A hi-tech company's former IT manager has turned his attention to bridging the gap between businesses and community.
By RUTH EGLASH
Avner Chen, community relations manager for Amdocs, one of the country's biggest hi-tech companies, talks with heightened enthusiasm about the day not so long ago when he brought together disadvantaged children from the Alumim boarding school in Kfar Saba and representatives of the Israel Police.
"It was the first time they'd ever seen a policeman in a positive light," recalls Chen, a veteran of the hi-tech industry who over the last five years has redirected his managerial skills to working with children and youth at risk living near to Amdocs's four branches in Ra'anana, Sderot, Tirat Carmel and Hod Hasharon.
"The goal was to try to show them the police from the angle of a regular citizen; for so many of these children, their previous experience with the police is very bad. It took a while for them to change their views, but after several meetings the children began to see them in a completely different way."
Connecting children and youth at risk, who for the most part have only witnessed the police dragging their parents away in the middle of the night, with law enforcement is only one aspect of Chen's work as the international company's liaison with the wider community.
Under his direction, some 500 Amdocs employees, out of a total of 4,000 here, provide a variety of educational and care services touching the lives of more than 1,200 young people, many of whom have been removed from their families and are living in boarding schools.
"Each Amdocs branch has a community relations department and has adopted a community project nearby," explains Chen, who provides each department with guidance and ideas to develop the volunteer programs. "This makes it easier for the employees to reach the places where they are volunteering.
"We don't see this as a philanthropic venture in any way, even though we do contribute funds to support the various projects and activities. The most important aspect is the human contact with these kids."
CHEN'S MOVE from Amdocs's IT manager to community relations took place five years ago, when his daughter, Tamar, 25, was fighting a losing battle against a brain tumor.
"My family had been dealing with it for 10 years," he says, visibly saddened by his loss. "It was a very intensive and frustrating period. Toward the end, my daughter was severely disabled and almost blind, and the way the public reacted to her disabilities was very hard for us.
"Even though it was tough, her situation made me realize that so much needed to be done to help the underprivileged."
As Chen grew tired of his intense work as IT manager, the position of community relations manager became vacant.
"They offered it to me and at the time it seemed like the right change for me," he says, adding that he now feels privileged to have had such an opportunity to utilize his managerial experience and channel his newly found compassion for those less fortunate.
"Obviously there's no compensation for the loss of my daughter," reflects Chen, who has two other grown-up children. "However, it is very important to me to help others. When I see my actions and activities have really helped others, it's an amazing feeling."
Although such outreach activities had existed at Amdocs for a number of years, Chen managed to refocus the company's approach to volunteering and community relations, deciding to pour all the resources into one field in a way that would ensure success.
"The new goal is to focus on one topic and watch it grow over a long period of time," he states. "We are a company that strives for excellence in the business world, and I just decided to adopt that approach to strive for excellence in community relations too."
Under Chen's leadership, Amdocs volunteers provide children and teens with a wide range of services, such as lessons in English, math and matriculation exam preparation, as well as a big brother/big sister project that gives the children a personal connection with an adult.
"I believe that all big companies should be involved in such activities in their community," he says. "They should check the neighborhoods around them and contribute in any way they can. I believe this is a growing trend and we will start to see this more and more."
Why is it so important for Amdocs to reach out to the community?
Improving the community around you is the responsibility of all citizens of a country, and big companies should not be exempt from that. Wherever a company is located, it should take on the challenge of helping the community.
Besides, when you provide your own employees with a platform to volunteer, it gives them motivation and pride in the place they work. Of course, it's a combination of personal satisfaction and community responsibility.
Has the economic recession affected Amdocs' charitable work?
Despite the economic situation, we have not been asked to reduce our budget at all. I do not make the decision on the budget, but nothing has been cut.
In Israel, our total investment in community volunteering is NIS 3.75 million a year, most of it going toward our 12 ongoing projects located near to one of our four branches.
How can the company justify to its employees, who may have witnessed staff layoffs or experienced salary cuts, that these community projects should continue?
I don't believe community volunteering is in the same league as bonuses or salary increases.
The sense I get from our employees is that they feel this kind of work is just as important and they want to be involved as much as possible in helping the community.
Very often, if we are running a specific fund-raising activity or a volunteering day, we find that most people come and join in.
Are Amdocs employees obliged to volunteer?
Volunteering is completely the choice of each employee; however, we do offer them the flexibility to volunteer when it suits them best.
Some decide that it is most convenient for them to volunteer in the morning and complete their work later in the day. A lot of it depends, however, on the type of volunteering: If it is in a school, most of the work is done in the morning; if it's more extracurricular activities, it will likely be in the evening or afternoon.
We offer the employees five hours of volunteering at the company's expense; any volunteering they do over those hours comes from the employee himself. Of course some companies cover all the volunteering hours, but we decided it was best like this because it dictates a certain level of cooperation between the employee and the company.
Do you ask for financial contributions?
We enable our employees to donate in a structured way twice a year, when we run a donation drive to provide the kids with a holiday gift basket filled with candies and goodies.
On this particular project we partner with [local food giant] Strauss, which helps us to develop our relationships with other local companies. This is also an important aspect because it encourages other big companies to develop their community relations too.
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