Community Service in Down Economic Times

Good corporate citizenship builds priceless goodwill.

The stress of economic hardship can cloud corporate priorities. As a result, corporate citizenship activities may suffer at a time when the help is most sorely needed. Accounting firms and other businesses may lose sight of the fact that these volunteer activities make a positive difference in the community at little cost while providing numerous benefits for employees. Good corporate citizenship also builds a cache of goodwill that can improve the overall health and future of a business.


Corporate-sponsored outreach events promote team spirit among employees, while developing personal and professional skills. Some companies even tie individual employee goals and objectives to participation in such events. Companies that support community volunteerism are also attractive to young hires, and their current employees are more likely to stay.


The JofA interviewed representatives from the CPA community (see sidebar, “The Participants,” below) to learn more about the role corporate citizenship plays in their firms and companies. The following are excerpts from those interviews.


JofA: How do you define corporate citizenship? Why is it important?


Lori Colvin: Corporate citizenship is defined as part of the firm’s core values, which includes “Firm first focus, honesty and integrity, open communication, respect, support of others, and volunteerism.” It is important to embody these core values to create a work environment where people can be invested in the firm and attract new people to want to work with us.


Patricia Cochran: One of our core business philosophies is to give back to the communities in which we work. It is one of the reasons that we have high employee satisfaction.


Claudio Diaz: Our mission statement includes the comment that we have “a relentless commitment … to the communities we live in and serve.” We’re a large regional firm specializing in small businesses. We take great pride in connecting in and building out our local communities. It’s very much a concept of “sharing the wealth” externally as well as internally.


Stephen Rivera: Team-building exercises, in the form of volunteerism, help get folks out of their usual element, breaking down barriers by putting people in an equal environment where there is no rulebook. It is important for accountants to have relationships with each other on nonaccounting exercises, to network among themselves, to learn more about each other outside of reading the [accounting standards].


Victor Velazquez: A lot of organizations believe corporate citizenship needs to be a capital-intensive and distracting endeavor. They might be pleasantly surprised to find that if they throw out the challenge to better serve their community, their employees will rise to the cause and find ways to engage that don’t cost money.



JofA: How do you identify the appropriate programs for your firm/company?


Cochran: We encourage our staff members to volunteer through a paid volunteer program that provides each employee with one paid day off for volunteering. We make corporate donations to those charities that VSP management serves in a substantial volunteer capacity, including a matching program for the personal donations that they make from their own resources.


Colvin: Our employees. For example, the idea for our green initiative program came from our younger professionals—we were one of the first firms to become Green Certified about three years ago.


Diana Ravenna: We look to Greater Philadelphia Cares, one of the most active nonprofit organizations dedicated to improving the quality of life in the Philadelphia area.


Rivera: Part of each employee’s objectives is to create a team-building exercise outside of work. Many times, the employee comes to me with an idea and asks for help sponsoring. In addition, we also follow the company’s credo to ensure that we select programs that support the communities we live and work in.



JofA: How do you measure success? What is the accountability?


Cochran: Not only is there satisfaction that comes from giving, but we have also noted an enhancement in the skill sets of the volunteers. They have the opportunity to practice public speaking, hone new business skills such as strategic planning and fund development, develop business relationships, and network—all in a low-risk environment. Growth in the skill sets of our management team has been an unexpected benefit to the promotion of the volunteer experience.


Colvin: The programs we have rolled out that are dedicated to social responsibility and corporate citizenship consistently get the biggest percentage of participation compared to others. That participation is our measured success. Our accountability derives from our best places to work awards and increased recruiting applications and acceptance rate increases.


Ravenna: With most of our work being hands-on with students, we are able to see the impact of our efforts right away in the reactions of the students and teachers.


Velazquez: First and foremost through employee surveys—which lets us know that employees feel good about achieving our objectives—such as improving team spirit and enabling community opportunities. Also, the community feedback we receive is very positive.



JofA: What have you learned from your involvement in corporate citizenship events? What hasn’t worked?


