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Giving Back Is Just Good Business

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Kneeling on the rocky ground, the tall thin labourer used his bare hands to prepare a mound of sand, gravel and cement mix. Under the blazing Indian sun, he wiped his brow with an arm caked to the elbow in grime before grabbing a shovel to work the materials into another batch of concrete for the schoolhouse floor. You'd never suspect this sweat-drenched worker was Bill Thomas, CEO of one of Canada's largest accounting and professional services firms, KPMG.

Around Thomas, other senior managers, partners, and chartered accountants from KPMG offices across Canada hauled rocks and lay bricks. An intern helped village children paint a mural on the school wall. Together these financial whizzes were building a new schoolroom for the village of Udawad in India's northwestern Rajasthan province.

The evolution -- we might even say revolution -- taking place in the field of corporate social responsibility has been fascinating to behold. For the best companies, making your employees recycle, and cutting a big cheque once a year to some lucky charity, is no longer good enough. They're making "giving back" an integral part of doing business.

While you don't necessarily have to build a school if you want to rise up the corporate ladder at KPMG, you have to be involved in your community. When performance evaluation time rolls around, or promotion opportunities beckon, you are assessed not only on job achievements, but on your record of volunteerism. Community engagement is considered a core competency alongside team leadership and building client relationships.

In the world of telecommunications, Telus is showing everyone how it's done. Since 2000, Telus has contributed more than $350 million to a wide range of charitable causes across Canada. As part of the company's philanthropic philosophy, Give Where We Live, Telus employees have rolled up their sleeves for 5.4 million hours of volunteer service. In 2006, the company launched its Telus Day of Giving. On this day (this year it's May 31), thousands of team members, retirees, their family and friends, volunteer to make lasting change within their communities.

Last year, Telus also launched a new initiative in partnership with us called Give Where You Live. It's a school curriculum program with workshops and speaking tours that teaches giving and volunteerism in the classroom to inspire a generation of socially engaged young people.

And so many other companies are going beyond the cut-a-cheque model of corporate giving. Cisco Systems works with governments and NGOs in sub-Saharan Africa to spread Internet connectivity and offer technology training. Software company SAP Canada created an online network and mobile app that connects potential volunteers with non-profit organizations in need of help.

And companies are increasingly looking at ways to employ their corporate skills and logistics, as well their pocketbooks, to give back. In 2010, massive flooding destroyed the homes and possessions of millions of Pakistanis. Credit card company Visa used its knowledge and technology to help the Government of Pakistan create a pre-paid debit card system that allowed flood survivors to purchase food and other essentials.

So what's the benefit making community giving and volunteerism a core business activity?

Study after study shows consumer attitudes are changing as the millennials attain more buying power. When New York University researchers compiled the results of numerous consumer studies, they concluded that 60 per cent of shoppers were willing to spend as much as 17 per cent more for products that came with social or environmental benefits. A recent Forbes Insights poll found that 93 per cent of global executives agreed that their companies could "create economic value by creating societal value."

Craig Jelinek, the CEO of retail giant Costco, made headlines and infuriated other CEOs by giving his employees higher wages and better health benefits than his competitors, and publicly advocating for a higher national minimum wage. Costco profits continue to soar.

But more than the bottom line, it's also about attracting the top talent from the next generation of workers. In a study conducted for David Stillman's book The M-Factor: How the Millennial Generation is Rocking the Workplace (Harper Business, 2010), 90 per cent of millennials said that "having an opportunity to give back via my company" was an important factor in their decision to join an organization.

Welcome to the new millennium, where giving back is just good business.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.

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