Redefining rewards: Businesses honor top performers with a chance to serve the poor

Published: Friday, July 6 2012 9:00 p.m. MDT

Mike Jensen, Jason Spears and Len Cercone, form a line to pass rocks up a mountain in a Guatemala.

Academy Mortgage

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A career salesman, Bill Sohan has lost track of the number of incentive trips his employers have sent him on. Sunshine, margaritas by the pool, relaxation — "I'm not going to tell you it's not a good time," he says with a laugh. But, in his mind, all those cruises and Hawaiian getaways were just perks that came with the job; he never altered his work habits to earn a spot.

This year, though, his company planned a different kind of vacation for the most elite performers. Instead of beaches and luxury hotels, Academy Mortgage proposed a trip to Guatemala, sleeping on the ground and spending a week building a water system for the poor. When the memo hit his email box, Sohan informed his coworkers, "I am going on this trip if it's the last thing I do with this company." And then he started burning the midnight oil.

"You had to be top, top, top dog to get on this trip," said Sohan, who heads up a branch in Maryland. "I fought tooth and nail to make it happen."

Academy Mortgage is not the only — or the first — company to trade traditional incentive trips for service expeditions in developing countries. In recent years, nonprofits that organize humanitarian trips report increasing interest from businesses looking to involve employees in their philanthropic efforts. And the service expeditions are just one example of the ways a growing number of businesses are leveraging their human capital to make the world a better place.

While the trend is still young, experts say companies that don't provide opportunities for employees to get involved in corporate philanthropy efforts may be doing themselves a disservice. When it comes to picking a place of employment, recent research shows a majority of Americans value having a job that helps them to make a social impact more than a job that brings them prestige or wealth. The sentiment is even stronger among the up-and-coming generation of workers, many of whom say they would take pay cut to work for a company that enables them to make a difference.

"I'm a person who does a lot of charity work and community service," Sohan said. "The idea of taking some time out to go to a developing country and do some good really appealed to me."

Company values

In Guatemala, Sohan spent his days lugging close to 1,000 rocks weighing as much as 75 pounds from the jungle to the construction site of a water tank. Working side by side with local Mayans, who don't have access to clean water, he used the rocks to make concrete. Most of the time he wasn't quite sure what was going on. The building plans weren't translated into English. The local construction methods were unfamiliar. He couldn't understand the local dialect.

It was sweaty, frustrating work.

"I'm a 40-year-old guy who hasn't been to the gym in 20 years," he said. "My body isn't exactly conducive to carrying 70 pound boulders."

But Sohan found the cultural whiplash and sore muscles satisfying. T-shirt soaked, skin crusted in salt, all he wanted at the end of the day was a nice, refreshing shower. In the village, though, where people lived in wooden huts with dirt floors, such an idea was an impossibility. His work bringing clean water to the people would help change that.

Academy Mortgage's dedication to helping people, not only through philanthropy, but also through the everyday work of putting people in homes, was a big factor in his decision to sign on with the company, he said.

"I always knew we had something good here," he said. "When I was sitting in a mud pit with the president of the company digging out rocks, I just thought, 'Wow. ... I work for a special company."

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