Colvin: Sometimes when individuals are running programs at different times of the year, they become spread too thin.


Velazquez: We’ve learned that you can’t communicate once that you’re involved in a certain community activity and assume employees are aware. You need to continually communicate the causes. For example, we implemented eight hours of paid time off based on employee feedback. This benefit has to continually be reinforced in order for employees to appreciate its value and take full advantage of it.



JofA: How do you get employee buy-in/motivation?


Colvin: As a firm we have gotten behind several initiatives where the firm dedicated resources and time to provide our people with the opportunity to give back in a big way. Once the firm and its leadership set the table for the opportunity, getting the buy-in and motivation from our people was easy. We have seen numerous personal stories where these initiatives motivated people to go out and volunteer and give more than they have in the past.


Diaz: The associates plan the event and serve as leaders. An administrative professional might be my boss on the day that I’m helping her and others refurbish housing. We switch this up every year so everyone gets an opportunity, and needless to say, this keeps the motivation up!


Ravenna: We don’t have any issues with employee motivation—most are very generous with their volunteer time and look forward to the various events as they come along each year. We have many staff members who volunteer for organizations or causes on their own time and encourage others in the firm to support or join in with them.


Rivera: Having it built into objectives is a good thing because it forces employees out of the office and to do things outside of their comfort zone. Although some initially may not be motivated, they realize the need and the importance of volunteering their time and talent. For the most part, knowing who we are as a company, we have a responsibility to our world communities, making it is easy for employees to get motivated.


Velazquez: Our leadership, from the CEO down, is fully engaged. That can only happen when executive leadership is fully committed to the cause. We have begun to include it as part of the accountabilities of leadership—we don’t evaluate quantitatively but qualitatively. We’re looking for champions to engage our communities. We also want to raise the awareness of every employee—it is not so much about what you have to do—but what you should do and can do.



JofA: Has the economic crisis affected plans at all?


Rivera: We have been more selective in picking and choosing the money spent for these projects.


Ravenna: Recession or not, the needs of those we help are always going to be present—if anything, they are needed now more than ever.


Diaz: We sometimes “expensed” items like lumber and paint for nonprofit organizations, and instead of abandoning that, we’re going to our clients to see if they are willing to donate materials and supplies. They get extra tax relief on possibly dated inventory while at the same time getting good marketing out of the event.


Velazquez: We’ve been forced to refocus our efforts on volunteerism and leveraging the strength and capacity of our employees instead of being checkbook contributors—it has created even more opportunities for employees to get out into the community. It is always a challenge balancing work demands, but folks make it work.



JofA: Corporate citizenship has been touted as an opportunity for “free” training. Is there a way for employees to benefit professionally through volunteer opportunities such as advising another organization?


Cochran: I advise our staff to volunteer for organizations where they have a passion for the mission. By starting out with simple assignments, they can grow their skills and progress to more complex activities. For example, we encouraged an employee with great promise who needed to work on public speaking to volunteer for Junior Achievement. By teaching a class of elementary school students weekly about economics in a low-risk, low-stress environment, his communication skills greatly improved. He has since been promoted into management. Virtually all of our executives and directors volunteer for local, state and national charities, and I have noted great progress in their networking, presentation, communication and planning skills as a result.



JofA: Do you evaluate employees on their participation in firm-supported events and, if so, how?


Cochran: We are committed to pay for performance so each employee is evaluated against their individual key job accountabilities. We ask our employees for discretionary effort, that is, to go above and beyond expectations. Volunteering in the community and bringing new skill sets back to work is an excellent way to demonstrate discretionary effort.


Ravenna: We do not hold our staff accountable for participating in firm volunteer efforts—those that wish to participate do so.



JofA: Do you think your firm’s success in these types of programs gives you an advantage when it comes to employee retention and/or recruiting? If so, how?


