12/29/2011 02:57 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2012

Holiday Charity in Tinseltown

"So shines a good deed in a weary world." -- Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

I've worked in a few offices, in the Hollywood industry and outside of it, that offered no collective opportunities for employees to volunteer or donate to charity. Frankly, it's a bummer, especially around the holidays. Sure, anyone can donate money or volunteer their free time outside of work, but there's something unique in working with co-workers toward goals that are often more noble than deal memos and script coverage.

With shrinking salaries and precious vacation hours, it's difficult in a 12-hour-workday industry to use your own money and time resources to make a difference. And while it's nice for the bosses to be able to scratch large checks to charity, jet off on an exotic volunteer trip, or attend $1,000-plate dinners, I think it's incumbent upon these same employers to provide occasions for their less-well-off employees to share in the giving spirit. Employers, think of it as part of the cost of taking company time for longer lunches and leaving when you want to see your kid's holiday pageant while the rest of the office stays until 8 P.M.

A charitable spirit in the workplace comes from the top, down. Many employers are incredible Scrooges with employee vacation and personal hours, as if a few hours here or there will make or break the company's fiscal year. Allowing some flexibility, using some company time to allow employees to volunteer sends a strong statement about a company's commitment to the community. It's also a small gesture that helps retain talented, smart people, who eventually, when this economy recovers, will have some choice in where they work.

Fortunately, even though many businesses in the entertainment industry don't step up, there are some that do. 'Tis the season to look for the good in humanity so I'm calling attention to a couple places I know of that are quietly leading by example. Both Sony Pictures and Summit Entertainment offer workers myriad easy ways to volunteer, so many, in fact, that if you're an employee not taking advantage, you're missing out.

"In much the same way our business nurtures relationships with actors, directors, screenwriters and others who contribute to our television shows and films, we are also fortunate to have longstanding partnerships with many stellar community organizations," said Janice Pober, Senior Vice President, Global Corporate Social Responsibility for Sony Pictures Entertainment.

"For example, we have long offered a variety of opportunities with Big Brothers Big Sisters through our Passing the Torch mentoring programs, and the Sony Pictures Urban Green Fund in collaboration with Los Angeles-based environmental organization TreePeople has trained countless employees to become citizen foresters since 1992 ... We attempt to provide as much variety as possible in our volunteer opportunities so employees with diverse roles and interests across our businesses will find something that catches their eye," said Pober. "We have also created four particular areas of focus -- arts, education, diversity and the environment."

And as busy as they are with the Twilight franchise, Summit Entertainment grants time for employees to get involved with their community. "Summit Shares, Summit's employee-based volunteer program, focuses on all charity opportunities specifically located in the Santa Monica region, including monthly food sorts at the Westside Food Bank, their annual Hunger Walk, Friends of Animals, as well as the Ocean Park Community Center," said Kelly Eltschlager, Event Coordinator for Summit Shares. "The company, as a whole, has also had a long-term commitment to the Special Olympics, driven by the leadership and commitment of Rob Friedman [Summit Chairman and CEO]."

"By far, the most popular events are those in connection with the Special Olympics, as well as Dream Halloween, in connection with the AIDS Foundation," added Kelly Moore, Communications Coordinator for Summit Shares. "We just finished an extremely successful collection event for the Ocean Park Community Center where Summit employees were distributed a bag together with a list of supplies to provide to the residents. We also held a holiday party at their Samoshel Shelter this past Monday where we distributed the bags to the residents, and celebrated with employee-provided baked goods!"

As for the employee response? Pober said, "it's the feeling of accomplishment that they've made a difference -- in someone's life when we've tapped into their creativity, in taking responsibility for the planet when they clean up a beach, or in someone's future when they mentor a child. They [employees] also come to us frequently with their ideas and suggestions. We've recently teamed with a small non-profit called Trekking for Kids that assists orphans around the world by organizing treks for adventurous and socially-conscious people. This group was brought to our attention by an employee, and now it's featured in our holiday e-card message in addition to being the recipients of our annual holiday gift."

Moore pointed out that "Summit Shares is fortunate to have a monthly meeting where employees are encouraged to bring new projects/organizations and pitch ideas to the committee. We're constantly evolving and working with new organizations, which employees seem to appreciate. Employees seem to enjoy the chance to work together to accomplish a community-driven event, and it's also a great chance to bring together employees who wouldn't ordinarily interface with one another. The volunteers who attended the OPCC holiday party expressed such gratitude for the opportunity to meet the residents of the shelter; they found that it was this experience of connection with the community that made the collection of the bags all the more enjoyable."

If you're an employer who is not offering anything in the way of assisting employee to charity work, think about the message you are (and aren't) sending to your office and think about starting something up. Even if the action is motivated simply by the fear of people talking about you behind your back (and they do, it's Hollywood). And if you're an employee not currently engaged in any of the programs that are offered by your employer, I encourage you to look into it. You're privileged to have an employer who cares enough to make it work for you and the community. Not everyone is as fortunate as you.

Gina Hall is a writer/producer with more than 10 years experience in television, documentary and feature film production. She is a graduate of USC's School of Cinematic Arts and lives in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @GScottEnt