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This is the first in a series on the value and impact of employee volunteerism programs.

Companies are searching high and low for better ways to engage employees, from offering unique company perks to embracing a lenient work-from-home policy — yet these efforts often have little direct effect on employee engagement. A Gallup poll finding that 70 percent of employees feel disengaged makes it even more imperative for companies to think creatively, but part of the answer may lie in a simple idea: encourage employees to get involved in community work and give back to a cause alongside their coworkers. Not only does it make employees feel more invested in their workplace, but it also gives them a more positive view of the company and is highly relevant for successfully recruiting younger generations. 

Need proof? After employees at LBG Associates participated in a company-wide volunteer program, 71 percent said they had a more positive view of the company as a result, according to CauseCast. Plus, 61 percent of millennials who rarely or never volunteer would still consider a company’s commitment to the community when making a job decision, according to a 2011 Deloitte report. Now think about those who do regularly volunteer.

“Companies that have strong volunteerism programs attract employees more readily,” said Joan Conrad, manager of communications and training for worldwide supply management at John Deere. “It’s something that potential employees like, and it also helps retain employees and build teamwork and enthusiasm and productivity.” 

When employees take time off work to give back to the community, the business takes a hit, right? Wrong. In fact, business leaders are increasingly incorporating the impact of community engagement programs into their business performance, according to Civic 50, a national initiative that ranks S&P 500 companies on their community engagement. Employees can actually enhance their soft skills and technical skills by volunteering their expertise. Nearly one in three employees at the top community-engaged S&P 500 companies volunteer their expertise, rather than lending a hand in a soup kitchen or clothing donation program — a number that's up from one in six in 2012.

Adds Conrad, “It’s so good for our employees to be able to share the talents they already have with their community to make our communities a better place to live. Our employees have such great skills and talents, what better than to share those with nonprofits to help them raise and achieve their mission?”

Employee Volunteerism in Action

Going Green: Supporting one of its core values, Patagonia offers employees the opportunity to volunteer throughout the country through an environmental internship program. Employees don’t just volunteer for a day or two — the month-long program involves 20 employees working in the field on everything from wild native fish outreach in the Northwest to assisting with bear conservation in Ecuador. The program doubles as a volunteer opportunity and an opportunity for a work detox.

Sharing Skills Internationally: Employees at Dow Corning, a global silicones supplier, can join the international corporate volunteer program, which focuses on employees sharing their technical skills with NGOs and social entrepreneurs in emerging markets. For example, one employee flew to Bangalore, India, for four weeks to revamp processes for a clean stove manufacturer. She was able to share her skills in creativity, critical thinking and leadership to improve business.

Tackling Business Problems: Whether an employee started a couple months ago or has been with the company for 15 years, Ernest & Young provides different opportunities for employees based on where they are in their career path. Mid-career top performers help companies through a Corporate Responsibility Fellows program. Take Andrew Nawoichyk: he gave a helping hand — and seven weeks of work time — to an up-and-coming footwear company in Argentina that needed guidance on how to expand. Younger employees travel to Mexico and Brazil to do environmental research and provide guidance to local entrepreneurs through the firm's Earthwatch Global Ambassadors program.

Once a company has a volunteer program in place, that doesn’t mean employees are going to remember the option is there — or that they’re going to jump right in. Global volunteer days can put the opportunity front-and-center for workers. Take Amway, a leader in health, beauty and homecare products: its global volunteer day resonated with those who volunteered previously and those who had never engaged in the employee volunteer program.

Jesse Hertstein, senior corporate citizen specialist for Amway, said the value of one day extended throughout the entire company culture. “It is a chance to engage those who may not otherwise sign up on their own,” adds Hertstein. “It is an opportunity for people to try volunteering for the first time in a safe, lively environment. It is a way to emphasize the importance of community involvement in your organization’s culture.”

Next time your company is looking for a way to make employees feel more dedicated to their work, look to volunteer programs as a solution. Whether it’s a day of volunteering, a trip or a global event, each opportunity provides end value for the employees and the company’s performance.

Photo: Shutterstock