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Position Community Volunteering as an Employee Benefit

Offering time off for volunteering is a low-cost way to make a big impact

A group of people sitting in boxes in a warehouse.

Employees—especially younger workers—say they prefer to work for organizations with a strong commitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR). Importantly, this commitment must go beyond lip service to resonate with employees.

Last year, Harvard Business Review reported that employers giving their workers paid time off to volunteer their services for charitable nonprofits and socially responsible causes, and otherwise offering to facilitate and support employees' volunteering activities, was one of the few employee benefits that has increased in recent years.

That's backed up by findings from the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) annual Employee Benefits surveys of HR professionals, which garner responses from more than 3,000 participants. SHRM Research reported that 47 percent of U.S. companies offered community volunteer pro­grams in 2022, up from 40 percent in 2014.

Organizations can use volunteering programs to raise employee engagement and promote retention if they think strategically about how this benefit is offered, monitored and celebrated. Employers can also be proactive in helping to guide employee volunteerism but should ensure that these efforts align with corporate goals, while also honoring and supporting employees' personal volunteer interests.

Volunteerism Is Good for Organizations

True Impact, a social impact measurement platform company in Brookline, Mass., has researched the internal and external benefits of volunteerism for more than 15 years. Based on data from Fortune 1000 companies, the findings suggest that hands-on volunteerism as a group effort among workplace colleagues can help employees build new and strong relationships with co-workers.

"By giving employees the opportunity to volunteer during company time, companies are able to build a sense of community and create a work environment that is supportive and friendly," said Jennifer Hartman, an HR expert with New York City based Fit Small Business, which provides HR and business services to small employers. "By allowing employees to volunteer, companies can reduce costs and improve productivity," she said.

Volunteerism in Action

At Amplify Credit Union in Austin, Texas, employees have access to a benefit the company calls Community Care Hours, providing up to 40 hours per year for full-time employees (and 20 hours per year for part-time employees) to use "for any programs that are not strictly political or religious in nature," according to the company website. Volunteering is limited to organizations that are tax code Section 501c3 nonprofits, said Stacy Armijo, the credit union's chief experience officer. The Community Care Hours benefit has been in place for more than a decade at Amplify, Armijo said.

In addition, the credit union has three "signature nonprofit" partners. "If somebody doesn't have their own volunteer passion or a method to be able to volunteer on their own, these offer additional opportunities," Armijo said.

New York City-based Dataiku, which uses artificial intelligence to improve business results, dedicates over 1 percent of its annual revenue to its volunteering program. "When supporting volunteerism as a benefit, it's important to strike a balance between employee-led initiatives and company-led initiatives," said Laurie du Boullay, the firm's head of culture. "We are always trying to find a good equilibrium."

Questions the firm asks before proposing volunteer activities, she said, include:

  • Are they varied, exciting and inclusive enough so anyone can relate to at least one opportunity a year?
  • Are they sponsored by employees themselves who will be able to share their passion for the cause with their colleagues?

PRO Unlimited, a global contingent-workforce management firm based in Folsom, Calif., allows employees' values to guide volunteerism initiatives "at every level, from concept to execution," said Rashmi Gupta, chief HR officer.

Employees receive 20 hours annually to use for volunteer opportunities of their choice, she explained.

The company also looks for other ways to support issues and organizations employees feel strongly about and wish to support. "For example, we offered financial assistance to any employee who took in families fleeing Ukraine earlier this year," Gupta said.

Through their volunteer support, companies need to ensure that values "take center stage," she noted. Employees "can tell when a company is more interested in talking about how much they do for the community than actually taking action to make a difference."

Listening to Employees

While many employers sponsor companywide volunteer initiatives, they should make room for employees to support their own personal values.

"Businesses that listen to employee opinions on volunteering, charitable giving, and CSR are more successful because they gain employee engagement," said Yamile Haibi, HR coach at payroll and HR services firm Paychex, headquartered in Rochester, N.Y. "Employees see freedom of choice on how to spend their volunteer hours, money and dedication as a benefit."

Some employers encourage their employee resource groups "to seek out sponsorship and fundraising opportunities for specific causes and charities or rotate an employee-determined yearly donation to a local not-for-profit," Haibi said. Giving employees this voice, and acting on their recommendations, matters to them, she pointed out.

At Dataiku, leaders gather input from employees through a network of 12 volunteering program ambassadors, representing about 1 percent of staff. "We encourage all employees to bring their ideas to them," du Boullay said. "This allows us to offer a wide range of opportunities."

Based on an employee suggestion, for instance, Dataiku supports employees running in the New York City Marathon to raise funds for a children's charity.

Allowing for a variety of causes employees can support creates strong engagement, du Boullay explained.

Armijo pointed out that some employees simply aren't interested in volunteering, and that's OK. While Amplify used to track employee participation and attempt to move the bar to increase those numbers, they've since abandoned that effort, recognizing that some people are naturally drawn to volunteering and some aren't.

After all, it's not voluntary if it's required.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SHRM-SCP, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience.


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