Doing good is good for business, but corporate America has a lot of work to do to build philanthropy into the way it operates.

According to a study for the Council on Foundations, corporate giving can pay big dividends in the form of actions by employees, customers and investors that benefit the companies.

Yet too few corporate executives either understand that philanthropy can boost the bottom line, or try to incorporate philanthropy into their business strategy, or both.

And even those executive who recognize and act on the business value of philanthropy may miss the big picture by failing to understand the needs of the communities they serve.

Like many foundations, many corporate-giving programs can focus on particular issues or needs that, while worthy of support, may reflect no more than the arbitrary priorities of top executives or board members, rather than a well-thought-out philanthropic strategy.

And today, in the face of a tough economy, no business can afford to waste valuable assets by failing to tie them to corporate strategy.

In the business world, the bottom line is profit. But profit does not bloom in isolation, and a growing number of companies have learned that integrating charity into their strategy and operations feeds profitability.

To tap the business value of charity, companies must understand the charitable value of business.

A company’s employees, customers, investors, products, services, profits and expertise all are valuable assets. By finding ways to tap those assets to meet the needs of the communities it serves, a company can create a powerful resource that adds value for everyone involved.

The first step is to recognize that business cannot operate without understanding and connecting with employees, customers and investors.

Business by its very nature is intimately tied to the communities it serves, and those communities have particular needs that business must understand if it expects to thrive.

The challenge is to treat philanthropy as a critical component of doing business - developing a philanthropic focus, building philanthropy into an overall business strategy, promoting philanthropy as a critical element of the corporate brand, tracking the impact of corporate philanthropy and making adjustments when needed.

Corporate executives need to focus on their companies’ philanthropy in the same way that they focus on their overall corporate strategy and bottom line.

They need to help set priorities for their corporate philanthropy, which is more likely to reflect community needs and corporate values if employees, customers and investors are included in the process of setting priorities.

By keeping its philanthropy in sync both with its own strengths and values and with the needs of the communities it serves, business can strengthen those communities while shaping and building its own value.

Todd Cohen, Philanthropy Journal of North Carolina