Doing Well by Doing Good

Doing Well by Doing Good

Employee volunteer programs boost engagement and retention while serving the broader community.

By Arlene S. Hirsch
Society for Human Resource Management
January 5, 2019

Imagine this recruiting pitch: Come work for us, and you can get paid to spend multiple long weekends a year volunteering at some of the nation’s most beautiful national parks.

No imagination is necessary for employees at CSAA Insurance Group, based in Walnut Creek, Calif. More than 200 CSAA employees, along with family and friends, travel to Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Zion national parks 10 times annually to help rangers with maintenance and beautification projects. They get a paid day off on a Friday and spend the weekend volunteering and camping in the parks.

CSAA prides itself on having a values-based culture. The company motto — “taking care of business means taking care of each other”— makes that clear. In fact, company leaders added volunteering to the corporate scorecard six years ago and set a three-year goal of increasing participation among workers to 80 percent, up from 35 percent. Last year, the organization boasted a 99 percent participation rate.

​The result? Increased employee satisfaction and retention — and that’s not all. “Volunteer site leaders develop additional leadership and project management skills,” says community relations manager Roger Hancock, who relies on employee volunteers to help manage the program for the company’s 3,800 workers. Site leaders at seven regional offices oversee committees made up of five to 10 volunteers who are responsible for reviewing recommendations, selecting projects and coordinating events.

Employee volunteer programs (EVPs) offer a range of benefits to organizations that adopt them, with a special boost to the company’s “triple bottom line,” say experts, which links people with profits through community service.

Following one of the worst floods in Zion National Park’s history in July 2018, CSAA Insurance Group volunteers swept sand off the popular Riverside Walk, a wheelchair- and stroller-accessible trail at the Southern Utah park.

Building a Business Case

Before launching an EVP, company leaders typically survey employees to learn whether they would contribute their time and talents to this type of effort and which causes they care the most about. While some employees participate to meet new people, have fun and give back to the community, others embrace it as a vehicle for professional development.

Different motivations sometimes lead to different outcomes. Metrics show that projects like painting a classroom result in more-engaged workers, while skills-based volunteering (people using their professional talents) supports soft-skills and talent development.

“All successful programs put employees at the center. Employees champion the causes they care about the most.”
—Gary Levante, vice president of corporate social responsibility at Berkshire Bank, a 2,000-person Boston-based institution

And when they have a quality experience, business outcomes improve, he says. Berkshire’s EVP boasts a 100 percent participation rate among the bank’s 2,000 employees, but Levante believes that other metrics are equally important.

“Truly successful volunteer programs achieve measurable business outcomes around staff relations, talent and business development, reputation, morale, and more,” Levante says, adding that Berkshire’s top executives embrace its EVP because it helps improve recruitment, engagement and retention.

At the same time, these programs can improve an organization’s reputation and build brand awareness by strengthening relationships with business partners, customers and the community.

Measurable Business Benefits of Volunteer Programs

“You have to be able to use data to tell a compelling story to build a business case for the program,” Levante says. To do that, you need to understand what problems and challenges the business is facing―and how an EVP can address them.

When a group of workers at LaSalle Network, a Chicago-based staffing company, suggested creating a formal volunteer program, the executive leadership team was intrigued that the idea could help increase productivity and satisfaction. The result was “Community Champions,” an employee-led group of 10 volunteers who manage the program.

“We want to be a great place to work, and that means providing the resources for our staff to do what they are personally passionate about,” says the company’s CHRO, Sirmara Campbell. “We relished the fact that employees were vocalizing what they wanted and putting a plan around it.”

It has turned out to be a valuable recruitment tool as well.

“Many candidates cite the program as a reason they chose to apply to work at LaSalle,” Campbell says.

Working with Partners

Not all organizations have the human and financial resources needed to establish EVPs. But smaller companies often find success by partnering with larger peers. They also may leverage free or low-cost community resources to achieve a bigger social impact locally.

Leaders at Zumasys, a 74-employee cloud computing company in Irvine, Calif., planted the seeds for an EVP after pledging to donate 1 percent of profits to charity. That led top executives to approve Happyness is a Choice, an employee-directed committee that selects and organizes the company’s charitable activities and giving.

Many projects are collaborations with vendors and customers. In 2017, the business donated $13,000 in security equipment to Providence Hebrew Day School. The recipient was nominated by a Zumasys customer.

At LaSalle, volunteering activities have strengthened relationships with business associates, who are also invited to participate.

“We’ve had many opportunities to partner with clients over the years,” Campbell says. “Our employees get to bond with business partners about something they’re both passionate about, spending hours together talking business and life.”

