Online Tools Give Giving a Boost

More companies are using technology to support employees’ philanthropic endeavors.

By Donna M. Owens Dec 1, 2012
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1212cover.gifFernán Cepero, PHR, recalls when workplace giving campaigns revolved around the paper pledge card.

"It was a simple process. Employees just had to fill it out," says Cepero, vice president of human resources at the YMCA of Greater Rochester.

Yet the digital age has caused a shift, leading more HR teams to use various online platforms to support employee workplace giving.

Indeed, with just a few clicks of the mouse, workers can now designate the charities they want to receive their money, time and support.

Click for a Cause

Amanda Ponzar, a spokeswoman for United Way Worldwide, says many of the more than 100 corporations that participate in its Global Corporate Leadership program have embraced various forms of online giving and other digital technologies to increase employee participation and reduce costs.

They want to pledge more resources to support their communities through creative, innovative tools that engage employees, increase participation and demonstrate impact.

For example, for the last four years, UPS has donated dozens of items—including autographed sports memorabilia, gift cards and electronics—to United Way Worldwide to auction on eBay. Approximately $14,500 was raised this year.

Meanwhile, communications giant AT&T has a mobile app for giving that can be accessed by its nearly 250,000 employees worldwide. Active workers and retirees donated some 6 million volunteer hours in 2011.

Bank of America taps blogging and other social media technology to communicate with its staff of 240,000 about United Way Worldwide.

Another bank, Wells Fargo, uses online technology and social media for its giving campaign and to promote volunteerism. Last year, the San Fransisco-based company's approximately 265,000 employees donated 1.5 million hours of volunteer service. The bank encourages team members to share personal stories about their community involvement within the company via an internal social media tool and externally with friends and family through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Not surprisingly, tech behemoth Microsoft uses a variety of digital platforms to support employee giving, yielding excellent results. "Microsoft recently announced $1 billion in giving through its employee campaign. It is only the second company to have done this," Ponzar says. She adds that UPS was the first to raise $1 billion, in 2010.

Microsoft created an intranet site called "Give" that engages more than 30,000 employees through personal videos and more. Additionally, the company hosts an online auction tool each October, where employees submit and bid for hundreds of items to raise funds for the giving campaign. Other initiatives include a photo book created by Microsoft photographers and sold to the public.

"We currently have mobile apps for volunteer management, donations, payroll deduction and an auction app," says Kevin Espirito, Microsoft's senior manager of citizenship and public affairs.

The auction tool, he adds, is expanding to international locations this fiscal year. "We use a customized SharePoint site with a digital story wall where employees can share their stories online" with colleagues.

In 2011, Volunteer Manager, Microsoft's online opportunity-matching system, registered more than 10,000 employees looking for service opportunities and some 2,000 nonprofit organizations seeking assistance.

"The Verizon Foundation has been using technology to encourage our employees to give their time or to make donations for well over a decade," says spokesman John Columbus. For instance, the foundation sends e-mail blasts that urge employees to register volunteer hours and log donations. Under a matching program, employees who volunteer 50 hours or more are eligible to receive a $750 grant for the nonprofits they support.

For Verizon's upcoming holiday campaign, the foundation will experiment with a form of crowdsourcing to garner feedback. Employees can elect to support one of three nonprofits identified by the foundation as candidates to receive its support.

"We'll have our employees vote for the nonprofit they want to receive the grant," Columbus says.

He adds that the company has received kudos from employees and nonprofits that benefit from its efforts. "Recently, the American Red Cross in New Jersey honored and thanked Verizon's employees for their generosity with their time and money during several disasters," Columbus says.

In addition to using online tools internally, the Y encourages employees to use them for external outreach.

Kate Rubin, vice president of social responsibility for Minnesota-based UnitedHealth Group and president of the United Health Foundation, says her organization turns to the website www.sparked.com to provide an online micro-volunteering platform that connects 99,000 employees around the globe to volunteer opportunities. The website allows volunteers to search for and select projects that relate to their individual skills and experience.

Rubin says the automated system was a catalyst when the health insurer reached a record number of volunteer hours donated by employees in 2011. Through a VolunteerMatch program, employees logged 381,000 volunteer hours, up from 35,000 four years ago.

UnitedHealth Group has pledged $2 million worth of skills-based volunteer services through June 2013, Rubin says.

Harnessing Technology

Nonprofit, public-sector and academic employers also are using technology in this manner.

In the nation's capital, the federal Office of Personnel Management oversees the Combined Federal Campaign. Pledges, including online donations, are made by federal civilian, postal and military donors during the annual campaign season from September to December.

The Veterans Affairs Maryland Health Care System is among the agencies that participate in the campaign. Last year, nearly a third of its 3,000 employees donated, raising $178,696. Participation increased 7 percent over the previous year.

This year, Duke University's "Doing Good in the Neighborhood" campaign eliminated most paper-based donation requests, opting to rely on e-mail and other online communication. The campaign funds local programs and nonprofits and encourages employee volunteerism.

Employees were able to go online to make donations through payroll deductions, write one-time electronic checks or charge amounts via credit card to support causes of their choice. Employees who donated online were automatically entered in raffles to win donated prizes.

The Rochester YMCA has sponsored community programming since 1854 and encourages its 3,000 employees to participate. Among the nonprofit's initiatives is its Invest in Youth Campaign.

"We've been on a quest to encourage a culture of giving among all our employees," says Cepero, who oversees workers in 15 New York locations. "We've used online technology, and we have a Facebook and Twitter presence."

In addition to using online tools internally, the Y encourages employees to use them for external outreach, especially during the annual campaign season.

For instance, employees can opt to include a web "widget"—a small software application embedded within a web page—on outgoing e-mails.

The widgets can be used to promote fundraising goals; users can tailor the on-screen device with photos, personal messages and fun extras such as a "goal meter."

"It's a way to solicit that's more of a soft ask," Cepero explains. "People can send out e-mails to their list of maybe 100 to 200 people and say, 'My goal is XYZ.' It's a way to engage that is comfortable and generates excitement."

Engaging Givers

Across the country, nonprofits are using digital tools to boost charitable giving. HR officials say their missions have been enhanced by online platforms and other technology.

"One of our goals is to enable people to give when they want, and how they want," says United Way of Central Maryland's Chief Administrative Officer Martina A. Martin, whose responsibilities include human resources. "That means everything from online giving using special pledge processing software to mobile text giving."

When employers involve their employees in charitable activities, the company is seen as more attractive.

In addition to an 80-person staff, the nonprofit offers online tools to 3,100 volunteers who support the organization's programs and reach out to more than 400,000 potential donors. "We want to make life easier for busy HR directors and other employees to get engaged as campaign volunteers," Martin adds.

Cepero says feedback has been "very positive" around online giving. "While the comfort level seems to be generational, overall I think it's been a good way to involve our employees. There's definitely been more engagement."

That's been the case at United Way of Central Maryland. Martin says any time HR teams can find ways to make work life easier for employees, it's generally a win for them and their organizations.

"There's a lot of research that has shown that when employers involve their employees in charitable activities and give back, the company is seen as more attractive," she notes. "Anything that engenders teamwork and boosts morale is a good thing."

The author is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.

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