How businesses and their employees can get involved with community service endeavors

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Sue Zazon, President and CEO, Columbus region, FirstMerit Bank

Whether it’s volunteering for a social services organization or serving on the board of directors of a favorite charity, people have different ways of giving back. Businesses should encourage community involvement because it benefits everyone from the employee to the employer to the individuals being helped.
“As a company, we recognize we have a social responsibility to help the communities we serve,” says Sue Zazon, the president and CEO of FirstMerit Bank’s Columbus region. “We feel it is a priority to give back to Columbus and the surrounding communities and make them better places to live and raise a family.  We are all living and raising our families here too.”
Smart Business spoke with Zazon about how businesses can get involved in their communities.
How can a company help busy employees find time for community service work?
First off, don’t tell people to volunteer; ask them to volunteer. If you are really committed to community involvement, people will volunteer. Community service is a part of FirstMerit’s culture. If an employee wants to be a part of that culture, then show them what you would like to see from them.
Honestly, community involvement can take whatever form an employee chooses. It’s not a cut-and-dried checklist, so encourage employees to find something they are really passionate about, and allow them to commit themselves to community involvement during work hours. If they are going to take time away from their families and time away from the office, then it should be for something they are passionate about.
If simply asking doesn’t work, how can a business encourage volunteering?
Do as much as you can to make it easy to volunteer. If you organize the community service effort and just ask for volunteers, employees will be more willing to pitch in than if they had to find a community service effort on their own. Having someone help organize activities for the company makes it easy for employees to volunteer.
Even in small businesses, there is usually someone who is passionate about community involvement. You can always ask your employees if they have any interest in helping organize community activities for our company. You may get a volunteer out of your work force who doesn’t mind heading that up for a year, or forever.
Even if you don’t have the resources to have a dedicated community relations person, you can have a volunteer in your business to do that for a set amount of time, and then rotate that responsibility.
How does a business’s community involvement benefit the employees?
First, it makes them feel good about working for the company. Most people want to work for an organization that cares about its friends and neighbors, not just the bottom line. And usually, your employees are those friends and neighbors, because you hire from within the communities you serve.
Community involvement also shows employees that the company cares about more than just the company itself. It helps boost morale and is great for team building. Employees often have a lot of fun working together toward a common goal. It creates a buzz around the office and it brings people together. Spending time away from the office as a group creates a closer working relationship between coworkers. Plus, you get to meet other like-minded, socially responsible people outside the workplace. That networking with other people and companies can be great for business. If you have people in a business development role meeting people from other companies, they are exposed to other opportunities.
Where can businesses find ideas on how to get involved in their community?
A great place to start is the local United Way. It touches so many different organizations in so many different ways. They are a great resource to find what organizations need help in your area and to provide contact information. Many times we have an employee that has experienced service from a community organization.  We have asked for employees to submit names of organizations based on their experiences and then chosen a few to support. This creates a very personal bond because the team is aware of how a colleague of theirs has received help or maybe even continues to received help.
Finally, look in the community section of the newspaper. You could probably open the newspaper on any given day and find a story about an organization that’s in need.
What are some of the ways FirstMerit is involved with its community?
In Columbus, we’ve supported many grassroots philanthropy efforts. Throughout the year we have Friday dress-down days with proceeds going to rotating charities based on employee suggestions.
During the past year the Columbus Region supported many organizations:
• Court Appointed Special Advocate Association, a nonprofit network supporting and promoting court appointed volunteer advocacy for abused and neglected children
• American Cancer Society Pan Ohio Hope Ride
• Spring for SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome)
• Salvation Army Angel Tree Toy Drive, which distributes donated toys to needy children and families in the Columbus area
•, which sends donated care packages to deployed Soldiers who are currently fighting for our country
In addition, employees of the Columbus Region participate in the annual Komen Race for the Cure Walk/Run, representing FirstMerit Bank. We also have a budget for individuals who are on boards of directors to support those organizations.
SUE ZAZON is the president and CEO of FirstMerit Bank’s Columbus region. Reach her at [email protected] or (614) 545-2791.