Employee Volunteerism: Why Not All Companies?

Guest post by Emily Rothberg

This post originally appeared on Emily’s Blog.

Office Workers in Front of a WindowIt seems easy. Why doesn’t every company offer employee volunteer programs?

More and more companies are offering paid volunteer time off (VTO), with the CECP 2014 Giving in Numbers Report showing 59% in 2013, an 8% increase from 2010. And, the business case for employee volunteerism is beyond well-documented.

So, why aren’t employee volunteer programs standard practice? Two business challenges can undermine the best of intentions: Determining what counts, and determining the end game.

What Counts?
If a company’s employees volunteer, does that a program make?

How a company decides to track and report time, or recognize and reward employee volunteer efforts, matters. If my manager allows me to leave work an hour early to prepare a meal for a homeless shelter, and I make up that hour by coming in early the next day, is that a program? If I plant trees at my daughter’s school and input those hours in the company’s volunteerism platform, should the company get credit for the activity? And, if the answer to these scenarios is yes, does any company not have a volunteer program?

On the other end of the spectrum, if what counts are only activities aligned with a company’s strategy, or managed by the corporate citizenship/ CSR staff, such as a company day of community service with a pre-approved menu of activities, and my supervisor is strongly encouraging my participation, have I been “volun-told?” Have we messed with the entire spirit of volunteerism?

What’s the End Game?
If a company hasn’t outlined its employee volunteer program goals and defined how to measure success, does that company have a strategy?

Take the practices of rewarding and recognizing volunteers with paid time off and/ or funding (“dollars for doers”). Yes, employees and their nonprofit partners are grateful, and the whole notion feels democratic, as everybody’s effort counts, and no single activity is deemed more worthy than the next. But, while $250 matching gifts surely help smaller nonprofits operate day-to-day, donations of this size don’t add up in the societal impact equation. Can a company looking to make a significant impact, or even distinguish itself with stakeholders, accomplish those goals with a basic “follow-your-passion” strategy?

For those who take on the employee volunteerism challenge, does every company deserve bragging rights? How about two criteria for assessing success:

Core Business Practice
While the cliché “it’s part of our DNA” has become ubiquitous, volunteering at top companies is truly a year-round, CEO-to-intern component of a company’s business. Beyond enthusiastic tweets on annual days of service, executives serve on nonprofit boards and lead pro bono initiatives. Employees such as line workers, who don’t typically have an easy time leaving their work place, have options for meaningful volunteerism. When HR recruits on campuses, and managers speak with customers, giving back through volunteer time is framed as a core business value.

In sum, the company’s volunteerism rules of the road for what counts and how it’s counted are spelled out clearly. The company adopts and communicates consistent standards of conduct and appropriate risk mitigation measures.

Integrated Strategy
In leading companies, the CSR department doesn’t own employee volunteerism – volunteering is everybody’s business. Rather than passive recipients of a top-down corporate strategy, employees play an active role in developing and executing employee volunteerism guidelines and programs.

In these companies, employee volunteerism is a component of a larger corporate citizenship strategy, and options range from episodic, hands-on volunteering to deep, skilled volunteerism. Companies view their employees as their greatest asset and actualize that mindset by developing their next generation of leaders through nonprofit board service or pro bono engagements. These human-capital volunteer activities also address the nonprofit sector’s most mission-critical needs and long-term viability challenges.

The reality is this: Companies face tough choices in designing and operating effective employee volunteerism programs. Best practice programs engage employees’ heads, hands, and hearts to drive business value and maximize social impact. The end goal isn’t easy to achieve, but it’s a vision worth working toward, and surely one within our grasp.

Emily Rothberg & Company helps companies thrive by donating their time, talent and treasure. It also helps nonprofits grow corporate support for greater impact. In her blog, Emily shares insights from her years inside corporate America, intertwined with thoughts from her clients, as well as long-time colleagues.

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CSR Food For Thought: Does CSR Overlook Children’s Rights?

Image of wheat growing in the sun.The CSR Food for Thought series is a roundup of relevant news from around the web that you may have missed last week, presented to you in one bite-sized blog post every Monday. Follow us on Twitter for CSR news and trends throughout the week: @VM_Solutions.

Lego CEO: ‘if we don’t deal with children’s basic rights, we will have a difficult future’
In the CSR world, children are often overlooked. That’s the viewpoint of Lego group’s chief executive, and it’s why Lego has partnered with UNICEF. Together, they want to make protecting children’s rights the norm. This article from the Guardian looks at how they plan to take on this issue, and how they plan to encourage other companies to do the same.

