par.
“People in general aren’t very trustworthy of businesses,” said Charles Moore, executive director of the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy, a nonprofit group focused on corporate giving. “Companies are taking their philanthropy more seriously, and there are just as many business advantages as social advantages. There’s a team-building phenomenon. We find in team volunteerism there’s a camaraderie quotient.”
Mr. Moore added that a company perceived as a good corporate citizen can reap benefits ranging from better recruitment and retention to stronger relationships with customers and suppliers.
“Young people today and new employees are looking for organizations that really do demonstrate ethical core values,” said Sharon L. Allen, chairman of Deloitte & Touche USA. At Deloitte’s annual partner meeting in San Diego last November, approximately 250 participants built a playground in conjunction with Kaboom, a nonprofit that builds and refurbishes outdoor play areas in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Ms. Allen said that many employees did not have the chance to talk and get to know one another while at the office. Laboring side by side on a volunteer project gave them the opportunity to build relationships that enhanced their communication and productivity once they returned to the office.
At volunteer projects during the company’s annual marketing meetings, Kimberly Senter, director for category management at Unilever U.S., said she felt like she could get to know her colleagues without the pressure of formal networking.
“You’re connecting on a very personal level,” she said. “There’s not a lot of talking shop. It’s more, ‘Pass me the hammer.’ ”
Bob Kapelski, corporate schools manager for United Parcel Service, orchestrates volunteer projects for new managers as part of the company’s introductory two-week training. Mr. Kapelski spoke of organizing a trip to a charity near Portsmouth, N.H., called IMEC, a cooperative that collects secondhand medical equipment and distributes it to hospitals in developing countries. New managers were put to work sanitizing equipment like operating tables and wheelchairs, loading them onto pallets and wrapping them for shipping. The purpose of the exercise was to let new managers apply the skills they had just learned in the classroom in a real-world setting.
“Part of the curriculum is leadership training,” Mr. Kapelski said. “They’re looking at a situation where they’re asked to organize something and work with people.”
Brian Sassaman, a senior Web site designer at U.P.S., went through the supervisor training school in New Hampshire last July and said it gave him a better grasp of the principles he had been taught as well as a positive feeling about his employer.
“I came away impressed that U.P.S. would commit their people to doing that. They were basically paying us to do this.” Mr. Sassaman added that since returning to U.P.S. headquarters in Atlanta, he sought out more volunteer projects he could do on his own time.
Glenn W. Welling, a managing director in investment banking at Credit Suisse, said, “I think people learned a lot about each other.” In May 2006, a team of 35 employees from Credit Suisse visited New Orleans for a team-building meeting that included a day spent gutting a home damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
“It was not uncommon seeing a managing director trying to tear down some mold-damaged wall and to watch a 25-year-old analyst come over to help him,” Mr. Welling said.
Ms. Senter of Unilever said, “It feels great to work for a company that does more than just write the check.” She added that when she worked on a project refurbishing a Boys and Girls Club in Las Vegas, youngsters turned out to express their appreciation. “They’re holding up signs saying, ‘We love you, Unilever.’ Frankly, in your day job you don’t get that kind of appreciation.”
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