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Esprit de Corps

These three companies typify the increasingly important role that community outreach plays in engaging the zeal and teamwork of employees.

Alabama Power volunteers distribute backpacks stocked with school supplies at Capstone Rural Health Center in Parrish, Walker County.

Alabama Power volunteers distribute backpacks stocked with school supplies at Capstone Rural Health Center in Parrish, Walker County.

Photo courtesy of Alabama Power

President Barack Obama in 2009 beseeched citizens to make volunteerism part of their daily lives, which led to programs that promote volunteering nationwide. Yet long before the president’s call to action, companies across Alabama have made employee volunteering a top priority. 

Companies find that community service works on many levels — satisfying employees who increasingly expect volunteer opportunities, improving the company’s public image and, of course, lifting up the recipients of such altruism.  

Power to the People

Volunteerism is Alabama Power’s “shining light,” says Myla Calhoun, president of the Alabama Power Foundation.


Alabama Power in 1991 established the Alabama Power Service Organization, a nonprofit separate from the power company, to provide good works throughout the state. The APSO consists of more than 5,500 members in 10 chapters. The organization — which provides both volunteer help and fundraising — serves more than 200 nonprofits statewide. 

Myla Calhoun, president of the Alabama Power Foundation and vice president of Charitable Giving at Alabama Power, says volunteerism is Alabama Power’s “shining light and something the company values and is known for.”

Tony Smith, Alabama Power’s state APSO manager, says the company typically looks for programs that fit its mission, such as community enhancement and education. Smith notes that corporate philanthropy is more important than ever, with so many agencies facing greater needs and less funding. 

“It’s been rewarding and even eye-opening for me,” Smith says, “for example, children being homeless who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.”

Among Alabama Power programs he cites Backpacks for Buddies, which provides backpacks filled with food for school children in need. Another is a parenting class for unwed mothers, in which volunteers watch the children while their parents take the class. 

The hours employees give to volunteering varies, says Smith. APSO volunteers can work on service projects during business hours, with the approval of their manager, though volunteer work cannot conflict with their job responsibilities. Many APSO members also volunteer after hours and on weekends. 

“You have to build a culture where employees understand the importance of volunteering,” Smith observes. “Then you do it from the heart, not to put a notch on your resume.”

Employee volunteerism helps attract and retain top workers regardless of age. Particularly the socially conscious millennial generation who look for companies that mirror their own values and give them opportunities to apply those values. 

The millennial generation’s work values merit notice. According to the Pew Research Center, millennials have exceeded baby boomers as the country’s largest generation. Millennials are defined as those ages 18-34 in 2015, who now number 74.5 million, surpassing the 74.9 million baby boomers (ages 51-69).

Nicole Hedrick, a millennial who is an engineer in Alabama Power’s power delivery group in Pelham, sees volunteerism as an integral part of her professional life.  

“I’ve found that volunteering is everything you put into it and more,” says Hedrick, 31, who works with the Birmingham chapter of APSO. “There is nothing more rewarding than making an impact on others. I often say the most rewarding thing about working for this company is they allow us to give back to the generation that will follow us and encourage us to lend a helping hand to the communities that built us.”

PricewaterhouseCoopers found that 88 percent of today’s millennial generation seeks companies with well-defined Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs, and 86 percent would consider leaving if they found their employer’s programs were no longer rewarding.

A 2016 millennial survey by Deloitte — a provider of consulting, risk management and related services to multiple industries — found that two in three millennials expect to leave their current employer by 2020.  This makes retaining millennials challenging. So, it is in the company’s interest to provide meaningful volunteer opportunities for this demographic, which makes up the majority of the U.S. workforce and is expected to reach 75 percent by 2030. 

“What speaks (to millennials) is quality of life and opportunities for engagement beyond the traditional work life,” says APF President Calhoun.  

Many Alabama Power employees continue to volunteer after retirement through the Energizers, a nonprofit organization made up of roughly 1,400 retirees of Alabama Power and its parent Southern Company. 

ABOVE APSO volunteers help build a playground during United Cerebral Palsy Day of Action.

Photo courtesy of Alabama Power

Southern Light Shines

Mobile-based Southern Light, which provides fiber networks and connectivity solutions along the Gulf Coast and adjacent regions, participated in 24 community service initiatives in 2015. Employees are encouraged to volunteer during working hours — from serving lunch to the homeless and assisting with home building and renovation projects to mentoring children and raising money for school supplies.