Companies that need help getting a program off the ground can use templates, tools and expert advice available at nonprofits like the Points of Light foundation. It oversees a nationwide network of corporate councils where companies have access to information, resources and other businesses within the community that support workplace volunteerism.

Some employers have embraced skills-based volunteering, which can serve two purposes: In addition to enabling experienced employees to leverage their professional skills and talents for maximum social impact (like a lawyer taking a pro bono case), it serves as a professional development tool to showcase and grow their expertise.

Human resource executives agreed that contributing business skills and expertise to a nonprofit can be an effective way to improve employees’ leadership abilities and broader professional skill sets.
Source: 2016 Deloitte Volunteer IMPACT Survey.

The day-of-service model—often called a “hackathon” or “flash consulting”—is a skills-based version of traditional hands-on volunteering. But instead of packaging meal kits or painting a house, teams of people work with nonprofits on more-complex organizational challenges.

For the past nine years, participants in John Hancock’s Signature Skills program have worked closely with the nonprofit Common Impact to match employee talents and goals with the needs of specific nonprofit groups.

In 2017, John Hancock volunteers partnered with five groups whose mission involved supporting young people in low-income areas. The effort, which included flash consulting projects, provided sustainable data and technology solutions to the groups. This allowed them to spend less time troubleshooting and gathering data and more time focusing on their core mission.

Skills-based postings can be found on websites such as Catchafire, the Taproot Foundation and LinkedIn.

Shaping a Policy

Voluntary-time-off (VTO) policies outline how much time employees get to volunteer during regular work hours, as well as how and where they can use that time.

At IHS Markit, a London-based information services business, for example, workers get three VTO days per year. IHS leaders encourage people to use them to work at nonprofits committed to the company’s core values: health and wellness, education (particularly around the subjects of science, technology, engineering and math), and environmental stewardship.

At CSAA workers choose where to spend their three days. They must get their managers’ approval to avoid scheduling conflicts and prioritize business needs.

In addition to the three days, workers are eligible to receive another two weeks of VTO to help following a natural disaster—and they receive training in disaster response.

A ‘Helper’s High’

Volunteering can have a big impact on a person’s health and well-being, according to a Mayo Clinic study. This is sometimes referred to as a “helper’s high.” Specifically, volunteering can reduce stress levels, improve mood, help people stay active and give them a sense of purpose.

Angela Parker and Chris Jarvis, co-founders of Realized Worth, a Baltimore-based consulting firm, have identified three key actions the best EVPs take to help people realize psychological and emotional benefits:

Brief. Hold initial briefings to help volunteers get closer to the beneficiaries. This gives them a real sense of who they are helping and why it matters. When people appreciate the impact of their actions on real lives, it changes the way they think and feel about what they are doing and who they are doing it for.

Guide. Train volunteer guides to look after the well-being of other volunteers, since some experiences can be emotional and disorienting.

Debrief. Afterward, ask participants to engage in critical reflection. Parker boils the debriefing process down to two simple questions: “What did you experience?” and “Was it what you expected?” One study found that while people volunteer for altruistic reasons, the positive effects on health are limited if they don’t feel they are getting something in return.

Job Purposing

An innovative alternative to traditional EVPs called “job purposing” folds social purpose into ordinary jobs without taking people away from their daily responsibilities. This impacts the work experience more directly and has the potential to make a more sustainable social impact.

At Caesars Entertainment in Las Vegas, for example, housekeeping staff collect partially used bars of soap that are donated to the Clean the World Foundation. The soap is sterilized, remolded and distributed to families around the world that are at risk of dying from preventable diseases. After visiting the local sterilization plant, one housekeeper reportedly exclaimed, “It’s a miracle that we help children all over the world from right here!”

Caesars also trains its security guards to combat sex trafficking.

Survey data show that both the security-guard and housekeeping programs boost team members’ sense of purpose at work, which in turn drives engagement and productivity.

Bea Boccalandro, president of VeraWorks, a consulting company in Monarch Beach, Calif., that helps organizations implement job purposing, has collected data from 20-plus companies showing that workers with purposed jobs are substantially more engaged and productive. A safety manager at a Bayer CropScience plant in West Virginia, for example, made a job-purposing deal with employees: Every day that the plant had a perfect safety record, the company would donate to a charity of their choice. The result? Indicators of safe behaviors went up by over 200 percent.

Individuals with purposed jobs are also happier. “Work leaves most people cold and unfulfilled because it’s devoid of meaning,” Boccalandro says. With job purposing, “employees go home knowing they did something that mattered.”

Some companies, including Toyota and PwC, are training managers to attach social purpose to jobs and have begun codifying job-purposing options into their career development and other HR policies.

Anybody can learn to implement job purposing, says Boccalandro. “It’s mostly a matter of freeing our squishy caring side—what I call our ‘inner giver’—at work.”

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