As each New Year gets started, business owners often take time to evaluate how they are supporting their customers and giving back to their communities. You may decide that 2016 is the year to finally implement that workplace volunteer program.
Though giving can take the form of straightforward philanthropy, such as writing a check, there may be more benefit to your community and your company if you build shared values through actions. Volunteer programs that are thoughtfully integrated into a corporate culture can boost morale, strengthen teamwork, provide leadership training, build networks and bolster a corporate social responsibility plan.
But if they’re not structured properly, such well-intentioned programs can easily fade away - like New Year’s resolutions forgotten by February. Here is some advice from corporate citizenship experts on how to get it right.
Give employees a say. “Don’t always make a senior person the head of the charitable committee. Make everyone part of the process,” said Susan Bender Phelps, a mentorship and leadership consultant based in Portland, Ore. Establish giving committees composed of employee groups that decide the particulars on where and how they want to volunteer.
Consider it leadership training. Running a volunteer effort or sitting on a nonprofit’s board is great training for managers who aspire to greater responsibility. “It helps to give lower-level employees the ability to make management-level decisions,” said Bender Phelps. “It builds sustainability in your company and a leadership bench. And by serving on boards, they meet people to potentially bring in more business.”
Think strategically. If the volunteer activity aligns with your company’s strengths, it will be more sustainable. City National Bank encourages and supports its colleagues' involvement in the community through a volunteer program overseen by Jennifer Nickerson, corporate citizenship manager. In addition to generating goodwill in the community, activities that emphasize a natural affinity between City National and the volunteer project often have more impact, Nickerson finds.
Integrate with your marketing strategy. “Think about how you can holistically volunteer toward efforts that contribute to what you stand for as an institution,” said Christen Graham, president of Giving Strong Inc., a social impact consulting firm in Portland, Maine. Nickerson takes this into account in her program at City National Bank. “Contributing to the economic and cultural vitality of our communities not only has a positive, measurable impact on the growth and prosperity of those communities, but it makes good business sense for the bank as well,” she said.
Personalize it. Programs and policies can allow employees to volunteer individually. City National Bank operates a Dollars for Doers program that gives grants of up to $500 annually to qualified nonprofits for which a colleague volunteers 20 or more hours annually. It also supports its colleagues' involvement on nonprofit boards and steering committees, offering placement assistance to help them find the right volunteer opportunity. Nickerson recommends sites such as Volunteer Match, Hands On Network, Serve.gov and Taproot Foundation as good sources for matching volunteers up with organizations that can use their help.
Celebrate success. Boost internal relations by publicizing the program in your company newsletter and through employee recognition events. If your employees are engaged, they will tell your story in the larger community and serve as ambassadors for your corporate citizenship efforts, Nickerson said. “Surveys show that three-quarters of white-collar workers say they would leave their companies if their volunteer programs were discontinued. The percentage is even higher when millennials are polled,” she said.
Size doesn’t matter. “Even a one-person shop can volunteer,” said Bender Phelps. Entrepreneurs can donate time, a percentage of sales on a product or join with organized community groups such as Los Angeles-based nonprofit Big Sunday that act as volunteer clearinghouses for charitable organizations.
Another important point to keep in mind: Volunteering shouldn’t be mandatory. “Employees can feel put upon and then it loses its luster,” said Graham. Volunteering should, after all, come from the heart, not just the C-suite.