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Stanley S. Litow

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Community Service in the Age of the Modern Corporation

Posted: 06/14/11 03:39 PM ET

This year IBM is celebrating its 100th anniversary as a corporation. To commemorate its centennial, IBMers and their friends and families, clients and partners around the world are volunteering their time throughout 2011 in unprecedented numbers. Since January, more than two million hours of service have been donated to communities worldwide as part of this centennial celebration. If those hours were only worth $25 per hour, that would be a half a billion dollars worth of skilled community service. And IBM has designated today, June 15th, the last day of our first 100 years, as a Centennial Day of Service when we'll get out en masse. Over 300,000 of us will participate in some 3,800 community service activities across 120 countries to address pressing societal challenges.

Corporate days of service are not new. Some companies have done such activities involving hundreds -- and in some cases thousands -- of employees before. But successful corporate service today must be distinguished by an increased level of skills-based volunteering. To make a real impact, corporations need to help employees donate not just their time, but go deeper to share their expertise, the core asset of their business.

In IBM's case, this means the skills of all our employees globally combined with our company's cutting-edge technology. Today, for example, IBMers are improving software tools using cloud computing to help governments and not for profits respond quickly to natural disasters like the one that took place in Japan. They are creating new web tools for the visually-impaired and seniors. To address the education crises, they are creating science and math lessons for students and training tools for teachers. They are using software to teach children and adults to read. They are working with community agencies on data analytics technology to make communities smarter. Most importantly, they will enable those engaged in service full-time with better skills. (IBM is making its volunteer kit and assets available to the public as part of its Centennial. Visit ibm.com/ibm100/service to access a portfolio of free service activity kits available in seven languages.)

Volunteering not just time but valuable skills is one core tenet of modern corporate citizenship. It is what Rosabeth Kanter at Harvard Business School calls going from "spare change to real change." To understand what I mean by modern corporate citizenship, it is helpful to consider a brief history of corporate responsibility.

In the early 20th century, business leaders separated their personal fortunes and philanthropy from their businesses. With their personal wealth they created foundations -- great, enduring philanthropies in many cases -- but they were, and still are, disconnected from their business. The middle of the 20th century brought us corporate philanthropy and a focus not just on how individuals gave money, but how companies could too as it become accepted that they had a responsibility to "give back" a portion of their profits. In the transition from the 20th to the 21st century, many companies now see corporate social responsibility not as an ancillary act of generosity or something they must engage in out of guilt or altruism, but instead, something more integral to their business activities. Hence giving away not their excess cash but what is most valued: their talent and their skills. The notion of corporate responsibility spread, with businesses more transparent about their environmental, supply chain and governance practices, and how they make their money in the first place.

In the 21st century, as the market, society and the planet become more intertwined, "minding your own business" becomes obsolete. Addressing the issues facing the world today does not leave a choice between business or citizenship strategy. Rather, it represents a unique opportunity to fuse the two. The modern corporation can no longer engage with society merely out of a desire to "do good" or simply be generous. The bar needs to be set higher. Leaders must do so because of how the world now works and they must embrace citizenship as an imperative that brings sustainable value to their enterprise and to society. If they do so, they will not only be generous with their contributions, but also effective and accountable.

A centennial must not just be an occasion to celebrate the past. It must be an opportunity look to the future and consider what history teaches us about the role of corporations in modern society. Rather than simply handing over money or setting an example with its own social responsibility policies, modern corporate citizenship requires businesses to lead with their core assets and become directly involved in producing societal betterment. To quote Dr. Kanter, this is not "lip service" but "authentic service."

 

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