Many businesses feel a responsibility to the community that surrounds them, but not all act on the desire to be good corporate citizens.

“Regardless of your business structure, I believe it is our duty as business owners to give back to the community,” says Jonathan Theders, president of Clark-Theders Insurance Agency Inc. “We are all busy with work and family, but we have to examine our social responsibilities and determine how we can personally or corporately get involved and serve the community.”

Smart Business spoke with Theders about establishing a community outreach program for your business and how to maximize its effectiveness.

How can a company create a successful community outreach program?

Successful community outreach programs start with the leadership of the company. If the company’s leaders don’t believe in the value and impact of charitable work, the program will fizzle out in a few months.

Before we formalized our program, our approach was to support the community, but we executed with no real strategy. In 2007, we identified a goal, which was, ‘Increase CTIA’s commitment and effectiveness in philanthropy in Greater Cincinnati.’

The management team talked about it, and the result was the CTIA Cares program, which gives employees 30 hours a year to donate to a charity of their choice. This year, the program has accounted for about 1,000 hours of donated labor and 100 percent employee participation.

If an employee has not been involved in volunteering before, they may not know which organization to choose. Based on the employees’ interests, the program may be able to help match them with a charity they would enjoy working with. Whether they have a passion for the arts or helping animals, once they find their interest, the company should encourage them along that path. The only criterion is that it has to be a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.

What are the first steps in developing a community outreach program?

There are a couple questions companies should ask to determine if some form of a community outreach program is right for them. First, you need to figure out which type of community outreach program is the right fit for your company. The first step is determining whether you want your program to make a business impact, a personal impact or both.

Then decide whether your organization is going to focus its efforts on a specific organization, such as supporting United Way, the American Heart Association or another worthy cause. This option is essentially grabbing onto one charity or group and putting all of your company’s efforts into that one cause. The second option is a more open program. It might not have as large of a financial impact, but it allows employees to give to an organization that is near and dear to their hearts. The business needs to ask if it wants its program to be employer or employee-directed. Often, the personality of the company dictates that decision.

For our company, I found it is very hard to get full engagement if you are focusing all charitable efforts toward one common cause. If I’m passionate about something, I want to focus my time and effort in that direction, so I prefer a program modeled after the second option because each employee can find a charitable organization or cause he or she cares about.

How does community service benefit employees?

From a personal perspective, there are many advantages for employees who choose to participate in community outreach. Employees can gain improved interpersonal skills and better communication with others, as well as an increased knowledge of issues. Whether it’s health issues, women’s issues, the environment or the arts, any time you are engaging in something in the community, you’re able to learn more about it and share more about it. So from an HR perspective, there are side benefits to giving, not just the good feeling you get.

Another benefit is you make new friends. By engaging with others with similar passions and interests, you form a whole new center of influence.

Self-esteem is another benefit. You are doing something that feels good, something you are passionate about. It’s amazing when you give money or time, how much better the giver feels. You often find yourself saying, ‘I got more from that than I gave.’

How does community service benefit a business?

From a business perspective, healthier, more active communities attract new business and new employees. When an active community brings itself together, there tends to be more economic development.

Also, active outreach programs often equal increased revenue and customer loyalty. I’m a huge believer that people want to do business with companies that give back to the community, or that they see as stewards in the community, doing good work. It makes them feel good about their decision to do business with you. It has nothing to do with your service or product, but is a nonmonetary feeling that a client gets that makes them more loyal to you.

A strong community outreach enhances your reputation and brand, as well. People get to know who you are internally, what makes you tick. It can be great advertising. When you go out in the community, people see you in a better light, so they are more likely to listen to what you have to say.

Attitude and morale improvement are another huge benefit from a company standpoint. Encouraging and enabling employees to volunteer also creates a cooperative corporate culture that benefits the company.

Jonathan Theders is president of Clark-Theders Insurance Agency Inc. Reach him at (513) 779-2800 or jtheders@ctia.com.

Published in Cincinnati