How to Engage Employees in Sustainability
This report from the Global Environmental Management Initiative (GEMI) dives deep into how to make sustainability a part of your company culture. In other words, how to get your employees on board. Whether you’re a single location or global company, you’ll find tips on how to make sustainability meaningful for your employees.

Time Warner Cable Exceeds “Go Green” Goal By Reducing Its Carbon Intensity by 38 Percent
There’s one component of Time Warner Cable’s sustainability efforts that I particularly love. What is it? They put power in the hands of their employees. Last year, Time Warner Cable introduced “Green Teams”, 15 employee teams around the country who help push environmental efforts forward. It seems to be working, because in this press release on CSRwire, they announce that they’ve surpassed their goals by 15 percent. Well done, Time Warner Cable!

100 Lilly Employees Selected for Connecting Hearts Abroad
Lilly takes its employee volunteer program great distances – literally. Since 2011, Lilly has been sending employees to volunteer in various parts of the world as “Lilly Ambassadors”. As Lilly puts it, “It gets us out of the labs and from behind the computers. It allows to see the world through new eyes.” This post on their blog features an infographic which describes the Connecting Hearts Abroad program and highlights this year’s chosen volunteers.

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How VolunteerMatch Employees Volunteer: Jennifer Bennett, Senior Manager of Education and Training

We’ve talked and talked (and talked and talked) about the benefits of employee volunteer programs, including volunteer time off (VTO). Now we want to show you. In this series of blog posts, we’ll interview some of our own employees to find out how they spend their volunteer hours, and why they love VTO.

Photo of Jennifer Bennett, Senior Manager of Education and Training at VolunteerMatchSo, who are you?
I’m Jennifer Bennett. I joined VolunteerMatch in 2007 to formalize and manage the volunteer engagement program. I also help VolunteerMatch’s community of nonprofits better recruit and engage volunteers, such as through the webinars found on the Learning Center.

Where do you volunteer?
I volunteer with the Justice & Diversity Center at Project Homeless Connect. I help run the Legal Aid, California DMV/ID, and Vital Records area. Mostly, that means that I try to coordinate chaos! We see over 350 clients during each Project Homeless Connect and I make sure that those clients are seen quickly and move smoothly through the DMV/ID area, as well as teach people how to obtain a copy of their birth certificate.

What is the most fun part of your volunteering? What’s the most valuable?
I wouldn’t use the word “fun” to describe what I do, but I do find it rewarding and meaningful. The part I enjoy the most is helping clients navigate the complex process of getting a California ID, or meeting with a lawyer. Both of those activities are challenging in a day-to-day setting, and this becomes much more challenging when you’re facing homelessness, when English isn’t your first language, or if you aren’t familiar with government systems. When I can help a client get an ID so they can get a bed in a shelter or apply for benefits, I know I’ve made a difference in that person’s quality of life.

Can you share a story or two from your time volunteering?
Every Project Homeless Connect is full of stories – you get to meet and know the people in this city that many people just walk by. But as overwhelming as the problem of homelessness can be, and as much as it can feel like one person can’t make a difference, volunteering is a reminder that one person can.

Would you be able to volunteer if VolunteerMatch didn’t offer VTO?
I could use regular PTO to volunteer, since it’s only once every few months. But, the fact that I don’t have to – that I have VTO – makes it much easier to do. It’s also great to know that my volunteering is supported by my employer.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’ve spent most of my career working with volunteers and supporting the work that they do. I don’t think I could be as good at my job as I am if I wasn’t also an active volunteer. Every time I go out to volunteer I’m reminded about what makes an awesome volunteer opportunity, and how I should be treating, supporting, and recognizing the volunteers that I work with. I’m incredibly thankful to have that opportunity.

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How VolunteerMatch Employees Volunteer: Susan Briggs, VP of Product Management

We’ve talked and talked (and talked and talked) about the benefits of employee volunteer programs, including volunteer time off (VTO). Now we want to show you. In this series of blog posts, we’ll interview some of our own employees to find out how they spend their volunteer hours, and why they love VTO.

Photo of Susan BriggsSo, who are you?
I’m Susan Briggs, and I recently joined VolunteerMatch as the Vice President of Product Management. As a committed volunteer, it’s fitting to work for something which allows everyone to find a volunteer opportunity and to give back to their communities. Working here allows me to focus my professional skills of managing product and design teams on a cause near and dear to my heart.

