Gill Robinson Hickman is a professor of leadership studies at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies. In the classroom, she focuses on leading change, leadership in organizations and leadership in a diverse society. Her research interests include socially responsible businesses. Her newest book, published this month, is "Leading Change in Multiple Contexts: Concepts and Practices in Organizations, Community, Political, Social, and Global Change Settings."
I first became interested in what I call "organizations of hope" in the 1970s. Organizations of hope are companies that engage in social action through employee-volunteering and other action-oriented programs. Their involvement in social responsibility differs from monetary contributions alone, though they make monetary contributions, too. Their employee-volunteering programs and partnerships with nonprofit organizations offer hope for a better society by giving person-to-person and employee-to-community contributions of time, expertise, and commitment.
Still, they must meet their business mission, handle continuous change, and answer to stockholders, corporate boards, and multiple stakeholders.
But companies are proving that they can accomplish all these missions.
Economists and business experts argue employee volunteer programs, especially on company time, are antithetical to the purpose and well-being of business. Yet, internationally volunteer programs continue to increase. Why? Because companies see their future as linked with the community's future. And, because today's stakeholders expect companies to demonstrate responsibility and contribute to the collective good of society beyond their traditional role of job creation.
The 15 companies I studied contributed substantial benefits to society. Their volunteering efforts served communities most often in the areas of education, housing, social services, health, hunger prevention, and environmental issues.
Some very businesslike concerns motivate companies to send their teams of employees out into neighborhoods and hometowns and customer service areas to help. Developing the community in which they operate helps companies recruit and retain employees, improves their corporate image, develops employees' capacities (in areas such as leadership and team building), and broadens the company's imprint.
My research study focused on the question, "what kind of leadership makes it possible for a company to sustain profitability, handle continuous change, and engage in community volunteering projects at the same time."
Leadership in this study means the processes (the way things get accomplished) that increase the company's ability to reach common goals and the people (employees and managers at all levels) who contribute to these processes. This study involved collecting information from corporate volunteer managers in 15 companies from different sectors with a combined volunteer capacity of 900,000 employees.
Initial responses to the research question provide insight and direction for further study. Volunteer managers that represented the longest running programs (10, 15, 25, and 50 years respectively) surmised the most significant leadership factor that allows organizations to meet their business and social agendas is commitment to truly "embedding" volunteerism in the culture of the organization along with the business mission, values, and goals. These companies incorporate their commitment to the community in their vision, mission, or values statements.
Employees take the lead in encouraging their coworkers to volunteer. Senior leaders provide staffing for volunteer programs by way of hiring or appointing volunteer managers and often additional staff. In almost half the companies studied, employees received fully paid work-release time to volunteer in the community. Senior leaders in these companies walked their talk by encouraging volunteerism, serving actively in the community themselves, and establishing processes by which senior leadership and other company expertise is utilized on boards, task forces, and civic committees.
There is much more to discover about leadership in socially active businesses. But, these initial findings provide hope for new business leadership models that actively benefit the company and society.