This post was featured in Forbes.com.
The best ideas in corporate social responsibility don’t always come from the boardroom or the CSR manager. Sometimes they come from ordinary folks just trying to do their best.
Case in point, a corporate fundraising effort by AT&T to support Cell Phones for Soldiers, a project that stemmed from the hearts, minds and piggy banks of Robbie and Brittany Bergquist, 12 and 13 years old at the time of the project’s launch eight years ago. Since the Bergquists launched their effort, Cell Phones for Soldiers has paid for over 168 million minutes of free talk time, provided more than 2.3 million calling cards and recycled over 10.5 million phones to help America’s servicemen and women. Other companies sponsoring CPS include Chevrolet, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Comcast, Recellular and Verizon.
AT&T saw the program as a natural opportunity for employee engagement, not to mention a way to make a direct, immediate and measurable positive change in the community. Few things are going to cheer up a soldier faster than hearing a friendly voice on the other end of the phone. CPS also gives back in the form of responsible electronics recycling of a related product, taking the proceeds from these recycled phones and using the proceeds to buy international cards for enlisted men and women.
In addition to helping veterans through corporate giving, AT&T is committed to friendly hiring practices that support vets. “From a company perspective, we place a huge effort in recruiting and hiring former military personnel, which is based on our desire to hire competitive talent,” says Beth Shiroishi, Vice President of Sustainability & Philanthropy at AT&T. With an eye toward their triple bottom line, Shiroishi says this hiring policy isn’t just about getting veterans in the door but “helping to support their transition. These are people who make for high-quality employees.”
AT&T isn’t content to just throw money at thorny issues like employment for veterans; they want their employees engaged in good corporate citizenship. This engagement has prompted AT&T employees to volunteer a total of over six million hours in 2011 alone, which includes time spent collecting cell phones for CPS as well as other causes. Many volunteer projects involve support for the military in some fashion; for example, one employee, under the auspices of AT&T’s Do One Thing Campaign, was able to collect 1,000 bottles of talcum powder (used to mark explosive locations) for the military. AT&T employees are also active in putting together care packages for American servicemen and women abroad. “When you talk to people who are not in the military, it’s just as meaningful to them. People appreciate what our military does for us,” says Shiroishi.
Chris Norton is the Military Talent Attraction Manager at AT&T, or as he calls himself, “the military guy.” With 16 years in the Army Reserve, five years of active duty, and an Iraq deployment and stateside service post-9/11, Norton’s veteran bona fides are unquestionable. At AT&T, his work doesn’t just include raising money for cell phones; he also helps veterans transition back into society with a mentor-like program provided by AT&T. Thus, Norton is able to make a community service both on and off the clock.
Norton himself needed assistance in transitioning back after his 2009 tour in Iraq. He has, in turn, paid back the services offered to him by helping others. His charitable efforts help to transform just another job (“Work is a four-letter word,” Norton jokes) into a place where “employees can be involved with our fellow man beyond work,” which, according to Norton, “is directly responsible for employee retention.”
AT&T employees are certainly not limited to supporting military causes. In fact, AT&T offers a matching giftsprogram and offers a number of corporate fundraising opportunities for employees. This leads to numerous opportunities for engagement on the employee’s own terms, a situation which leads to different problems of the type every CSR director in the country wants. “Our challenge is not in getting participation,” says Shiroishi, “it’s trying to figure out where we put our time and effort. There are so many good causes and so many things that employees care about.”
AT&T recognizes a very basic fact of giving back to communities: labor and capital must work together to select innovative ways of providing support for causes that employees care about. To that end, AT&T engages its employees, looking for the best place to concentrate CSR efforts and soliciting employee feedback on how these efforts are working. Without this kind of two-way communication, engagement is just a pipe dream.