Renee Orrell is a longtime employee at Thymes who credits the maker of botanically based bath and body products also with enriching volunteer opportunities.

"It makes me feel proud to be part of this company," said Orrell, who also coordinates the employee volunteer committee. "Our company created this program to give back, and we are paid for up to eight hours a year. We work with those who focus on youth and assisting women."

Orrell and many of her colleagues help nonprofits such as Art Buddies, which matches professionals and students in creative pursuits at Whittier International Elementary School and at the Tubman shelter in Minneapolis.

Thymes, a women-owned-and-managed small business with a national reach, is one many Twin Cities Top Workplaces for 2010 that have instituted formal volunteer programs for employees who often choose the charities and projects. They are often backed with company donations of time, funds, materials and other support.

This community engagement honors a time-honored Minnesota tradition of corporate philanthropy, perhaps most prominently represented by the annual United Way campaign or one of the "Keystone'' companies that each year pledge to donate at least 2 percent of pretax income to schools and nonprofits.

However, the movement has become more grass-roots over the last decade, with line employees picking more of the causes. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence, as well as some research, that indicates these programs also build worker esprit, connection with the company and retention.

"It not only feels good, but there can be measurable impact through the talent that companies can attract and retain," said Teresa Daly, a veteran HR executive who also runs a professional-transition firm called Navigate Forward. "A lot of baby boomers and younger want to know if a company is involved in the community. I see that more and more."

Several years ago the Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College and the Points of Light Foundation concluded that employee volunteer programs, if done well, provide "value-added benefits" that build esprit, new business relationships and enhance the reputation of participating companies.

"Your reputation is everything and you are either growing it or destroying it," said CEO Doug Cole, the founder of 30-year-old, employee-owned Cole's Salon, the No. 2 ranked medium-sized company on our Top Workplaces list. "We have 300 people representing us. The customer is king. We care about them, their causes and these communities.

"We at headquarters can write a $10,000 check for Haiti or a tsunami. But the creative things, the customer-and-employee walks for breast cancer, or MS, or giving haircuts at the Ronald McDonald house for visiting families ... we support just about everything the employees ask us to do. Giving is just good."

The Points of Light study identified five critical success factors for an employee volunteer plan, including key goals to achieve; measurements of desired outcomes; ensuring grass-roots support; hands-on planning, and support from management.

Daly said smart companies often align their business with their charitiable outreach, such as Nash Finch, a food wholesaler, focusing on food and nutrition initiatives or Valspar focusing on supplying paint for neighborhood face-lifts.

Walking the talk

And if the brass talks the talk, but top executives aren't painting a homeless shelter with the crew on Saturday or reading to kids as part of the literacy program, the initiative will ring hollow.

At Securian Financial, St. Paul's largest financial institution, CEO Bob Senkler has long been seen rallying the troops at United Way kickoffs and aiding other nonprofit endeavors. Senkler serves on all the right boards and committees. He also has a long fuse and recently negotiated a pact among competing arts organizations over the use of St. Paul's Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. And he tries to get involved on the floor in many employee initiatives. A couple of years ago, Senkler, after employee input, decided that a community-service component should be part of every employee conference and celebration.

In April 2009, for example, at an annual reward trip-and-conference to South Africa for Securian's top-performing financial advisers, everybody spent a day packing and delivering backpacks stuffed with supplies to a school full of disadvantaged kids, and the rest of the day helping out with tasks the faculty had requested in advance.

"Good organizations differentiate themselves and capture the imagination -- the heart, if you would -- of their associates,'' Senkler said. "One of the ways we try to do that is by encouraging our associates to become involved in their communities.''

Lynn Casey, CEO of Padilla Speer Beardsley, an employee-owned marketing and communications firm, puts her time into the Itasca Group, which focuses on economic-vitality improvement programs for the Twin Cities and workforce development efforts targeted at immigrants and disadvantaged people.

The firm, with worker input, selects pro bono clients and employees get time to work on campaigns.

"We see these studies about employee volunteer programs that suggest they improve staff engagement and retention and there are those that suggest that if you are seen as a good corporate citizen your customers recognize that and some may be willing to pay a premium for your services," Casey said. "What's not to support? But I want it to be more than one-off volunteer opportunities. I want our employees to understand that we exist, after nearly 50 years, because the community has voted in favor of us. Employers get it because it is in their enlightened self-interest."

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 •