Higher Callings

It's been more than 20 years since Pol Pot ended his reign of terror in Cambodia, but the ghosts of the past still torment the nation.

Bones of the nearly 2 million Cambodians slaughtered by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge soldiers still lie in the Killing Fields. "Danger: Land Mine" signs litter the vast rice paddies. Then there are the children like Reiwa, the 2-month-old girl who died of AIDS on a muggy morning in May after her village spent the night praying for the spirits of the dead to leave them in peace.

"We have a battle cry," says Craig Muller, standing in a field halfway around the world from his own children. "The battle cry is 'No more funerals.' "

Muller, an Internet entrepreneur from Chicago, has spent the past two years putting his business know-how to use to transform the lives of orphans and widows—and, in turn, whole communities—in Cambodia. With only two paid employees working at his nonprofit venture, Warm Blankets, Muller must rely on volunteers, many of whom are employees at his for-profit business, CultureWorx Inc., a Mount Prospect, Ill.-based employee-incentive service provider.

"I feel like what they're doing has real value to it," says Bill Schmidt, a network administrator at CultureWorx who donates approximately four or five hours of IT support each week to Warm Blankets, which is located down the hall from his office. "It's nice to be forced to look at it because I wouldn't have otherwise. I never would have gotten involved."

CultureWorx is just one of a growing list of companies with missions that extend beyond the bottom lines. After the recent terrorist attacks against the U.S., businesses around the world offered assistance to those in need. But it's not just in times of crisis that businesses help out. Many have efforts under way day in and day out. Not only do these firms shell out dollars for various charitable causes, but they also make it easy for their employees to lend a hand to those less fortunate, whether by wiring a school district across town or by building a medical treatment database for orphanages halfway around the world.

It's not just nonprofit groups that reap the benefits. Corporations also see returns from volunteer activities because they help workers build and sharpen their technical, leadership, teamwork and organizational skills, says Michael Stevenson, manager of information resources at The Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Volunteer programs also help spread the message that a company is a caring member of the community, which can be priceless from a public relations standpoint, adds Stevenson.

Because of the charitable hearts that beat within these companies, many of their rank-and-file workers say they feel a real sense of pride in their employers, which translates into a more satisfied, loyal workforce.

"You just get an opportunity to reach outside yourself, maybe look past what you wanted for you and realize, 'Hey, there's a lot of people out there who need a lot more than I do,' " says Schmidt. "People here are not all about themselves. It's not just this cutthroat, bottom-line, where's-the-money kind of organization."

Craig Muller, founder of Warm Blankets, embraces a baby during a recent visit to Cambodia.
Craig Muller, founder of Warm Blankets, embraces a baby during a recent visit to one of the orphanages his organization supports in Cambodia.

The Expert Touch

John Lorimer has a lofty goal. He wants to see technology drive every function within Warm Blankets.

Officially, he's the director of product management at CultureWorx, but he spends approximately one day each week helping Warm Blankets develop wireless handheld systems to collect and track medical information about orphans, as well as databases to store their records. Lorimer also helps produce e-mail newsletters and build Web features to give charitable donors real-time information about the orphanages they sponsor, complete with streaming video and digital photos.

"It would be great if everybody could go to Cambodia and see it for themselves," says Lorimer. "It really is a life-changing experience. But everybody can't go."

So he wants to use technology to bring donors on a virtual tour—past the Buddhist temples, through the mud paths and around the back yards of the bamboo shacks, to the new orphanage being built in Barray.

"It's just another dimension, and to me, that's very exciting," Lorimer says. "I look at it and I see the mountain that needs to be climbed."

Like Lorimer, other IT workers are learning just how valuable their skills are in the nonprofit world. In 1998, Eric Hancock and two co-workers at New York-based Home Box Office, a division of AOL Time Warner Inc., offered IT assistance to some friends who volunteered at nonprofit groups.

Craig Muller and Rich Ludwig of Warm Blankets say a teary goodbye to children they met on their trip.
Craig Muller and Rich Ludwig of Warm Blankets say a teary goodbye to children they met on their trip.

But when they saw what an enormous need there was to help set up Web sites, do minor database work and wire computer labs, they formed Voluntech.org, which has since drawn 450 volunteers to provide IT support to more than 200 organizations in the New York City area. The organizations they assist are thankful for whatever help they can get, so volunteers of all skill levels are welcomed with open arms.

"When you think about volunteering, you think about serving lunches or doing clerical work or painting schools," says Hancock. "But the main selling point that I always try to mention is that you do this every day in your work environment and you're often not very appreciated. Here, you can do something that's pretty basic and utterly baffle people.