Where do you volunteer?
I have been volunteering regularly for the last 17 years. Currently, I sit on two boards: one for the education foundation at my daughters’ public high school and the other for the nonprofit One Millions Lights.

In my most recent volunteer activity, I participated in a trail day for Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation in the San Francisco Bay Area, an opportunity I found out about through VolunteerMatch!

Do you have any stories to share from your volunteer day?
The day I chose to volunteer with Santa Clara County Parks happened to be in the middle of several weeks of torrential rain that the Bay Area received. My task was to dig channels on the trail to remove puddles of standing water. Because of the rain, there were so many puddles, and it was exhausting! But that made it even more rewarding to complete.

What drew you to that particular organization and/or type of volunteering?
I wanted a push to get me outside on a Saturday. This type of activity is something I always thought about trying, and finally did it!

Photo of Susan volunteering at her son's school.

Susan volunteering at her son’s school.

What is the most fun part of your volunteering? What’s the most valuable?
Volunteering allows me to have new experiences while doing something to help out a good cause. I also enjoy the people I meet while volunteering.

Would you be able to volunteer if VolunteerMatch didn’t offer VTO?
Because I enjoy volunteering so much, I would do so even without the added benefit of volunteer time off (VTO). However, I do greatly enjoy having VTO and regularly use it to help out at local schools and with community projects.

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Forget Candy – How to Show Your Employees You Really Care

Heart outline made from red candies.It’s that time of year – love is in the air. Many cringe at the thought of Valentine’s Day, calling it an over-commercialized, high-pressure holiday for couples.

But I choose to look at it differently. I choose to celebrate love in all forms, including the love I have for the organization I work for, VolunteerMatch. And the love it has for me.

What better time than now to take a close look at what you’re doing to show your employees you love them? (Again, I don’t mean you should be in love with your employees. Chances are, your Human Resources department has some policies around that.) But your employees should feel important, appreciated, respected, and cared for.

Why? The phrase “employees are a company’s greatest asset” is so widely used, it’s basically a cliché. So, to use another cliché, why not “put your money where your mouth is?” Employee appreciation goes beyond candy bowls, birthday cards, and an occasional free lunch (although those are nice, too!) Here’s how to spread long-term TLC to your employees, not only on Valentine’s Day, but throughout the year, with your employee volunteer program (EVP).

Listen to Them
EVP doesn’t stand for executive volunteer program; it stands for employee volunteer program. So, why would you want executives making all the decisions? Ask your employees what they would like to see in your EVP. Fewer group volunteer activities? More skill-building volunteer options? How about a method for recognizing stand-out employee volunteers?

Also, continue to get feedback on how you’re doing at all stages of your EVP. Honest critique will help your program grow. When your employees are happy with your program, they’ll engage more.

Honor What’s Important to Them
Your company probably has some cause focus areas that align with your mission. For example, ConAgra Foods aims to end child hunger, and 1st Source Bank teaches financial literacy. But that doesn’t mean your company can’t help in other ways with causes that are important to individual employees. Offering volunteer time off (VTO) lets employees choose the causes they donate their time to. But don’t stop there. Encourage employees to share their volunteer stories at company meetings, events, or even on your company blog. Show them that their time is important, and you care about how they’re spending it.

Thank Them
Candy heart that reads, "You're Fab."From increased productivity to attracting more customers and talented new employees, your company sees many benefits from your EVP. Even though you’re managing the program, you can’t take all the credit. Your employees are out there making positive change in their communities (while giving positive publicity to your company). Don’t forget to say thank you, and say it often.

Which reminds me: Thank you for the work you do with your CSR program. Happy Valentine’s Day!

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2014 VolunteerMatch Client Summit Insights: A Rewarding Discussion on VTO

At the 2014 VolunteerMatch Client Summit in Detroit, we learned from experts in CSR, volunteer engagement, technology and program administration. In this series of blog posts, we’ll share with you the valuable insights offered at each session. In this post: REwards: The Ins and Outs of VTO.

This past year, our Client Summit REwards session on paid Volunteer Time Off (VTO) was, well, rewarding. Thought leaders from Time Warner Cable and Brooks Brothers shared valuable insights and tangible takeaways for companies either hoping to launch or already fostering a VTO program for their employees. Jennifer Reed Holick and Hannah Nance walked us through different approaches for how VTO can be used, the ins and outs of pitching a VTO policy, and how to ensure robust participation while keeping the company’s best interests in mind.

