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

Published: Friday, July 6 2012 11:35 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."

Increasingly, companies are attracting and retaining employees by focusing on what Jeanne Meister, author of "The 2020 Workplace: How innovative companies attract, develop and keep tomorrow's employees today," calls the "triple bottom line": profits, people and the planet. More than half of workers say having a job where they can make an impact is essential to their happiness, according recent research from the nonprofit NetImpact. By comparison, just 21 percent indicated money was important and 25 percent said they valued prestige.

The young feel this way even more strongly. Seventy-two percent of graduating college students said they wanted to work for a company dedicated to making the world a better place, according to the survey. All other things being equal, 45 percent of students said they would take a 15 percent pay cut to work for an organization that makes a social or environmental impact. Close to 60 percent said they would take a pay cut to work for an organization with values that reflected their own.

By 2020, this rising generation will make up 50 percent of the workforce, Meister said. Forward thinking companies are aligning their corporate social responsibility programs with their strategies for growth.

For example, Viridian, a 2009 startup dedicated to providing consumers with affordable, green electricity, advertises job opportunities with the tagline, "Learn how to earn while making a difference." The company advertises its practice of sending top performers on humanitarian expeditions front and center on its website.

"Creating a path to a more sustainable world is a pretty core part of who we are," said Cami Boehme, senior vice president of sustainability at the Connecticut-based company. "We are looking to work with people who value the same things."

Who's winning?

Sohan's experience in Guatemala gave him "a completely new perspective on life," he said.

"I've got a crack in the floor of my bathroom that was bothering me before I left," he said. "When I came home I just thought, 'So what? My kids are healthy. I have a beautiful house with running water and electricity. Life is not so bad.' "

If he was excited about the idea of serving when Academy Mortgage proposed the Guatemala trip, after his return he was convinced, "We shouldn't be going to Hawaii; we should be going back to Guatemala to fix this town." He had read about celebrities like Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie "trying to save the world," but it had never occurred to him that, he, too, could make a real impact.

Aaron Miller, a social entrepreneurship expert who teaches business ethics at Brigham Young University, counts this empowerment among the biggest benefits of getting employees involved in a company's efforts to be socially responsible.

"All of us understand theoretically what it means to be poor," he said. "But, unless you see it firsthand, it's all intellectual. When you take that experience from intellectual and make it actual, that's when people start to change."

In some ways, "the trip is for the vacationers more than it is for the local people," Miller said.

When it comes to helping the poor, not all service expeditions are created equal. For decades, foreigners have been dropping in on poor countries, building schools and wells, then leaving before the dust settled, he said. When the community is not engaged, schools sit empty, water pumps break down and projects wind up being a gigantic waste of money. Furthermore, with too many eager do-gooders passing out free goods in some areas of the developing world the poor have ceased trying to take care of themselves.

"Nobody is going to change the world in two weeks," Miller said.

To ensure success, Miller suggested companies partner with nonprofit organizations that work with local leaders on projects year round. Academy Mortgage worked with the anti-poverty nonprofit Choice Humanitarian. Viridian teamed up with World Joy, a Utah nonprofit that focuses on health and education issues in Ghana.

In addition to providing free labor, businesses often donate money and expertise the communities they seek to help. Regina Klitgaard, executive director of World Joy, which started organizing corporate expeditions to Ghana a year and a half ago, sees the incentive trips as "divine intervention."

"It's opened up a brand new revenue source for us, for which we are so grateful," she said. "It really is a win-win situation because we are able to get the work done, expose more people to our mission and build a life-long support network."

World Joy worked with Viridian to use the company's expertise to help villagers. While in Ghana, employees installed solar panels on a health clinic so the locals would have a sustainable power source to refrigerate vaccines and installed a merry-go-ground that produces electricity with each spin.

Though he is used to talking to people about how green energy can change lives, Frank Marone, an independent associate for Viridian, said seeing how access to sustainable energy changed life for African villagers was emotional.

"You know we are doing good here, but you can't see it," said the 52-year-old. "You leave Africa and you really appreciate what you do have."

Sohan echoed the sentiment.

"It was amazing and difficult, very difficult," he said. "Emotionally, you're just torn between heartbreak and a high."

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