"Once you start, it makes you want to do more because of the gratitude and the thanks. It gets pretty embarrassing," he says, clearing his throat and chuckling. "They're so excited and so grateful, and you think, 'Well, I really didn't do much.' "

Bruce Genut, a principal engineer in network systems at Stamford, Conn.-based Xerox Corp., spent an entire year teaching IT support to staff and volunteers at Science Linkages in the Community (SLIC), an organization that creates and supports local technology centers in Genut's hometown of Rochester, N.Y.

He was one of six Xerox employees chosen last year for the company's coveted social-service leave, a program that lets up to 20 employees per year take on full-time volunteer projects with full pay while temporary workers fill in for them at the office.

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Build Your Own Program

Here are five ideas to help you build a volunteer program. Visit www.pointsoflight.org for more suggestions.

1. Invite board members and shareholders to participate in volunteer projects.

2. Have new employees fill out a volunteer interest and skills form.

3. Choose volunteer programs that contribute to your company's mission.

4. Share volunteer success stories with employees, retirees, stockholders, customers and suppliers.

5. Conduct preretirement seminars that include information on volunteering.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," says Genut, who still volunteers at SLIC in his free time. "I thought I had something special and I could do something that most folks cannot."

Robert Bowman is driven to volunteer for the opposite reason. As information manager for integrated supply chains in developing markets at Xerox, Bowman puts in long hours on the job. So in his free time, he chooses to do something completely separate from his work.

"As an [IT] manager, I probably spend 50 to 60 hours a week on my job," Bowman says. "I carry a beeper, and I'm on call 24 hours a day."

Volunteering gives him the chance to get away for a while, explains Bowman, who coordinates Xerox's Community Involvement Program, the umbrella program for all of the company's volunteer initiatives, in Rochester. "It kind of recharges my batteries," he says.

Even the best intentions can get sidetracked, and as the economy continues to slow, companies will likely look to cut back on their contributions and focus on their own bottom lines.

But, says Stevenson, it's important for companies to try to find a balance.

"We've gone through these periods before," he points out. "Times do get better, and you don't want to alienate communities during a temporary slump, because they're going to be your workers and customers when things get better."

The Conference Board Inc. in New York surveyed 1,000 Americans in 1999 and found that nearly 89% agreed that large companies should do more than just focus on achieving profitability within the law. Forty-six percent said they had bought merchandise from a particular company or had spoken out in favor of a company because of its social responsibility. And 49% said they had decided not to purchase a product or had spoken critically of a company because it didn't meet their standards for social responsibility.

Sometimes volunteer programs can even help companies through the more difficult times, Stevenson says. For example, bringing people together to build a computer lab at a local school can ease what he calls "survivor slump" and get those who have survived layoffs focused on something more positive than the gloomy or questionable future of their company or their jobs.

Volunteer programs can also pay off in the long run, according to the report "Conversations with Disbelievers: Persuading Companies to Address Social Change," by John Weiser, a partner at Brody Weiser Burns in Branford, Conn., and Simon Zadeck, chairman of the London-based Institute of Social and Ethical AccountAbility. For instance, they can help ease companies' entry into new markets, reduce negative consumer activism or boycotts, and provide free advertising through positive media coverage and word of mouth.

Extending the Mission

Corporate volunteerism can even directly contribute toward a company's mission, Stevenson points out. For example, Cincinnati-based LensCrafters Inc. delivers eye care to developing countries. Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo Inc.'s Camp Yahoo teaches schools, nonprofit groups and service organizations how to use the Internet. Microsoft Corp. runs community technology centers.

Freddie Mac is involved in several volunteer initiatives—such as helping build homes for Americus, Ga.-based Habitat for Humanity International—that are directly related to its mission of promoting affordable homeownership, says Toby Allen, manager of employee involvement at the Washington-based company.

Freddie Mac also gives monetary donations to employees who launch their own volunteer projects. Through its Dollars for Doers program, the company sponsors employees who volunteer at least 25 hours of their time to charities.

The return on such investments is enormous, says Laurie Dalton, director of benefits at Freddie Mac. In annual employee-satisfaction surveys, 86% of workers say the volunteer opportunities are among the top reasons why they feel good about working there, she says.

Such is the case for Ron McKenzie, a technical analyst at Freddie Mac. He participates in a variety of volunteer programs through the company, including the Special Olympics, which he attends each year with his 11-year-old daughter, Natasha.

"It's been a great experience for me, and it's helped my daughter [empathize with others], because I say, 'If not for an act of God, it could have been you; it could have been me,' " he says.

McKenzie says he took the job at Freddie Mac because of the work and the compensation package. But once he got there, it was the volunteer opportunities and support the company offered that made him feel at home. That, he says, is what keeps him there.

McKenzie and Shelly Pine, assistant general counsel at Freddie Mac, are two of the volunteers who pitch in at the J.C. Nalle Elementary School in southeast Washington. Since Freddie Mac "adopted" the school in 1992, employees have been taking kids on monthly field trips, training teachers to use computers, helping to wire the school for the Internet, and mentoring and tutoring children.

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