Volunteerism can benefit your bottom line

Don’t be surprised if the new college grads who interview for jobs with your organization this summer tell you they’re looking for an employer that gives back to the community.

Employee volunteer programs are morphing from a “nice-to-have” benefit to an expectation among employees and recruits—and it’s happening quickly.

“Especially with this younger generation coming out of school, everyone has some type of volunteering on their résumé,” notes Pamela Hawley, founder and CEO of UniversalGiving, which helps businesses and volunteers choose worthy nonprofits to help.

“It’s part of our culture that people volunteer,” Hawley says. “So when these students come out of school, they have been asking employers: ‘What do you do for the community?’”

More CEOs and HR pros are asking the same questions within their own organizations.

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Organizational benefits

If the talk at your company’s leadership meetings has turned to corporate social responsibility, consider the benefits of an employee volunteer program.

Studies show that workers whose employers encourage them to volunteer in their communities have increased job satisfaction. Those who participate in volunteer programs are more likely to seek promotions and professional development opportunities in the months following their volunteer work.

Employees are more likely to stay with a company with a volunteer program.

Volunteer work that involves groups of employees promotes teamwork, fosters camaraderie among co-workers and teaches a range of skills.

Research shows that volunteers reap mental and physical health benefits from doing good deeds. “It makes people feel good about themselves,” says Hawley. They don’t question their larger purpose; it provides meaning in their lives. People are searching for that now in tough economic times.” Job candidates—especially young recruits—say they would prefer to work at a company that offers them volunteer opportunities.

Volunteer programs help with corporate branding because employee/volunteers tell people where they’re from and that their companies are supporting their community work.

5 steps for getting started

Hawley says volunteer programs are most successful when they are structured and well thought-out. Here are five tips for starting yours:

1. Create a corporate social responsibility plan. Involve the CEO, the leadership team, the head of your organization’s foundation (if you have one), community-relations staff and marketing.

2. Target a specific area or cause for your organization’s volunteer program. Will you give back locally or internationally? Try to align your volunteer efforts with your corporate objectives? Example: Software maker Symantec has two corporate philanthropy efforts that address women and girls in engineering, science and math education.

3. Secure executive support. What’s your CEO’s pet cause? You’ll have support from the highest level if you focus your efforts there. Get other high-level execs involved, too.

4. Assist local causes your employees embrace. If you have several facilities, ask employees at each location to choose volunteer opportunities that make sense in their communities. Nationally, your company might focus on education, but your branch staff will appreciate the chance to help the homeless if that’s a critical local problem. Employees who have input into the decisions are more likely to participate in the program.

5. Vet the nonprofits you’ll work with. Learn all about the organization before adopting it. Has it had any ethical lapses? Does it spend its money delivering services, or is too much bottled up in administration and overhead? Has it received awards? How long has it existed?

Small wonders

Even small organizations can make a difference in their communities—even if they can’t afford to spare an employee for a year or hire a professional vetting service to make sure they choose the right nonprofits as partners.

The key is to include people from all levels of the organization in the decision-making process. Recruit rank-and-file employees as well as leaders from HR, marketing, the executive suite and the assembly line to participate in creating the CSR plan.

Those people will bring their diverse values and judgment to the table, make recommendations, establish criteria and select the nonprofits. They can find lists of pre-vetted organizations online and check local references for local charities.

3 keys to success

No matter how large or small your organization is, you’ll have greater success with an employee volunteer program if you:

1. Include employees who live and work outside of the headquarters community—even if they live in other countries. The needs of local communities vary from state to state and from country to country. Consider all employees’ input.

2. Market the program constantly. “It’s not a ‘build it and they will come’ thing,” notes Hawley, “not even if it’s great or free. You’ve got to market it.” Her advice: Make the employee volunteer program an official employee benefit. Include it in the HR manual, cover it in the benefits package and explain it during employee orientation.

3. Enlist the support of line managers. If managers disapprove of employees who take time off to volunteer, employees won’t take the time off. Word has to come from the top: This is an established benefit with procedures to follow just as strictly as the rules for sick leave.

HR’s role

You can think of volunteering as an employee benefit, as a wellness initiative or as a recruiting and retention tool. In any case:

  • Write a formal policy and publish it in the employee handbook and on the HR web site.
  • Tell employees about it during meetings. Be enthusiastic.
  • Make the benefit readily accessible. Allow employees to apply online for matching funds or paid time off.
  • Coordinate with marketing, community relations and your foundation to develop positive materials for employees.
  • Embed it in your culture. Having a policy isn’t enough. Follow up with managers to make sure they’re allowing employees to take volunteer days. Encourage execs to use their volunteer days and to talk about their experiences.

Online resources: Choosing an organization to support

These two groups help match corporations with worthy nonprofits:

6 ways to help your employees help others

Here are six ways companies can support employees’ charitable activities:

  1. Give employees paid time off—anywhere from half a day to a week a year—to volunteer in the community, either for company-approved charities or for any community group, including their children’s schools.
  2. “Lend” employees to nonprofits to work for up to a year, while you continue to pay the employees’ salaries.
  3. Offer pro bono professional services to community organizations.
  4. Match employee donations to nonprofits dollar for dollar, usually with a cap.
  5. Make lump-sum donations to charities nominated by employees.
  6. Allow employees who sit on nonprofit boards of directors to apply for financial support for those organizations.