Do You Give at the Office?

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So I was ambling down the hall on my way back from the kitchen with some decaf green tea when I saw my colleague Amy Goehner packing boxes. The sight filled me with dread. A lot of people at my company are volunteering for severance packages amid rolling layoffs, and lately it seems like all my favorite coworkers are taking the plunge.

Amy saw my face and said, “No, no, I’m not leaving.” The piles of brand new children’s books were leftover review copies from our year-end holiday book guide, she explained. She was packing them in boxes to send to a charity called First Book.

I complained recently in this space about the mountains of mail we get–not about reader mail, which obviously we cherish, but press materials sent to us by corporations eager to appear in the pages of the publication. It’s not that I object to solicitations; after all, how would I know about your revolutionary new payroll-management software if you don’t tell me about it? My issue is that mail–physical mail, the kind sent via the post office in large padded envelopes, or worse, expressly through some expensive brown-colored service–is a huge waste. Have we never heard of e-mail?

And don’t get me started on the books sent to us for review or author interviews. Again, I don’t have anything against books; having written one recently myself, many copies of which wound up in many reviewers’ trash cans, I have every appreciation for the sweat and toil that went into each one. But I also have a growing appreciation for–or, rather, guilt about–the usage of pulp paper by the tonnage. Right now I have a crate of books by management gurus and career experts in my office, awaiting a fate that does not include my cracking their spines. I feel terrible about this, in equal parts for their hard-working authors, but also for the forest of trees they caused to be felled.

I was planning to dump these books at one of the many stations around the office where we leave goodies for other coworkers to sift through (there must be someone on staff who could use one of my three copies of What Color Is Your Parachute 2007). But clearly I lack the creativity and magnanimity of some of my colleagues, for here was one who had come up with not just a clever way to reduce the stuff in her office but also to bring joy to some deserving little person.

Few of us do enough to harness the enormous philanthropic power of our employers and fellow employees. Sure, we might pony up a twenty when a coworker appears at our office door, hat in hand, to gather pledges for the 15k he’s running, in drag, to raise money for his sister’s ailment. But the real money lies in our employers’ coffers. Many corporations large and small offer matching funds for donations to various charities. Deep pockets aren’t all; companies also offer ready pools of talented and eager volunteers.

If you think about it, the workplace is a natural resource for organizing and raising funds for charities. So why don’t more of us tap it?

Often, it takes a personal connection to spur us to action. A few years ago, my longtime mentor Marlene Kahan–a woman I call “mom”–was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Once she got over the shock and horror, she threw herself into the cause. Marlene raised $60,000 for the Unity Walk, an annual walkathon that raises money for Parkinson’s research, making her the top fundraiser. Let me repeat that: she raised $60,000 in her first year of fundraising for a disease she just learned she had. She did it by swallowing her pride and asking colleagues and business associates to participate; being that she’s the head of the American Society of Magazine Editors, hers is not exactly a skimpy Rolodex. Last year, she went a step further by getting magazines to donate pages to run public service ads. She figures the free ad space in publications including Prevention and BusinessWeek is worth about $25 million. (Click here to donate to her Team Mag Queen on this year’s Unity Walk.)

“There are so many ways for employees to get involved, if they choose to,” says Beth Bingham. She’s the spokesperson for First Book, and I called her to find out more about how workers might contribute to charities like hers. First Book is a Washington, D.C.-based group founded in 1992 “with one simple mission: for children from low-income families to read and own their first new books.” The charity has so far donated 48 million books–about 7 million a year–to readers age 0 to 18. Most of the books are donated by publishers, but First Book also facilitates book purchases by groups serving low-income families through grants.

Publishers and booksellers like Borders are a natural fit for a literacy-focused charity like First Book. But employers as diverse as Cheerios and Build-a-Bear have contributed too. Workers at SunTrust Mortgage have formed an advisory committee to help First Book locate groups that serve poor children. Here’s Baskin-Robbins’ involvement, as cited on First Book’s web site:

Baskin-Robbins stores across the country sponsored “Free Scoop Night” for five consecutive years to thank customers for their support and give them a chance to help Baskin-Robbins “lick illiteracy.” As part of this campaign, Baskin-Robbins made a yearly donation to First Book. Nationwide, First Book Advisory Boards publicized local events and drove traffic to their local Baskin-Robbins stores. The 2004 national spokesperson for Free Scoop Night was Teri Polo, star of Meet the Parents and its sequel Meet the Fockers. In 2003, Brittany Snow, star of the NBC series American Dreams, served as national spokesperson for Free Scoop Night; Alexis Bledel, star of The Gilmore Girls, served as spokesperson in 2002; and Frankie Muniz, star of Malcolm in the Middle, was spokesperson in 2001.

Now this here is a win-win; not only does reading this make me crave a double scoop of Jamoca Almond Fudge, I now have warm thoughts about a brand that until recently I associated only with frozen dairy products. My own employer–and yours, no doubt–could use this kind of consumer huggability. Let’s get on it, friends. Anyone know of a charity that takes brand new management self-help books?