The Business of Service

We find ourselves at a unique moment: America faces a crisis of historic proportions amid equally historic levels of enthusiasm to repair our world. Everyone wants to serve. President-elect Obama has promised to expand Americorps and the Peace Corps and to channel the civic energies of the American public through new vehicles, such as an Education Corps or Green Jobs Corps. Supplementing these efforts, nonprofit organizations like City Year, Teach for America, and YouthBuild seem poised to explode.

Yet beyond government and nonprofits, a third sector has a significant role to play -- the business community. The corporations and small businesses that power American growth and shape our society have an opportunity to make a major impact. If we engage them, they could be the fuel that turbo-charges our vision of national service.

Businesses can answer the call. Indeed, many already have. Some will encourage volunteerism on MLK Day, and others might organize team projects among employees. While these efforts are laudable, this moment calls for more imaginative solutions. Let's seize this opportunity to encourage the business community to seek more creative approaches to corporate responsibility.

For example, companies could lend some of their human resources to the public sector -- think a corporate Peace Corps. This is not such a novel idea. During the post-9/11 downturn, Fortune 500 companies like Cisco Systems sent top talent to aid nonprofits on short-term assignments. Patagonia grants employees a "sabbatical" to spend up to six months on site at a charitable organization. Such programs add value to the employees, enhancing professional development; they add value to the employers, improving retention and refining the skills of their labor force when there is less work at the home office; and they add value to those organizations that build and sustain our shared communities.

Companies can also rethink existing products and processes. Every "ethical brand" that focuses on creating a double or triple bottom line represents an act of service because such products generate benefit, not only for shareholders, but also for stakeholders. Firms like Fresh and Easy, Living Homes, and Zipcar all exemplify this trend. Promotions like the [RED] campaign and the Amex Members Project have demonstrated that you can rejuvenate existing brands through meaningful cause engagement. Service isn't limited to tutoring a child -- rethinking consumption and making conscious choices represent an important, light-touch manner of participating in civic engagement and national renewal.

Finally, firms can engage allies in government and nonprofits to explore new, cross-sector partnerships. Such efforts can generate new opportunities by solving problems and building markets. Initially, the need for such alliances might not be obvious. But with a little imagination, we can find those win-win opportunities that benefit the public and generate profits to address the core need of companies.

As we create a culture of shared governance, it is essential that the business community has a seat the table. We cannot rely solely on individuals or government to change the world. Companies can and must take up the call to serve in new and innovative ways for the benefit of all.