Employee-Driven Community Support Helps Drive a Strong Culture

In all the research done about the keys to fostering a healthy corporate culture, there’s one element that never seems to make it to the top of the list, but can have a tremendous impact: employee-driven community support.

My employer, Plex Systems, believes in supporting employees’ altruistic natures and building engagement by giving back to the community, both for them and through them. We do all of the conventional things, such as matching employee donations, but we also do a lot of “out-of-the-box” things -“ most of which were our employees’ ideas. The following are some practices you might want to consider. Not only can they enhance your business’s reputation in the community, they engage employees in activities that have a lot of meaning for them personally.

Select one or two charities each year, then support them in a big way. Small and midsize companies’ community and charitable activities can quickly get diluted if they support too many organizations. Focus on just one or two charities a year and then support them in a variety of ways.

Each year, the entire workforce is invited to nominate charities, and then we all vote and select one or two to become our “corporate charities” for the next 12 months. During that time, we hold fundraisers ranging from wine tastings to pancake breakfasts. Employees also donate individually, both financially and through volunteer work, to these organizations.

We’ve been able to raise much more money than you would expect from a company with under 200 employees. For example, so far this year, we’ve raised more than $11,000 for each of our 2011 charities: Gleaners Community Food Bank and the St. Clair Butterfly Foundation. Last year we raised more than $30,000 for our two chosen charities.

Involve your business partners but not through “arm-twisting”
If there’s anything that makes executives cringe, it’s that annual request from partners, customers or suppliers to support their pet charities. There should be way, however, for the “extended family” to help out.

One answer is to come up with ways for them to contribute without feeling obligated. For example, Plex turned the annual golf outing and silent auction that was traditionally held at the annual user conference into fundraisers for our corporate charities. Attendees were pleased to know they were helping worthwhile causes.

Be flexible
Smart businesses are always ready to respond to disaster situations that affect their customers, suppliers, and partners.

When the tornado that hit the Joplin, Mo. area last month nearly destroyed one of our customers’ facilities, we immediately began brainstorming ways to help the company and its employees, many of whom were victims as well. We ended up raising $7,500 to help out in less than a week.

Make it personal
The more you can tie your community support to activities that have personal meaning for your employees, the better. Getting started is as easy as paying attention to what’s going on in your employees’ lives and empowering people to help.

One of our employees, Anne Rowland, has a stepson who is serving in Afghanistan. She told a co-worker about a program where the Girl Scouts were sending other troops Girl Scout cookies. After checking out the program online, the co-worker thought, “Why can’t we do that for Anne’s son’s troop?” So the co-worker gathered together a few employees whom he knew had daughters in local Girl Scout troops and developed a plan to do it. Our employees purchased cookies from these scouts, and in just a few short weeks, the team had sent 139 boxes of cookies to the 10th Mountain Division 5-25 Field Artillery Regiment in Afghanistan.

Employees also jumped on board to help another co-worker who is a founder of the Social Philanthropists Foundation. They recently conducted a social media-based fundraising campaign that helped purchase two new iPad 2s for the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders in Birmingham.

The results? Engagement and pride
These are just a few of the many non-traditional things that companies can do to support their communities. Not only will your business benefit from a great reputation in your local community, the employee engagement and pride that result will no doubt spill over into all areas of their work and drive a more positive culture.

Taya Johnston is director of human resources at Plex Systems Inc., which has received several awards over the years for its HR practices, most recently the “Detroit 2010 Best & Brightest Companies to Work For” Elite Award for Work-Life Balance.