Among Southern Light’s many partnerships are Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Alabama, the American Cancer Society, Volunteers of America and two organizations serving the homeless in Mobile — Waterfront Rescue Mission and 15 Place. 

Says Southern Light CEO and co-founder Andy Newton, “Community service isn’t an add-on or part of a publicity plan for us. It’s part of who Southern Light is. We really care about the communities we serve.”

Many of the company’s internal initiatives are created and executed by team members who are given the opportunity to decide on the community service areas they care about most. Employees receive a survey every year to gauge their interest in volunteer categories and the preferred time frame in which they want to volunteer. 

“The camaraderie and esprit de corps that develops through serving together is remarkable and absolutely forges bonds that make Southern Light a fun place to come to work each day,” Newton explains. 

“Approximately 80 percent of our internal charitable efforts occur while people are on the clock, but we also offer events for those who want to volunteer outside of normal working hours.”

Newton says that Southern Light’s culture tends to attract people who want to serve the community, and this includes the millennial generation. 

“Our lives are fully integrated, meaning we work together, play together and serve together. It’s all just a natural part of who we are, and millennials are attracted to this seamless lifestyle.” 

Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Alabama is one of the company’s volunteer opportunities that has proven to be especially rewarding and popular. Many employees spend time every week with their little brothers and sisters at George Hall Elementary School in Mobile. 

“We love to see them gain confidence, take risks and have fun,” Newton says. “Children bring a refreshing perspective to the day, and we have a ton of fun being their friends.”

For Southern Light CAD operator Maryce Green community service happens right in her own neighborhood. Green wished to help her neighbors refurbish the front of their house. But she didn’t think it was possible until she pitched the project to her Southern Light team members. 

“We collected supplies and money and created a plan to fix up the house in a day,” Green recalls. “We painted the entire front porch, sanded and painted the railings, replaced rotten wood and painted the shutters. My neighbors were super grateful, and I was proud that my idea came to life with everyone’s help.”

ABOVE Boeing Manager David Sharp shows a group of students some cool things Boeing employees do during Bring Your Child to Work Day.

Photo courtesy of Boeing

Boeing to the Core

Boeing Alabama in Huntsville is also making a significant contribution to community service. With more than 2,700 employees in Alabama, the company encourages giving through volunteer service, donation drives and the Boeing Employees Community Fund. 

One of Boeing’s most successful employee volunteer efforts is its Global Month of Service, in which the company sets aside one month every year to encourage and recognize employee volunteerism. In 2016, more than 120 Boeing employees volunteered with CASA of Madison County (Care Assurance System for the Aging and Homebound) to build wheelchair ramps for the organization’s clients. 

Other programs include Books & Backpacks, a back-to-school donation drive. Donated supplies are given to all Madison County teachers to distribute to children. Spirit of the Holidays is Boeing’s annual year-end giving drive. Another popular Boeing employee opportunity is the Special Olympics Track and Field Event for Madison County. 

Boeing Project Manager Carl Pivarsky started volunteering in 2011 with cleanup efforts in the aftermath of the so-called Tornado Super Outbreak that devastated parts of Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. He has been heavily involved in volunteerism ever since. 

“It is stunning to me how Boeing people continually step up to the challenge to meet the needs of the community,” Pivarsky says. “Volunteering truly is a core company value.”

Promoting volunteerism is one way that Boeing engages talent at all levels of the organization. And attracting and retaining talent starts well before employees join the company by investing in education, says Tina Watts, community investor for Boeing Alabama Global Corporate Citizenship.

Family Science Nights is a program that Watts says helps attract and retain talent. Boeing volunteers provide a series of engineering design challenges developed by Boeing engineers to bring families together at local elementary schools. 

Says Watts, “Boeing’s community engagement programs not only provide organizations with much-needed skills, expertise and resources, but also help grow our employees’ personal and professional skills and increase their knowledge about issues affecting the community.”

Boeing offers a match incentive for employees who volunteer 25 hours or more with a single organization, making a $10 matching donation for each hour of volunteer time. So, for example, if an employee volunteers 25 hours with Big Brothers Big Sisters of North Alabama, the organization would receive $250 in matching funds from Boeing for the employee’s volunteer support. 

Jessica Armstrong is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She is based in Auburn.

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