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Volunteer Lori Wiederin from Holmes Murphy teaches at Longfellow School in Des Moines
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giving back

Across Iowa, companies large and small find rewards by volunteering in the community, with groups, and for events.

Story by Julia Johnston

Russell Construction Company employees and their families donated more than 1,000 hours to 50-plus different not-for-profit causes last year. Whew! How does the company get any work done?

That's not a problem, says Jim Russell, president of the Bettendorf company he started in 1983. "We take our living from the community and we need to give back. You get what you give," he says.

Russell and other Iowa employers are not alone in espousing community service. In a 1999 survey by the Points of Light Foundation, more businesses were considering employee volunteer programs as a resource for achieving their business goals.

More than 80 percent of respondents linked company volunteerism with public relations activities; 64 percent with other business areas, including marketing and communications; 58 percent with employee recruitment and retention; and 60 percent with developing employee skills, according to the Washington, D.C.-based national organization that works to encourage volunteering.

Those businesses gave most volunteer support to issues involving education, health and human services, and youth. Plus, a majority of the companies tracked their volunteerism efforts to measure benefits to the business, the community, and the employees.

Russell, a lifelong Bettendorf booster, has always volunteered for one thing and another. He realized when he started his business that commitment to the community would pay multiple dividends. "But," he explains, "if you only do community service for business reasons, it doesn't have the depth that translates to personal commitment. You can't say it's a business strategy to be committed to the community; you have to say you are committed to the community first and the by-product is good business. It's a subtle difference, but it's important to the success of service endeavors."

There is no one-size-fits-all structure for employee volunteer programs. As the Points of Light survey indicated, a company's size and type of business may affect how it encourages volunteerism. At Des Moines-based Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield, each of the nearly 1,800 employees is eligible for up to 24 hours of paid time off to do volunteer work related to health improvement. In 1999, the program's first full year of operation, 227 employees were paid while they performed 1,584 volunteer hours in Iowa and South Dakota.

Russell Construction, fielding less than 50 employees, encourages participation via one-on-one contacts, newsletters, and bulletin board postings. People have volunteered in activities as diverse as Race for the Cure and the American Arbitration Association. Volunteering often focuses on youth activities because many employees are around 40 years old, Russell says.

The company sets a budget for philanthropy, but people often contribute on their own, says Vicki Brogan, business development coordinator. Each holiday season, employees sponsor clothing, food, and presents for two families in need. "A lot of things are outside the budget," she says.

Leaders at Holmes, Murphy & Associates (HMA), a risk management and insurance brokerage company in West Des Moines, last year finally felt compelled to formalize the employee volunteer program. "Because of the networking employees naturally do in the community, the company often received multiple requests within six months for the same philanthropy," says Kristie L. Manning, vice president of client services and human resources.

In addition, says Jim Swift, company president, "We want our part to be considered very worthwhile if we participate. Like most companies in Des Moines that are active in the community, we get 10 to 15 requests a week, and we can't do all of them well. Instead of dabbling, we want to make an impact."

Now all requests are funneled through a 12-member HMA Cares committee. "But we're not going to manage what people do and how much," Swift says.

Manning estimates that about 70 percent of HMA employees contribute in some way to at least one non-profit project during the year. That's in addition to the company's annual record of 100 percent employee participation in the annual United Way of Central Iowa fundraising campaign, a legacy from former leaders of the company, says Swift.

Service projects are selected largely because of the dedication of the employee making the request, says Manning. HMA likes to support organizations in which employees are active. And if they serve on boards, HMA will try to back them by helping get together a team or whatever is needed for a specific project.

In contrast to the Points of Light survey, which linked corporate giving with a company's mission and support of business goals, Swift — like Russell in Bettendorf — says that performing community service to further HMA's bottom line wouldn't work for the company or the employees. "Holmes Murphy has worked for 60-plus years in the community. That's the basis for the enjoyment of giving back and participating, more so than the what's-in-it-for-me mentality."

Dave Olson, senior vice president at HMA, bears out Swift's assessment. His volunteering includes Big Brothers-Big Sisters of Central Iowa, Iowa Association of Business and Industry Leadership Iowa program, the Greater Des Moines Leadership Institute (an affiliate of the Greater Des Moines Partnership), and the University of Iowa I-Club, of which he is a past president.

