Why Your Company Should Give This Year

01/18/2011 01:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tis the season -- to give. At least that's what recent news suggests: more and more people are jumping on the donation bandwagon. The world's top billionaires - from Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg to Warren Buffet to Oprah - are coming forward one-by-one and promising their fortunes through the highly publicized "Giving Pledge."

With all this philanthropic buzz heightened by the spirit of the holidays, I wonder: is this just a fad that will fade with the season? In fact, the latest report from The Chronicle of Philanthropy shows that giving is down overall -- with the nation's 400 biggest charities seeing donations drop by 11 percent last year. While there is no question the latest spike in donations is a critical step in the right direction, more needs to be done by businesses across the United States and around the world to make philanthropy more than just an afterthought.

As the New Year unfolds, I'd like to challenge CEOs and business owners to make an ongoing commitment to philanthropy. In 1992, my wife Harriet and I decided to make philanthropy an integral part of our company's mission, and almost two decades later it remains the best business decision we have ever made. Admittedly, it wasn't easy in the beginning, but we learned important lessons from our mistakes and figured out how to create effective, innovative programs that make a difference.

As other companies resolve to make social mission a bigger part of their strategy this year, I'd like to offer these guidelines, gleaned from our experiences, to help leaders become successful philanthropists.

Get Personally Involved: Philanthropy is more than just writing a check. Money is important, but close involvement ensures that donations are really meeting the needs of the project.
Share Your Philanthropic Passion with Constituents: Everyone wants to be part of something bigger than him or her self, so welcome the involvement of your constituents. Enlist the help of employees, customers and even business partners in your ventures. You'll not only accomplish more with expanded (and talented) resources, you will also engage the right kind of employees, foster customer loyalty and strengthen business ties.
Partner With Strong Local Leaders: Who can identify community need better than local leaders? Partner with them to identify priority projects and then tackle them together. Local leaders are key to enlisting the community's help to get things done. After all, it will be the community that ultimately will be responsible for driving and sustaining the project.
Require Accountability: Manage your giving as you do your business -- with tight controls and accountability. Build performance measurements and annual reviews into your giving so that you can assess the effectiveness of the projects you are funding.
Celebrate Your Philanthropic Leaders: Finally, recognize and celebrate your employees, customers and business partners who step up to help. Cherish them. After all, it's through their generosity of time, talent and spirit that will help make life better for those you have teamed up to serve.

Here's my message to leaders of the 21st century: Make philanthropy and volunteerism a priority. It's good for the world and good for your business.

Alan Lewis is owner and chairman of Grand Circle Corporation, the largest U.S. direct market tour operator of international vacations for older Americans and co-author of "Driving With No Brakes." Grand Circle's powerful business model focuses on integrating values and philanthropic mission into the business strategy - proving that competitive advantage goes to companies that can "do well and do good."