Since we were founded here in 1921, United Way has had the honor and privilege of working with Pierce County’s best companies. Some of those companies were our close partners from the beginning, co-founders of the Community Chest that became United Good Neighbors and then United Way.

One critical lesson we have learned is that the best companies are guided by a single principle: They serve the invisible customer they call the community.

An efficient way to take care of that invisible customer is to run a United Way campaign, and we are genuinely grateful when they help in that way. But the best companies don’t stop there.

Truly outstanding companies go beyond corporate gifts and employee campaigns to make community service a cornerstone of their philosophy. They lead the way in addressing community needs.

A lot of companies do some good. The best companies understand that when you do it in collaboration with others it is more powerful. Working together grows community.

Outstanding examples in Pierce County include The Boeing Company, Frank Russell Company, Weyerhaeuser and Simpson Tacoma Kraft. Dozens of Frank Russell employees spend hours each month tutoring Tacoma students in math. Boeing employee efforts range from coaching children in computer skills to building them playgrounds, not only in Pierce County but all over the region. Boeing Employee Community Fund is managed by employees themselves, one of the most generous in America, supporting causes from schools to arts to human services.

At Simpson Tacoma Kraft it’s an honor to serve on the Community Care Team, which hears and decides on dozens of funding and volunteer service requests each year. Their United Way campaign, run by company volunteers, is a commitment to our larger community. This year it is breaking a record.

Weyerhaeuser Foundation is another major funder of good causes, locally and across the nation. Weyerhaeuser employees are involved in projects such as DECA, soccer and Little League. Boards of directors of non-profits and school boards include many Weyerhaeuser employees, encouraged by their company to make personal commitments.

The same can be said for banks, KeyBank and Seafirst for instance, and also for regional and community banks such as Columbia.

United Way wants to grow the volunteer resource, linking companies who care with people who need their help. We want to move the community toward a positive critical mass, challenging every significant company to make community service part of its mission.

If your company doesn’t know where to start, here’s the recipe the community has shown us:

First, identify deeply with the immediate community. These companies regard company interest and community interest as synonymous. In the community it might mean working on projects that improve public education or healthcare. Or it may mean funding safe streets projects or supporting the arts.

Second, good companies expect a return on their investment. A powerful example of that is the decision of a company to loan United Way an employee. These loaned executives manage our annual campaign, some staying on for as long as a year. That’s an amazing gift, but it’s also an effective investment in personnel. Good companies find that the company benefits.

Our 1998 campaign chair Don Johnson, general manager of Simpson Tacoma Kraft, calls it a win-win for the community and for Simpson. Loaned executives return to the company fired up, rejuvenated and with a richer understanding of how a healthy community functions, Johnson says.

Good companies also see community service as an employee benefit.

The direct benefit is the growth they get from working with others on a common mission, which is really the definition of community. An example of that is the way TOTE supports the local YWCA, which provides a safe shelter and counseling support for battered women. By giving its corporate blessing to the program, TOTE not only helps victims, it also sends a message to employees about company values.

United Way looks to companies to stand up on behalf of the community. By giving more, caring more and doing more, they give every human being in the county a little more hope each year.

And by doing so, the companies generate hope, commitment and community in their employees.

Author Rick Allen is president of United Way of Pierce County.