Olson says, "The Des Moines Chamber [of Commerce, now part of the Greater Des Moines Partnership] is also a client of mine. But I don't do it to get business. I may get some, but I don't remember anyone ever coming to me from my volunteer work."

Thomas C. Porter & Associates likewise fields more requests for help than it can accept-but most requests are aimed straight at the firm's expertise in public relations. According to Jim Westhoff, director of public relations, the marketing communications firm based in West Des Moines has a "stable" of pro-bono clients who need PR services. Because most of the employees are from Iowa, the firm concentrates on causes that aim to "help young Iowans negotiate their way through the teen years," says Westhoff.

upsides

Companies receive positive effects from supporting employee volunteer programs. They include:

High visibility. Because of community participation, people have an image of the company as part of the community rather than just a business, says Swift.

Additionally, volunteering may reap public rewards. The Porter firm in the last year received two awards for statewide substance abuse prevention projects: Take 5 and the Take A Step youth multimedia project.

Members of the firm created the Take 5 media campaign for the Partnership for a Drug-Free Iowa. The television, print, and radio public service advertisements encouraged conversation between adults and children about drug abuse. The Take A Step project challenged youngsters to have fun through artistic expression without using alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. The firm clocked more than 170 pro-bono hours for the two campaigns.

Employee recruitment and retention. Brogan fixed her sights on Russell Construction as a place to work while she was a non-traditional college student. That's because she liked what she heard when Russell told Brogan's class at St. Ambrose College about his commitment to community service.

"I was impressed with his values and culture and knew they would be present in his company. So when I looked for a job, I thought his company would be a good place to apply," says Brogan.

Russell says, "Community service is a good recruiting tool because prospective employees realize the company looks beyond the bottom line."

Community building. It's like connecting dominos: Companies build a strong community through volunteer support of many different activities. A strong, viable community attracts quality professionals from larger markets, says Russell. Because Bettendorf and the Quad Cities are perceived as having a high quality of life with amenities such as low crime, good schools, and short commutes, his company is able to hire top-notch people.

Creative control. To a public relations agency, total creative control is a gift to be treasured. Westhoff says: "When someone's paying the bill, you need to cater to his or her wishes. With a pro-bono client, you can unleash your creativity."

Leadership development. People serving on community committees and boards learn how to motivate and lead. Although leading volunteers is quite different from leading people on the payroll, the skills carry over, says Russell.

In a broader leadership context, G. David Hurd, emeritus chairman of The Principal Financial Group, has noted that community service should not be anonymous. Public giving can help set community service standards and encourage others to follow suit, he said at a St. John's Forum presentation in Des Moines

. "There's less impact on you to know that Anonymous gave $X to a library than David Hurd gave $X," said Hurd, a recipient of the Community Commitment Award from the Greater Des Moines Partnership.

downsides

Volunteerism isn't all rainbows; sometimes it's just plain rain.

Too many requests. The requests will always come in, and a high profile company may receive more than others. That's when companies set up a process to monitor and direct requests.

Too many hours. A company such as Thomas C. Porter & Associates that volunteers its bread-and-butter marketing and communications skills might have more difficulty not overdoing the volunteer hours. The key: Establish with the client what the company can do, set a timetable-and stick to it, says Westhoff.

On the other hand, Swift says no limits are needed on Holmes Murphy's employee volunteer hours. "People have stepped up and gotten their jobs done and lots of volunteering at the same time," he says.

Businesses large and small, with thousands or just one employee, can nourish a community service culture with countless ways to have an impact. For instance, Dr. Ralph Dorner, a retired surgeon, told a St. John's Forum audience about one more way he will render community service: Leave his body to the University of Iowa College of Medicine "to beat out the undertaker and give one last anatomy lesson to students." His daughter, knowing his wishes, called him during her first year of medical school to ask if he was still committed to his plan. Dorner says: "I thought, 'Uh-oh, she's been working on a cadaver and she's going to try to talk me out of it.' But instead, she said, 'Well, Dad, if you are, I just wish you'd lose about 50 pounds and take some mercy on some poor medical student.' "

-Julia Johnston wrote about family succession in the June/July issue of the magazine.

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