Sustaining CSR in the Wake of Natural Disasters

A Day of Work Shows Sapient Exec the Need for Long-Term Efforts

Published on .

I don't have any personal experiences with natural disasters.

Like most of us, I am a spectator to the chaos caused by earthquakes, tornadoes, widespread flooding and the like. I get to choose how much, if any, of these forces become part of my lived experience -- watching a video online or flipping through pictures in a publication, I can put them down or click them into nonexistence whenever I chose.

Doris, an 80-year-old nurse from Apison, Tenn., does not have that choice.

In late April, her home and farmland were damaged by one of several tornadoes that hit many areas of the southeastern U.S.

Doris and I met by way of Sapient's corporate social responsibility program, Sapient Gives Back: a collection of like-minded programs, including charitable giving, pro-bono projects and -- as in this case -- hands-on volunteering in our local communities, all organized around our company mission of enabling human potential.

As part of Sapient Gives Back, a 50-person team from our Atlanta office spent one Friday this July with Doris and her neighbors in Apison, about two hours north of Atlanta.

Sapient staffers clean up a farm damaged by tornadoes in Georgia.
Sapient staffers clean up a farm damaged by tornadoes in Georgia.
On the bus ride there, the damage was not immediately clear, yet as we drove closer to the epicenter of the storm, we noticed swaths of trees stripped of their leaves across the street from completely healthy trees. It was an eerie feeling, foreshadowing the force and precision of a tornado's effects, which we would soon witness.

Clean-up organizers met us in Apison and put us to work immediately and efficiently, directing the effort as they've been doing every day since April 27. We began chopping fallen trees, burning brush and mending fences, all the while hearing personal stories from the resilient people of Apison.

We worked on Doris' 200 acres of farmland. The tornado took down more than 100 large trees on her property. Working with one Sapient team, we spent the day loading a pickup truck with chopped wood and hauling it to a local church, where it will be given away for heating fuel during the winter months.

This day of manual labor was hard work, but it also gave all of us a unique opportunity to experience each other outside our day-to-day office environment. That was an incredibly energizing feeling, and it helped to crystallize how many of us are just as passionate about our communities as we are about creating great work for our clients.

Before we left Doris that day, she said that there were no words to explain her gratitude. In lieu of words, she offered many, many smiles instead; seeing that was the best part of the day.

While my team and I left Apison and returned to our homes and families, what stayed with me the most is the scale of work that still needs to be done.

For each of the trees we cleared that day, there are 75 others. For the one fence we fixed, there are 25 others still in need of mending. The tornado clean-up still needs many more volunteers, donating many more days of hard labor.

As our frenzied 24/7 news cycle quickly turns to the next story -- the Oslo massacre, the passing of a talented singer, the debt crisis -- it's important to remember that the aftermath of natural disasters and their effects on communities remain long after the camera crews go home. We can only hope more companies recognize that social responsibility in the face of disaster relief is not a quick fix, knee-jerk reaction to the rapid-fire news cycle but a sustained commitment to rebuilding on the long road to recovery.

Frank Schettino is VP-people success at Sapient, a global marketing and IT professional services firm.
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