The Benefits of Philanthropy and Volunteerism

Participants in workplace volunteer activities are more likely to be loyal and satisfied employees

By Joanne Sammer Feb 23, 2016
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By providing opportunities for employees to lend a helping hand and contribute to charitable causes, workplaces can help foster their own sense of community.

Efforts to help employees with volunteerism and philanthropy commonly include:

  • Providing paid time off for volunteer activities.
  • Organizing volunteer events and days of service.
  • Matching contributions to employees’ charitable donations.

These initiatives help employees strengthen bonds with colleagues and neighbors. Giving back is especially important for companies looking to attract and retain younger workers—the Millennial generation—who are keen on organizations that are active in philanthropy and service to the community.

According to the 2015 Deloitte Millennial survey, 6 in 10 Millennials say the reason they chose to work for their current employer was because they felt a sense of purpose there. Volunteer and philanthropic opportunities highlight a company’s purpose and can help keep Millennials engaged, according to proponents, who point to research showing that Millennials who frequently participate in workplace volunteer activities are more likely to be proud, loyal and satisfied employees, as compared to those who rarely or never volunteer.

“Companies are looking for better ways to engage young employees, and philanthropy is an effective way to reach this demographic,” said Ty Walrod, co-founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Bright Funds, a donating, matching and volunteering platform. “Employees are looking for ways to contribute to the betterment of their local communities and to society as a whole. The opportunity is to build a culture around empowering employees to see opportunities and explore the most creative and effective ways to solve big challenges.”

Allowing employees to make contributions to charitable causes through payroll deductions is an obvious first step, and matching those contributions can provide a nice incentive. “Eighty-four percent of Millennials made a charitable donation in 2014, yet only 22 percent said their donation was solicited through their company,” Walrod said.

The federal Office of Personnel Management’s Combined Federal Campaign is one of the best-known examples of an annual workplace charity initiative. Services such as America’s Charities can help employers select appropriate recipients.

Volunteer Activities

For a more hands-on approach, employers can develop a program to encourage volunteerism. Footwear company Timberland, based in Stratham, N.H., offers its employees 40 paid hours per year to spend on volunteer activities. Although using those hours is not required, the company keeps volunteerism and philanthropy front and center by sponsoring global service days twice a year and smaller monthly service events to keep employees aware of and engaged in opportunities to serve the community.

To measure the program’s impact, the company tracks both the total number of volunteer hours put in by employees and the percentage of available volunteer hours that the staff actually used, which indicates whether the activity is being valued by employees. “Tracking hours is very important because it helps us set goals,” said Atlanta McIlwraith, Timberland’s senior manager of community engagement and communications.

Littleton, Colo.-based Vertex Innovations Inc., which manages construction projects for the wireless telecom industry, launched its first National Service Week in February 2016, in partnership with the nonprofit group Feeding America. During the week of Feb.22-26, Vertex Innovations team members across the U.S. are spending a half-day volunteering at their local food banks, sorting, packing and stacking food donations.

“As corporate citizens, we take care of our neighbors," said Erica Smith, executive director of charitable contributions at Vertex Innovations. “Feeding America is allowing us to achieve that in one, unified effort on a national scale.”

HR in the Lead?

Volunteer and philanthropy programs often, but not always, develop through the efforts of HR staff. Senior leadership and the marketing department can also be key drivers of the program. No matter who is involved, it is important for employers to consider a few things when developing a program:

Select appropriate causes
“There should be agreement on what you stand for” and what the organization wants to support, said Christen Graham, president of Giving Strong Inc., a social impact consulting firm based in Portland, Maine. Many companies develop guidelines for acceptable activities—for example, they may exclude political groups or events—and some try to balance local events with support for national or international events or groups.

Set activity guidelines
The organization should establish clear parameters and rules for days of service. For example, employees will have to follow certain rules when planning their days or hours of service and work with their managers to avoid workplace disruptions. “It is just like a vacation that has to be set up in advance,” said Tom Shaw, vice president of human resources for Triumph Bancorp in Dallas. “Employees have to coordinate their volunteerism with their supervisor.”

Advance planning is particularly important if the organization wants to offer longer service sabbaticals to employees. “How will you help employees take four or six months off in a way that the business keeps going?” Graham asked.

Keep it voluntary
Employers should take care not to pressure employees to use service hours or to participate in volunteer or philanthropy programs. Timberland’s McIlwraith recalled a competition among business units to get employees more engaged with volunteerism. “Some managers took that a little too far,” she said. “They never threatened anyone’s position, but some of them reached out to employees to find out why they hadn’t signed up for the program.”

Such pressure puts employees in a difficult position, and they may feel forced to participate when they would rather not.

Employers may face the opposite problem, too—not enough open slots at volunteer events for all interested employees. Triumph Bancorp has been working with Living Water International to dig fresh water wells in developing countries for the past few years. So far, 48 employees have participated in several multiday trips to El Salvador. The company continues to pay employees so that participants do not have to use their vacation time.

“People fill out an application for each trip, and we select employees from across the organization so that no department or part of our company is overrepresented,” Shaw said. “If they do not get selected, interested employees can apply the following year and we will give second-time applicants extra consideration.”

Beware of unsustainable precedents
McIlwraith urged employers to be mindful of providing services to volunteers that later may need to be scaled back. For example, Timberland used to bus employees from the workplace to the volunteer location on days of service. Although it was not a stated goal of the program, this arrangement had the added benefit of creating an opportunity for employees to talk to and get to know colleagues from different parts of the company that they otherwise may not have met.

Nevertheless, given cost and other factors, the company changed its policy and employees now drive themselves to the volunteer location, which eliminated those opportunities for employees to mingle. Some workers saw that as a benefit that was taken away.

“Once you make this type of change, there is really no going back,” McIlwraith said, so think through the consequences regarding what costs are sustainable and what the organization is trying to achieve.

 

Election-Day Volunteering

“Volunteering with election polls isn’t what usually comes to mind when we think of corporate volunteering. But why not?,” asked Ryan Scott, CEO of San Francisco-based Causecast, a volunteering and donations platform, in a recent post on the firm’s blog.

Companies can show their support for Election Day volunteering in several ways, he noted, including by giving employees paid time off to volunteer as poll workers.

“Having your company support employee volunteering during this important time will be appreciated by your employees and communities alike,” Scott noted. “Your country benefits from this civic service, and your corporate culture is enriched by a more civically engaged workforce.”

Joanne Sammer is a New Jersey-based business and financial writer.


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