April 28, 2010; Source: Marketwatch | CIGNA is not alone in the corporate practice of paying for employees to volunteer. The CIGNA program announced yesterday gives employees up to eight hours a year of paid time off for volunteer activities, which the company anticipates will result in 200,000 hours of community service.

The nice thing about the program is that it gives employees time off from their workdays or workweeks. So often, nonprofits are bereft of volunteers from 9 to 5 and inundated with too many budding volunteers on weekends. The CIGNA program is, in a way, an employee benefit much like those corporations that match employees’ workplace giving through United Way, America’s Charities, or other payroll deduction campaigns.

It isn’t entirely selfless, however. Corporate philanthropy almost always has a bottom line component, even if the economic return is in the form of publicity and corporate recognition. That comes through loud and clear in the CIGNA press release statements: “Every day, in communities across the country, on the job and on their own, the people of CIGNA are helping others to lead healthier, more productive and secure lives,” CIGNA’s CEO, David Cordani said, adding, “expanding the volunteer pool in our communities touches every-one (sic) and helps CIGNA employees make a difference every day both on and off the job.”

According to a McClatchy wire story in the Columbia Daily Tribune, corporations “understand the bottom-line benefit of giving back,” citing the positive publicity for corporations such as the Hospital Corporation of America (which pays employees for 24 hours of volunteering and makes a $500 contribution to a charity if employees volunteer one more hour), the Miami Dolphins “Special Teams” program, and Royal Caribbean’s “Give Day” at Shake-a-Leg Miami.

The downside is not about the corporate volunteers, but the corporations themselves. Increasingly, corporate philanthropy is “in-kind” or in the form of the value of employees’ time. It’s great to see CIGNA, HCA, and others supporting their employees with volunteer time. It shouldn’t come at the cost of reduced corporation charitable or philanthropic giving.—Rick Cohen