The other day, I was talking with a friend when I noticed a handmade stuffed animal on the counter behind him. I inquired, and he said it was his company’s official mascot — a jackalope.

Apparently, the thing travels all over the country with employees as they travel for business, attend charity events and just hang out around their offices. The company even encourages them to post pictures and stories about the jackalope’s adventures.

I asked him if anyone at his office thought it was silly. He gave me a rather incredulous look before saying, “Everybody loves the jackalope.”

A culture of giving

This sparked a conversation about company culture and what works. The traveling mascot is just one of many things his company does to encourage cohesiveness — they also have a company-run fantasy football league, company outings, flexible schedules, and, during the summer, the option to wear shorts and flip flops for a $20 monthly donation that is given to a charity of the employees’ choice. Though nobody is pressured to donate, every single person gladly does, he said.

I relayed to him how our company recently helped sponsor a Make-A-Wish trip for a child, and how the company routinely collects food and donations for the local food bank throughout the year, among other things.

My friend nodded and added that, although he's had job offers elsewhere for a little more money, he does not want to work anywhere else because he truly likes his coworkers as well as the company’s overall culture of giving. (And there’s the jackalope, too, of course).

While we have written about many different ways to create a positive company culture here in the pages of PM — from offering competitive benefits to allowing flexible schedules and instituting employee rewards programs, just to name a few — I would venture to say that one of the most effective ways to do this is by encouraging individuals to give back, whether through volunteering their labor on company-sponsored volunteer days or by donating baked goods, money, unused clothing, outerwear, canned goods, school supplies or whatever else the occasion calls for.

It makes sense. If employees can rally around a worthy cause and donate their time, money or skills to support it because the company has created the opportunity to do so, that can result in meaningful relationship-building between coworkers and a sense of accomplishment as a group. Of course, the charity benefits from it, as well, and giving back just feels good.

Years ago, I covered a story at a local automotive parts maker here in Detroit that was raising an obscene amount of money each year for charity, given the office size. The company spends all year running different fundraisers — bake sales, $5 casual Fridays, pay-to-wear-jeans days, etc. — and provides company matching on all donations. It becomes highly competitive between departments, and it all culminates in a large family picnic where employees can eat, drink, socialize, play games and even pay to “dunk” the executives in a water tank. The year I covered the event, they presented more than 20 local charities with a total of $52,000 in donations.

What I noticed walking around the picnic was how everybody was genuinely happy to be there and to be interacting with each other. Even the dripping-wet execs were smiling. The cohesiveness within the company was apparent, and a great deal of it came from their shared charitable ventures headed up by a few like-minded leaders.

Involving an entire company in a charitable cause can be an effective and all-around beneficial way of creating a culture of giving. And while things like giving employees a paid day off to volunteer their time somewhere may take an initial investment on the business owner’s part, the return on that investment may be even higher than one might think.