08/24/2012 12:09 pm ET Updated Oct 24, 2012

Intel: Making the World Better for Every Person on Earth, That's All

Employee volunteer programs make employees feel good and, as such, evidence suggests that such programs lead to greater employee engagement. But what good does a corporate social responsibility program do for the rest of us? Isn't all this corporate philanthropy just an attempt at getting publicity and write-offs?

Not at Intel, anyway. The Santa Clara, California-based semiconductor chip manufacturer has decidedly immodest goals for its corporate community involvement. Suzanne Fallender, Intel's director of CSR Strategy & Communications, states that Intel's vision is to "connect and enrich the lives of every person on earth." The company aims to do this both through increased access to technology, but also through its CSR and employee matching gift program.

Intel's Sustainability in Action program offers funding for innovative employee ideas on sustainability. Each year, the company puts out a call for employee proposals. In 2011 alone, Intel funded nine different projects to the tune of $125,000 in total to nine different projects. One of the recent programs is Intel's work studying colony collapse disorder.

Colony collapse disorder potentially affects every man, woman and child on earth. Beginning in 2006, scientists began noticing a startling number of bee colony disappearances. Fallender notes that while in the 1940s there were 5 million bee colonies, now there are only 2.5 million.

Understanding the birds and the bees

So who cares about bees, anyway? Don't they just ruin cookouts and sting people?

Well, no, not even close. Without bees, there would be no agriculture -- in fact, it has often been said that one out of every three bites of food was pollinated by a bee. Bees and their pollinating habits are responsible for a wide array of staple crops, including onions, okra, celery, beets, cabbage, almonds, cotton, squash, apples, tomatoes and cocoa. Put simply, without bees, there's a good chance of famine. Even without such drastic prognostications of doom, no one wants to go without apples or pay 20 bucks for a head of lettuce.

Intel's goals were originally somewhat modest. "We wanted to engage employees around corporate sustainability right on our California campus," says Fallender. To that end, the bee team installed five bee boxes, housing 200,000 of our pollinating friends, on Intel's campus. The employees then hosted informational meetings to educate employees about the crucial role played by honeybees and what everyone can do to protect them. Outreach to local schools is planned for the fall, taking the message beyond their Folsom campus.

Fallender is the first to admit that there's no direct connection between what Intel does in the office and what it does outdoors with honeybees. "The Sustainability in Action Grant Program lets you talk about sustainability," she says. "How systems are connected, the broader environmental concerns." Other corporate social responsibility programs funded under the Sustainability in Action Grant Program include rainwater harvesting projects at Israeli schools and a zero-emission heating and cooling system for a community building in China. In short, the Grant is dedicated to engaging employees and communities in a broader conversation about sustainability.

But it's not just about creating dialogue and giving kids cool science projects. The Intel Involved Program has Intel employees giving over a million hours of service to over 4,000 schools and nonprofits in 45 different countries in 2011 alone. Further, the Intel Foundation offers matching funds.Intel employees didn't just donate epic amounts of manpower -- they also generated donations of $8.2 million in matching gifts. Employees further investigate community needs, trying to find new places to intervene. This both encourages employee engagement in the community at large and provides the resource most needed by many nonprofits: cold, hard cash.

The long-term bottom line

Why does Intel do this? It clearly costs the company in both time and money. However, Fallender states that not only are corporate philanthropy and employee volunteering good for business, it also pays dividends over a longer time frame. An idea can be tested out via the Sustainability in Action Program. If it proves useful, Intel then has an "in" on the new technology, putting it right on the ground floor of the Next Big Thing.

However, another thing to remember is that engaged employees are more productive. Fallender notes that employee engagement at Intel shows an upward trend.

Based on her experience, Fallender believes that companies must be mindful of engagement when organizing corporate philanthropy and volunteering. "It's important to set a vision and strategy. Taking care of people and the planet and inspiring the next generation are strategic objectives for us." Intel has even gone so far to link part of every employee's compensation to the achievement of Intel's environmental goal.

"This is a strategic reinforcement and we make it as important as other corporate operational goals," says Fallender. While "act locally, think globally" has long been a mantra of the environmentalist movement, Intel has made this a key part of its business model. Companies looking to increase employee engagement while making a concrete impact would do well to pay attention.