Businesses and Community Benefit from Employee Volunteer Projects

By Kevin Woo March 6, 2018
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​The U.S. economy continues to chug along.  The unemployment rate is at a 17-year low, which is certainly good news for American workers. But for companies that want to add high-quality talent to their ranks, it's tough to attract new talent. Getting a candidate to switch companies requires more than a competitive salary and generous bonus programs. To lure a top candidate, some employers are adding by subtraction. They're offering prospects and employees time out of the office to volunteer in the community, and it's working. 

A 2017 Deloitte Volunteerism Survey concluded that employees like it when businesses incorporate involvement in the community into the workday. Integration into the community boosts employee morale and helps create a positive working atmosphere. Of the 1,000 employees surveyed, the report concluded that: 

  • 70 percent believe that volunteer opportunities boost morale more than company mixers.
     
  • 77 percent believe that volunteerism is essential to employee well-being.
     
  • 89 percent of the respondents think that company-sponsored volunteer activities—such as 10k runs or food drives—create a better working environment.
     

In July 2017, Ervin & Smith, an Omaha, Neb., digital marketing agency, responded to its employees' desire to get out into the community and volunteer time. The company created an outreach program that gives employees a day off each quarter to volunteer or participate in a professional development activity. 

Some employees spend time working with community projects such as Big Brothers Big Sisters or at food banks. Other employees volunteer time at Omaha's Children's Hospital & Medical Center to support families who have infants in the neonatal intensive care unit.

"Our employees are passionate about different things and want to donate their time in different ways," said Heidi Mausbach, Ervin & Smith's chief executive. "There's a productivity benefit to allowing employees time to pursue passions outside of work. They can recharge, and they bring creative ideas or innovative ways of thinking back into the workplace."

It would be easy to assume that the agency would come to a grinding halt on the days the office is closed, or that clients could come unhinged if they were unable reach someone from their account team. Not so. Ervin & Smith's clients are well-acquainted with the agency's tradition. "The key is to plan ahead and streamline time off," Mausbach said.

After the first few volunteer days, the Ervin & Smith management team noticed a different vibe in the office. The account teams took the skills they learned while away from their day jobs and applied them to client work, making the volunteer days a win-win-win for the employees, clients and the agency.

Traditional Volunteerism Still Works

The notion of letting employees take a day off to do whatever they want might give an employer pause. The return on investment of allowing employees to spend time anywhere in the community is hard to quantify. The boost in morale and overall positive feelings about the company don't directly translate into dollars and cents.

To address the dilemma of evaluating time spent out of the office and in the community, APTMetrics, an HR consultancy in Darien, Conn., decided to play to its strengths. It developed a relationship with Pacific House, a shelter for homeless men. Pacific House, based in nearby Stamford, offers hot meals, sleeping accommodations, recovery programs and job-readiness training.

Because APTMetrics' business is to help its clients find the best candidates for jobs, the partnership with Pacific House was a natural. APTMetrics employees create several hundred "grooming kits"—bags that contain personal care products such as soap, razors and washcloths—that are given to each new resident. The idea is to arm the men residents with the necessary supplies to go out into the community and look for jobs.

While a grooming kit might sound simplistic, it's a confidence builder for Pacific House residents. The kits are particularly important when you consider that Pacific House is located within Connecticut's so-called Gold Coast, one of the wealthiest areas in the country. Interviewing for a job can be difficult under the best of circumstances. Try doing it when your address is the local homeless shelter.

The mission of Pacific House is of particular interest to Kathleen Lundquist, APTMetrics' chief executive. "Pacific House provides housing, training, clothing and work connections, all of which are very attractive to our core business. Through our partnership, we're helping the Pacific House put these men and women to work," she said.

The work at Pacific House helps APTMetrics, too. The company has 64 employees, 40 percent of whom telecommute. Account teams don't have the chance to interact face-to-face very often, so getting the group together gives the employees a chance to see each other face-to-face and develop new friendships that aren't possible through conference calls and e-mail. 

"The Pacific House work groups were not comprised of people who typically collaborate on consulting projects on a day-to-day basis, so new relationships are formed," said Rebecca Parry, HR manager at APTMetrics; these relationships have resulted in greater efficiency and productivity among the account team members.

Feeding the Kids

YapStone, an online payment service provider located in Walnut Creek, Calif., has developed an in-house project that is similar to the Pacific House initiative. YapStone's project, called YapCares, targets underprivileged kids. Each month, company employees, so-called Yapsters, dedicate time to put together nutrition bags for at-risk and underprivileged youth.

During the school year, kids who live below the poverty line are usually part of a school meal program but, during the summer or mid-semester breaks, they may go without food. 

YapCares steps in to fill the void. Company employees fill nutrition bags that contain items such as peanut butter, nuts, fruit snacks and fresh vegetables. The Yapsters also put together hygiene bags for women that are delivered to local shelters. YapStone fully funds both programs.

Committing time each month to assembling the nutrition bags has become a de facto team-building exercise. The participants often don't work in the same department so assembly day is frequently the only time some employees see each other. The projects have created new friendships, comradery and, as a great side benefit, higher overall productivity and efficiency.

"One [company] social event a month is dedicated to YapCares," said Debra Tenenbaum, YapStone's chief people officer. "The cause that YapCares is focused on is homelessness and the variables that contribute to homelessness." 

Tenenbaum says that as the management team developed the YapCares initiative they wanted a way for the employees to be involved in the community without needing to leave the office. That's how the idea of using company social hours to help the community was born.

Some Yapsters also make blankets for local shelters, and others collect gently used business clothing to donate.

The positive energy from the YapCares project has filtered through the office, and more employees have gotten involved. "At YapStone, we have never experienced a YapCares social event that hasn't worked," Tenenbaum said. "What we have experienced is an insurgence of ideas from our employees of what more events or initiatives we could do or organizations we could partner with."

Kevin Woo is a freelance writer from San Francisco.

Related SHRM Article:

The Benefits of Philanthropy and VolunteerismSHRM Online Benefits, February 2016

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