Volunteering on behalf of good causes has a long and honorable history: people committing their time and energy on something that is important and relevant to them and their communities. What began as an individual and community impulse eventually spread to the corporate world, where volunteerism has been rightly seen as a win-win-win. It’s a win for the cause being supported, for obvious reasons. It’s a win for the employee, allowing them the opportunity to “give back.” And it’s a win for the employer because it helps the enterprise meet its corporate social responsibility goals (the company’s strategy for giving back).
But corporate volunteerism is even better than a “win-win-win” endeavor. Corporate volunteerism – done right – can enhance employee engagement and help create a compelling corporate culture that will make recruiting and retention more effective.
Numerous studies have demonstrated just how critical it is for companies to pay more than just lip service to corporate social responsibility. The members of Generation Y – “millennials” – are leading this charge. A recent Deloitte survey on millennials found an astounding 85 percent of respondents believe that business success should be measured in terms of more than just financial performance. And millennials, along with workers with years of experience, want to do more than participate in worthy but infrequent events like cleaning up local parks – they want to use their intelligence and skills to make a difference on an ongoing basis.
They are, in effect, demanding the opportunity to give back in more lasting, more strategic way, and they are demanding corporate support for doing so.
What does corporate volunteerism “done right” look like?
First, be strategic about your volunteering efforts. Look for causes that mesh with your enterprise’s expertise and mission. A software company can help schools or nonprofits go digital – or help introduce students to STEM skills. A corporate training enterprise might put its skills to work with underserved populations with instruction that meets their needs. A temporary staffing firm could help entry-level workers learn about job opportunities and how to find them. Your employees want the chance to use their professional skills in nonprofit situations. Help them!
This does not mean that “boots on the ground” opportunities should be avoided. Communities still need parks and playgrounds cleaned up; soup kitchens still need food prepared and served. If there’s a demand for these effort in your community (and there will be), facilitate your employees’ ability to help.
The most successful volunteerism programs today are highly customized to their individual workforces, matching employee wants and realities with the opportunities that fit the company’s strategic CSR vision. If this means a day off regularly, make it happen. If it means using technology to fit volunteerism into a busy work day, make it happen.
Second, measurement is critical. The old management truism – “if you can measure it, you can manage it” – also applies to most forms of volunteerism: If you want to have an impact, you have to measure your efforts in pursuit of impact.
One of the most impressive contributions of contemporary philanthropy is the notion of measuring SROI (social return on investment) – what do you achieve for your philanthropic investment? You should measure things like total hours volunteered (good for your CSR reporting, good for internal communications), but you should also measure progress in whatever term makes sense: from “lives touched” or “classrooms served.” Measurement is not solely for purposes of your CSR report; it’s a tangible reminder to your employees that volunteering and philanthropy are integral to your enterprise.
Which brings me to my third suggestion: make social responsibility an integral part of corporate culture. To my way of thinking, an enterprise with a true sense of the value and importance of CSR is one where everyone employed understands their company’s commitment to socially responsibility, acknowledges its value, and participates to whatever degree they can. This inevitably leads to improved engagement.
This means that the most senior leaders have to talk about CSR and commit their own time to volunteering and related activities. Lead by example, and lead by acknowledging publicly, and often, the importance of the CSR effort.
Fourth, be innovative at making CSR work for your employees. Work often seems nonstop for people in the era of email and smartphones, and making time or finding time to volunteer may be harder than ever. But on the other hand, technology and human ingenuity makes people more flexible than probably at any time in history. If your people can’t go to a school to tutor children, use Skype – or bring school kids into the office. Be creative!
And finally, constantly communicate and motivate: I mentioned earlier the importance of leadership’s example when it comes to volunteerism and corporate social responsibility. This may be the toughest challenge for any CSR effort, but it is also the most powerful. As people say, you have to walk the walk and talk the talk. What you do becomes the norm, and people will welcome the chance to volunteer if you make it clear it is valued.
If there’s a current feature of today’s corporate landscape, it’s the necessity for continuous, ongoing evolution – and that’s as true for corporate social responsibility as it is for corporate strategy. Volunteerism is evolving from a “nice thing to do for the community” into an important measure of social responsibility as well as a key tool for employee recruitment, engagement, and retention. That’s why now is the time to reinvent your employee volunteering program. A reengineered program might enable you to deliver more good – and that’s good (undeniably so). But what I’m talking about is a reworked program that will also enable you to deliver more good for your workforce: make them more engaged, more committed, and more connected to your enterprise and their communities.