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The Importance of Volunteerism

Feb. 26 has been deemed National Corporate Philanthropy Day by the corporate philanthropy community. According to the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP), National Corporate Philanthropy Day was created to sow awareness of philanthropic achievements, sharing the benefits of corporate philanthropy and inspiring corporate America to engage further in philanthropy.

Today, 85% of corporate Web sites tout their company’s commitment to corporate social responsibility, noting the ‘triple bottom line,’ which refers to the environmental, social, and financial returns of business investments. This shift in language is quite noteworthy considering that paying attention to anything but profits was considered almost sacrilegious by many on Wall Street just a few years ago.

While donating money to nonprofit organizations is one way for businesses to direct their philanthropic efforts and give back to their communities, they are finding additional benefits by creating Employee Volunteer Programs within their organizations. According to CECP, of 91 Fortune 1000 companies surveyed, 87% have formal volunteer programs for their domestic employees. This is up 4% from 2004.

These programs involve more than a once-a-year service day. Employees want repeated efforts that connect their work to the community, says Kellie McElhaney, an adjunct professor at University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Companies have been deeply integrating volunteer programs over the past five years, she added, and they’re “getting a lot smarter” about it.

Meanwhile, Cari Parsons, the philanthropy organization’s director, noted that chief executive officers are increasingly finding that potential employees want to know about a company’s employee-involvement programs making them a valuable employee-recruitment tool.

Besides being a way to attract new employees, employee volunteer programs have been found to provide myriad benefits to their organizations. According to the Points of Light Foundation, the most immediate and obvious benefits are in employee morale and job productivity.

James Barksdale, chief operating officer of Federal Express, was quoted as saying, “volunteerism reduces turnover rates, creates a great degree of esprit de corps and camaraderie among our employees, and provides pride and accomplishment in a healthier work environment, which in the long run has a tremendous effect on the profitability of the company.”

Other benefits of adopting employee volunteer programs within organizations include strengthening the company’s overall positive reputation and image in the community through increased visibility and networking. These factors lay the foundation for stronger, more effective marketing, public relations, and community relations. This becomes increasingly important as consumers are basing more of their purchase decisions in a socially responsible manner and feel connected to businesses that give back.

Employee volunteer programs can be structured in many ways. Some company volunteer activities can complement their respective business as a way to highlight their expertise. One example is that of a local builder who donates time and materials to a nonprofit organization advocating for the independent living of the disabled. He uses his expertise in construction to build ramps for their clients. Volunteering also offers the opportunity for the company and employees to build relationships with customers and clients, elected officials, regulatory officials, and the media.

As in the example of the local builder, due to his contributions, he has been publicly recognized by various organizations for his philanthropic efforts, putting him in front of other community leaders. Workforce preparedness is another key area of volunteerism for businesses. By working with schools or school systems, companies can augment educational curricula and mentor students toward careers, thus grooming future employees.

While organizations recognize many benefits, employees gain from their volunteer experiences as well. Through volunteerism, individual employees receive an opportunity to learn new talents that can help advance their career or fulfill personal desires. It provides an additional avenue for professional development as they practice increased management, professional, or technical skills. They also benefit from networking, making new contacts, and developing ongoing relationships with those both within their own company and those outside the company.

But the biggest benefit that volunteerism offers is the ability to build stronger communities and help to address various social problems on a local level. In short, volunteerism — good for the community and good for business!

Lynn Turner and Ravi Kulkarni are executive coaches and business growth strategists working with Clear Vision Alliance;[email protected], (413) 283-7091;[email protected], (413) 589-7821.