Colvin: The fact that we have been ranked a best place to work for the last five years and surveys indicate the importance of corporate responsibility and the fact that recruits specifically ask about our corporate responsibility programs is a good indication that we are investing in the values people care about. Different events continue to help bring the firm together to create a tight-knit community amongst our peers. The events are highly visible, and recruits can learn more about what we do on our career site ( and watch videos on the topics. Recruits consistently comment on the site and specifically what we do around social responsibility.


Diaz: Absolutely. The millennial generation evaluates a company on its corporate citizenry and will default first to an organization that is aligned to their values on this topic. We have also seen an uptick on our pride question of our engagement survey.


Rivera: Young people coming out of college today are looking at things like how green your company is and what kind of company you are, in general. They want to understand fully who their future employer is going to be. It makes a big difference to them.


Velazquez: The AICPA’s involvement in community activities is part of the story we tell to prospective employees about what it means to be a member of team AICPA. There are misconceptions about working for a CPA-centric organization. We serve our members but also serve our communities.



JofA: How much are you spending as a company to support corporate citizenship? Per employee?


Cochran: Since 1997 we have provided free eye care to needy children throughout the U.S. with 61,000 children served in 2008 at a cost to VSP of $13.3 million. We also provide in-kind services to the American Red Cross for victims of disaster with substantial numbers of replacement eyewear provided during the Hurricane Katrina aftermath. Our mobile clinics provided free services to over 3,200 patients this past year. The total charity care and community outreach expenditures amounted to over $19 million, or $7,700 per employee, in 2008.


Rivera: In 2008, Johnson & Johnson contributed $510.3 million in cash and products toward 650 programs in 50 countries.


Velazquez: We are not measuring what we spend, but we do measure the time in aggregate and per employee. It is more than dollars, it’s the valuable time of our people. The more time they’re spending, the better the indication is that we’ve gotten it right.






 Patricia Cochran, CFO of VSP Vision Care, approximately 4,000 employees.


Selected Corporate Citizenship Program: “Sight for Students,” since 1997 has provided free eye care to needy children throughout the U.S. with 61,000 children served in 2008.


 Lori Colvin, partner, chief marketing officer, Armanino McKenna LLP, San Francisco, approximately 300 employees.


Selected Corporate Citizenship Programs: “AMLLP Gives Back,” “The Green Team,” “The Great Give.”


 Claudio Diaz, chief human capital officer at Wipfli, a firm with approximately 750 associates and 15 U.S. offices.


Selected Corporate Citizenship Program: “Day of Caring,” where we close our offices firm-wide for one afternoon and volunteer in local communities.


 Diana Ravenna, marketing and communications specialist with Asher & Co. Ltd., a regional firm with approximately 107 employees located in Philadelphia.


Selected Corporate Citizenship Program: “Visit Our Office Day,” for the entire fifth-grade class at Philadelphia’s Henry A. Brown Elementary School to expose the students to how different businesses operate and the variety of professions available for them to pursue. Because much of the student body at Brown Elementary come from less-fortunate families, many only have an opportunity to view office buildings from the outside and have no concept of what goes on inside.


 Stephen Rivera, CPA, senior director of Financial Compliance & Procedures with Johnson & Johnson, New Brunswick, N.J., estimated 118,700 employees worldwide.


Selected Corporate Citizenship Programs: “Kiddie Day Camp Clean Up” in Edison, N.J., sponsored through the United Way and One Wish; “One Smile,” sponsored by Emmanuel Cancer Foundation (ECF), a not-for-profit public foundation established in 1983 to help preserve the quality of life for any New Jersey family whose child has been diagnosed with cancer. Services are offered at no charge to the family and include professional counseling, advocacy services, material assistance, and emergency financial relief.


 Victor Velazquez, CAE, vice president–Strategy & Human Resources, AICPA, approximately 670 employees.


Selected Corporate Citizenship Programs: “Project Homeless Connect,” more than 50 employees escorted the homeless through the bureaucracy of city services; “Spirit in the Community,” more than 300 employees volunteered in animal and homeless shelters; “Finance Academy,” dozens of employees focus on curriculum development, class training and student mentorship at a local high school.


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