Photo of Hannah Nance

Hannah Nance, Senior Specialist, Social Purpose at Brooks Brothers

The benefits of a VTO program are numerous and compelling, not just for the employee, but for the company as a whole. Hannah from Brooks Brothers explained that by giving employees the freedom to choose where they volunteer, a company is making a donation to that organization: The employee’s time, which might not have been available otherwise. While the organization an employee chooses to volunteer for might not fit into the company’s core cause areas, it means the company can have a broad presence and impact in its community. It will also prove it cares about its employees by supporting causes near and dear to its employees’ hearts.

For those employees who don’t have much volunteer experience, or don’t yet have a favorite charity, paid time off to volunteer provides a risk-free trial for them to check out a new organization or new type of volunteering. Presumably, some of your employees will go on to volunteer regularly outside of their VTO. The idea that VTO is just the foundation is core to how Brooks Brothers views the ideal commitment to service.

Photo of Jennifer Reed Holick

Jennifer Reed Holick, Community Investment Manager at Time Warner Cable

Jennifer from Time Warner Cable then dove further into how VTO can fit into a company’s volunteer program. She believes that while VTO is not critical to employee retention, it’s the “secret sauce that can take a strong volunteer program to new heights”. Her “must haves” for starting a program include: Oversight from a senior management task force, an involved legal and HR team to work out important logistics, a review of the cost implication and ROI, a strategy for maximizing results, and use of a strong management tool to support employees’ efforts, such as VolunteerMatch’s corporate toolset.

Jennifer presented deliberate and convincing formulas around the cost and return of implementing a VTO program. She shared how she opted to use conservative data when pitching her program, in order to drive home just how clear it was that the program would have positive payback.

Both Jennifer and Hannah emphasized the importance of asking key questions at the outset, such as how the program will be communicated and how much time off will be given in the policy. They agreed that it’s important to have strong, visible support from leadership. They also emphasized how important it is to “do your homework” around legal or impact issues specific to your industry, such as if employees on commission will participate, or what risks are being assumed by the company during team outings.

During this session, audience engagement and participation were high. It seemed that everyone walked away with renewed enthusiasm about the role VTO can play as the “cherry on top” of employee engagement efforts.

Interested in learning more about VTO programs? Check out the slides from this presentation.

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2014 VolunteerMatch Client Summit Insights: From Lackluster to Stellar: Re-imagining Your EVP

At the 2014 VolunteerMatch Client Summit in Detroit, we learned from experts in CSR, volunteer engagement, technology and program administration. In this series of blog posts, we’ll share with you the valuable insights offered at each session. Up today: RE-imagine Your Program, summarized by Julie VanDeLinder.

Photo of Julie VanDeLinder

Julie VanDeLinder, Vice President of Client Services, VolunteerMatch

As a client relations manager, I see a variety of employee volunteer programs (EVPs).Whether big or small, EVPs all seem to have the same opportunity: To turn a lackluster program into a stellar one. Sometimes, however, companies get stuck in a routine and fail to evolve.

Many lose sight of what is called the sweet spot: A place where a program is perfectly aligned with company focus, employee passions, and the needs of the community. Our goal in this session was to challenge clients to re-imagine their program by looking at seven elements of successful programs:

  1. Communication
  2. Strategic Focus & Brand Alignment
  3. Measurement
  4. Leadership Engagement
  5. Partnerships
  6. Organizational Development
  7. Recognition & Incentives

I asked attendees to look at these elements and think about which ones they struggle with. I also asked them to think about each element as if it had no restraints, forcing them to think outside the box with creative solutions. We asked each other how we have benefited from innovation in the past, and how we defined success for the future.

We then conducted a fishbowl brainstorm: We asked four attendees to come onstage, but had five chairs. We picked one of the seven elements and asked the attendees onstage to talk about how their company handles that particular element. If someone in the audience wanted to contribute, they could come up on stage and take the fifth seat, but a current participant would have to step down. This forced the conversation to stay lively and evolving, with new ideas and speakers constantly shuffling through.

Many attendees said that discussing these seven elements forced them to think about their weak spots, and even more importantly, the things that weren’t working well but had been tradition for so long that they never thought to question it. We talked about the difficult realization that a nonprofit partner is no longer a good fit, or perhaps was not a good fit from the start. Many said that using surveys or interview techniques helped them pick a valuable partner. Others said they were brave enough to ask a nonprofit “What do you need from us?” instead of proclaiming “This is what we can give you.”

Overall, our session was small, yet very interactive. Participants had the chance to pose questions to some of the best program leaders around, as well as reflect on how to become more innovative, evolving and successful.

You can view the slides from this session here, or download all the session insights here.

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