Whether it's to build a better image or fulfill a mission of community service, being a good corporate citizen is no longer a fad in the workplace.
These days many large companies have philanthropic arms while others sponsor teams at charity walk-a-thons and marathons to raise money for various causes including relief efforts for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
In recent years, companies have been creating employee volunteer programs to encourage workers to get involved in their communities.
Some businesses give paid time-off or offer flexible work schedules to accommodate employees who tutor and mentor children, serve food in a soup kitchen or participate in a Habitat for Humanity project during work hours.
Experts acknowledge it's inevitable that some employees may feel pressured to participate to please their boss.
Besides building a reputation as a charitable neighbor, corporate leaders in the Baltimore area say the practice of civic engagement also makes business sense and benefits both the company and its employees.
"It's absolutely impossible for a company to be divorced from the community they're in," said Jane Weizmann, a senior consultant at Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a global consulting firm.
Companies can use fundraising and volunteer efforts to recruit and retain employees, business experts and managers say. And employers, in turn, get better-trained workers, who develop communication and leadership skills through their volunteer work.
Cheryl Yuille, a small-business relationship manager at Provident Bank, has been an active member of the Baltimore financial company's volunteer corps since she joined the organization 2 1/2 years ago. She speaks to students at local schools about financial literacy, helps build houses through the Sandtown Habitat for Humanity and serves as a mentor to children through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
Although community service is a personal passion, "it makes your job much more worthwhile that the bank will allow you to go and volunteer," said Yuille, Provident Bank's volunteer of the year in 2004.
Last year, nearly 300 employees from the bank's three markets - Baltimore, Washington and Northern Virginia - participated in about 46 volunteer and charity events, said Karron Minor, the bank's public relations specialist who manages the company's volunteer programs.
"Our customers like the fact that their bank is involved in their communities," said Vicki Cox, the bank's manager of public and community relations.
In a survey of 1,189 executives representing a cross-section of U.S. companies, 81 percent said they believe corporate citizenship needs to be a priority for businesses.
That's according to a 2005 study conducted by the Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Center for Corporate Citizenship. The margin of error for the survey was 3 percentage points.
Steven Rochlin, director of research and policy at the Center for Corporate Citizenship, said companies that engage in civic and volunteer programs report positive outcomes such as increased leadership skills among its employees and brand recognition in the community.
"The other benefit is that there is evidence that shows that companies that have very successful volunteer programs tend to have much better rates of retention and also do a better job of recruiting and attracting the best employees," Rochlin said.
Bruce Abbott, vice president and general manager of Comcast's Chesapeake Bay Group, which serves Anne Arundel, Charles and Calvert counties, said the company's employees take the initiative to give back to their community.
The cable company, which has more than 3,500 employees in Maryland, sponsors an annual Comcast Cares Day, a nationwide event that brings out volunteers for local community redevelopment projects. Its nonprofit foundation has doled out millions of dollars in contributions, including $288,000 in Maryland last year.
"Our employees see that we are really in the community," said Carn Cahoon, regional human resources director for Comcast's Maryland-Delaware region, who coordinates volunteer efforts for Crossroads School, an alternative middle school in Baltimore's East Harbor operated by the Living Classrooms Foundation.
"It's not just about giving money to an organization but also giving time, energy and effort."
Business Volunteers Unlimited Maryland, a nonprofit organization in Baltimore, works with businesses that want to be involved in the community but don't have the resources or know where to begin, said Executive Director Kelly Hodge-Williams. The group trains and places managers and workers onto nonprofit boards of directors, consults companies on how to get involved and offers training for volunteers.
"They're trying to get their employees engaged and have a more refined community effort," Hodge-Williams said.
"They see it as a good business practice. It's part of their stated mission. It helps their image. It helps with productivity and morale."