With the 2011 holiday season under way, I reached out to ConAgra Foods Corporate Affairs Vice President and ConAgra Foods Foundation President Christopher Kircher to find out some trends and best practices of corporate giving.

How can companies complement their year-round corporate giving programs with a holiday event or program?

Look for opportunities to engage employees and their families either as volunteers in or as supporters of a particular cause. Here at ConAgra Foods, one of our primary charitable focus areas is fighting child hunger. Throughout the holidays, we provide ways for employees and their families to help “Shine the Light on Hunger” in their community by preparing and serving food at area shelters, participating in food drives, packing weekend backpacks for kids, volunteering at the local food bank and hosting special events for kids in need. Here at our Omaha headquarters, as part of the city’s Holiday Lights Festival, we build an ice skating rink on our campus that is open to the public for a couple of weeks during the holidays. All proceeds from the rink as well as all food donations collected there are donated to the local food bank.

How can headquarters encourage local divisions to participate in the event or program, or create their own?

Add an element of friendly competition between locations and/or establish a reward for achieving a particular goal. During ConAgra Foods’ United Way campaign, for example, employees at participating locations who achieve a certain level of giving receive an extra day of vacation to be used during the year. When an additional stretch goal is met, these employees are eligible to work a half day on Fridays during the month of December. Rather than just measuring financial contributions, goals can be established for in-kind donations (i.e. poundage, number of items), volunteer hours, etc.

What are some best practices in setting up a program or agreeing to participate in another group’s?

Make sure to include employees and their families, particularly in volunteer efforts. Not only do employees appreciate the opportunity to give back with their families’ help, the additional volunteers can provide more resources for the particular cause being addressed. Look for volunteer opportunities that apply to as broad a range of ages as possible, but understand that some activities may necessitate a minimum age for participation.

What are some opportunities and challenges with corporate giving, specifically around the holidays?

The holidays are a great time to provide employees with an opportunity to give back to the causes that mean the most to them. However, in order to make the biggest impact collectively as a company, it’s helpful to have a charitable focus on one or two core causes. In the case of the ConAgra Foods Foundation, we are focused on addressing hunger and nutrition education, and that’s where the bulk of our employees’ charitable efforts are directed.

What else is important with respect to corporate giving around the holidays?

Always remember it’s about the charity, not the company. While it’s great for a company to be recognized for its support of a particular cause, the driving force behind providing this support needs to be simply that it’s the right thing to do.

Does your company contribute to special causes? Share your stories and best practices in the comments.

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