Way back in 2003, when I was new to CSR and had just joined Wells Fargo, one of our team members was granted a six month paid leave to work with a nonprofit to create an entrepreneurship program for women in Armenia. The effort was so successful that she was asked to speak at the United Nations; not long after, she left the company to pursue that work.
At the time, I found this remarkable. Not only that this big bank would pay her to go volunteer for half a year, but that everyone thought it was fantastic when she left. We lost a top performer. What’s to celebrate?
Since you’re reading this, you’re probably in CSR and therefore already understand. While every action, no matter how small, can make a huge difference, the most important benefits of a strong employee volunteer program exist on a much deeper level than the bottom line. They’re under the surface.
It’s hard to believe, but there are still executives who think volunteer programs are a waste of time and a drain on productivity. I wouldn’t bother trying to convince them they’re wrong, though; if they haven’t accepted the overwhelming evidence and research that has built up over the last decade, some CSR do-gooder like me isn’t going to convince them with “under the surface” poppycock. But take heart: eventually they’ll all retire, right?
A quick internet search for “business case for workplace volunteerism” yields a reading list that could keep you riveted for days, showing not only how volunteerism helps nonprofits (The Taproot Foundation, for example, has found that up to 20% of a nonprofit’s operational costs can be supplied by pro bono volunteers) but also how it helps employees and, ultimately, their employer. I myself have written several times about the connection between volunteerism and employee engagement.
And if you attended the 2014 Charities@Work conference and heard what Derrick Feldman had to say about Millennials (who will make up 50% of the workforce by the end of this decade), you already know that well designed volunteer programs, especially those that use or grow employees’ skills, are very important to our changing workforce.
Over the last ten years alone, Wells Fargo’s Volunteer Leave Program has empowered more than 175 employees to accomplish huge projects through paid leaves of anywhere from a few days to six months. We started the program in 1975 (nearly 40 years ago, before CSR was an acronym); no research or bottom line calculations made it happen. It wasn’t driven by a thirst for stories that would feed our PR engine. It was created because an employee had a good idea how he could use his skills and make a difference, and some executives with vision and good sense agreed that the company should help.
And that’s the heart of the program: skilled, motivated employees seeing how they can make a big difference, and the company enabling that. We’ve had incredible stories of impact. A team member created an entire bilingual curriculum for an elementary school, trained the teachers, and set it up to continue after she left. Another team member helped created an emergency HAM radio network for the Red Cross in his home state. Another returned to work at a shelter that had helped her when she was younger, helping other young women escaping bad situations learn the financial and life skills to succeed on their own.
None of these projects, or any of the hundreds of others, was designed by a Wells Fargo CSR program manager. Few of them fit our business objectives. These aren’t projects the company would design within our CSR framework.
In some ways, the growth of CSR as an industry has gotten in the way of our vision. We’ve gotten very good at making business cases. We’re getting better at measuring outcomes and impact. We monitor sentiment and reputation in social media, sometimes minute by minute. We analyze surveys. We calculate triple bottom lines. We share value.
That’s all very important for boardroom presentations where budgets get authorized. But let’s remember that there’s more value in empowering our employees than just what the numbers show on the surface.
What lessons have you learned by looking deeper into your employee engagement and community support programs? If you can’t get to the Charities@Work Summit on Employee Engagement in Corporate Citizenship March 23-25 in New York City, help me learn by connecting with me on Twitter, @dudleypj.