Changing the World Through Your Workplace

The following is an excerpt from The Handbook to Building a Better World by with Stephanie Land by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright (c) 2009 by Action Without Borders.

Maintaining a healthy work/life balance is a challenge for many idealists, even when we love our work. When you're getting up at the crack of dawn to get ready for a long commute, then scrambling to get your job done while juggling meetings, emails, clients, and your supervisors' demands, before making the long commute back, it can be hard to fit in other things you enjoy doing, like exercise, hobbies, seeing the latest movie, and yes, do-gooding. More and more time spent at the workplace means less personal time to use for volunteering, board service, or philanthropy.

Luckily, more and more companies are recognizing the morale-boosting effects, not to mention the public relations value, of setting up opportunities for employees to volunteer and donate to various organizations. Even if you don't work for a big company, your employer may contribute to your community more than you realize, and we'll point out some of the ways you can make the most of those contributions by getting involved. If you find that your workplace in fact doesn't participate in any charitable or philanthropic activities, this chapter will offer a number of ways in which you can help get them started, even if you're not the owner or an executive.

How Companies Contribute

The Fortune 500 firms get a lot of press for their charitable and philanthropic efforts throughout the world, and rightfully so. But small- and medium- size businesses -- the ones many of us work for -- contribute a tremendous amount to their local and statewide communities.

Without the generosity of American businesses, in fact, most nonprofit organizations simply wouldn't look the same. Some of the ways in which companies engage with local or regional nonprofits are:


Often when you go past a ball field, you'll see a group of kids wearing matching uniforms with, say, Pino's Pizzeria emblazoned on the back. The ball team needs uniforms, the pizzeria needs name recognition, together they provide a mutual benefit -- the kids get the uniforms, the pizzeria gets some advertising. You might also notice that local businesses often sponsor citywide events, such as parades and festivals, or contribute food, T-shirts, or supplies to neighborhood cleanups. Again, the businesses' participation makes a win-win possible for everyone involved -- the city boosts civic pride, the community comes together, and local business profits from the marketing, advertising, and goodwill stemming from the event. In addition, there's media sponsorship, where radio, TV, or newspapers will promote an event in exchange for mentions in press releases or space on banners.

Corporate Volunteerism

Corporate volunteer programs have become increasingly popular in the American workplace, especially since the benefits of volunteerism to the company, in addition to the nonprofit or the employee, are now well documented. There are three benefits that are universally cited:

1. More loyal, more productive employees

2. A positive public image

3. Improved management, leadership, public relations, and marketing opportunities for the business

In addition, many companies have learned that employees who are given the chance to participate in skilled volunteering actually enhance their value to the business because they are able to develop leadership techniques and practice their skills in ways they might not be able to at the office.

Corporate volunteer programs can take many different forms:

1. Employees independently volunteer and seek individual support from their employer.

2. The company allots each employee a select number of paid hours to be spent volunteering at the employee's nonprofit of choice.

3. The company chooses a select number of nonprofits to support and announces volunteer opportunities to employees.

4. The company establishes a formal volunteer program and coordinates volunteer opportunities with a select number of nonprofits.

5. The company decides to support one particular organization and encourages employees to contribute their time and skills to that nonprofit, promoting and acknowledging their efforts through the company newsletter or website.

6. The company offers pro bono services to a variety of nonprofit organizations.

Corporate Philanthropy

Corporate America donates billions of dollars to charitable causes and organizations every year. Just about every company has money available for charity. So why not try to reserve some of your employer's funds for your favorite organization? Whenever you are considering making a philanthropic donation, look into whether your workplace has any of the following programs in place that can help maximize your giving capacity.

Company Match. A simple way to double your donation to a nonprofit is by taking advantage of your workplace's company match program. Once you have determined where you want to make a financial contribution, check with your Human Resources Department or company website for a list of non-profits the company supports. If yours is one of them, simply fill out the relevant paperwork and send it in to the appropriate party. If your nonprofit isn't among the company's selection, and especially if you are donating in response to a natural disaster or other unique circumstance, find out who is in charge of deciding which organizations the company will match and petition for the one you wish to support. (Many companies will provide matches to any nonprofit in the community, but some give you the option of donating only to a predetermined list of organizations.)

Federated Funds (also known as workplace giving programs). Many businesses offer their employees the option of donating a portion of their paycheck to a federated fund, which then distributes the money to a select group of local nonprofits. You can choose the charity to which you want your donation to go, and then that amount, whether $2, $4, or $100, is automatically deducted from every paycheck. Federated funds are beneficial in many ways: you get a tax deduction, your employer gets recognition for doing good for the local community, and the nonprofit only has to process paperwork for one lump donation. United Way is one of the oldest and most well-recognized federated funds, but there are also other funds that target specific issues affecting the environment, health, arts and culture, or racial minorities. If you weren't informed at the time you joined your company, ask your HR department whether federated funds are available to you. If not, find out whether anyone has ever looked into establishing such a program and make it clear that you'd like to participate should the opportunity arise. If enough people seem interested in the idea, it's possible that HR will take steps toward establishing the program.

You might also investigate a socially responsible fund and ask if your business would consider adding it to their investment choices. These are funds that generally avoid investing in companies that aren't environmentally responsible, produce nuclear technology, promote gambling, or sell tobacco or alcohol products. One site devoted to providing the public with information about socially responsible investment funds is Social Investment Forum (

Money for Time. If you already volunteer or are about to begin, see if your company has or might consider what Gap calls a money for time program. When Gap employees volunteer fifteen hours for an organization, the company donates $150 to that organization. Microsoft matches employees' volunteer time with a $17 donation for each volunteer hour, up to $12,000 per year. Naturally not all companies can contribute at this financial level, but in the nonprofit world, everything helps. Your time plus your company's financial contribution makes for a valuable boost to helping that nonprofit fulfill its mission.

In- Kind Donations. Many businesses make financial contributions to nonprofits, but they also often donate goods, services, or products -- also known as in-kind donations -- that can benefit the organization or those it serves. Though there is no requirement that the donation be directly linked to what the company manufactures or sells, that is often how a company feels it can make the most mutually beneficial contribution. Thus a book publisher might donate books to a children's library; a paper manufacturer might donate printer paper for an organization's headquarters; tech companies often provide computer equipment or technical services. Other in- kind donations might include toys, tools, clothing, educational materials, sports equipment, furniture, arts and crafts supplies, and home improvement or construction materials. The concept can also encompass some of the philanthropic contributions we discussed in Chapter 7, such as land or art.

There are plenty of other ways you or the company you work for can donate resources to organizations that don't involve making financial contributions yet have tremendous monetary value. You could suggest or implement any of these ideas:

  • Make your conference rooms available for a nonprofit's meetings
  • Set up mentoring groups to help improve nonprofit employees' business strategies or technical knowledge
  • Allow volunteers to post flyers in common areas or on their office doors
  • If your office undergoes a renovation or otherwise replaces furniture, fixtures, or computers, arrange to donate the castoffs
  • Find out how to earmark leftover food and beverages from company parties for a local shelter or food bank

Copyright (c) 2009 by Action Without Borders.

Click here to buy a copy of The Handbook to Building a Better World


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