The good that you enable your employees to do through volunteer programs can pay dividends for your company.
Sporting a T-shirt bearing her firm’s name, snacking on company-donated doughnuts, and occasionally kidding her co-workers, Heather Alford was enjoying her weekend away from the office-hammering nails at a construction site to help build a house for a needy family.
Alford, a purchasing assistant at a computer firm, was lending a hand with a Habitat for Humanity project in Phoenix. And as she applied her carpentry talents to help others, she was also developing organizational skills and helping her company, based in neighboring Scottsdale, express its commitment to the Phoenix area.
Alford’s employer, PAR Technologies, Inc., manufactures computer-memory and related products. It also sponsors a volunteer program for its 65 employees, enabling-though not coercing-them to choose from a variety of projects.
Alford says her PAR-sponsored volunteer work has been “a really great experience,” and she adds that “it makes you feel good to be working for a company that is so connected to the community.”
Although there are no statistics on the prevalence of company-sponsored volunteer programs, anecdotal evidence suggests that volunteerism is gaining in popularity among companies of all sizes.
Interest in community-service programs rose steadily through the 1990s and spiked after a highly publicized presidential “summit” on volunteerism in Philadelphia in 1997, says Jeff Hough, vice president for corporate affairs at the Washington, D.C. based Points of Light Foundation. The nonprofit organization promotes company volunteer efforts, and Hough says inquiries have been rising every month.
Volunteer programs cover the spectrum of community needs and reflect the range of firms’ specialties and employees’ skills. Projects may benefit various nonprofit, tax exempt, and charitable organizations as well as social-welfare agencies such as schools and government programs. Activities may include creating World Wide Web sites, cleaning up roadsides, mentoring atrisk youths, and stocking food banks.
Volunteer programs help promote employee teamwork, loyalty, pride, and morale, advocates say Such programs, they add, can help employees develop management and other workplace skills, can help attract high-quality applicants, can enhance a company’s image and raise its profile in the community, and can even enable a firm to showcase products and services.
Further, some business owners say community-service programs can distinguish a company from its competitors and underscore its reputation for trustworthiness with vendors and customers.
Creating a volunteer program that runs well often requires considerable time, effort, and commitment by the firm, and there’s no assurance that the benefits to the sponsor will be visible or measurable. Before undertaking a volunteer program, a company should consider a variety of issues. For example:
* It can be difficult to get increasingly time-squeezed employees to volunteer. But if the firm directly or indirectly coerces employees to volunteer, the pressure could create an inhospitable work environment.
* By sponsoring volunteer projects and encouraging employees to participate, a firm could increase its exposure to litigation for employees’ actions in the program.
* The program should reflect the proper mix of corporate and employee interests and community needs.
* The business must have the right reasons for supporting a volunteer program.
“As a profit-seeking firm, you should not get involved in volunteer activities simply out of altruism,” says John Hood, author of Heroic Enterprise: Business and the Common Good (Simon & Schuster, $25). “You want to use your volunteerism and charity to attract and build a productive work force and raise your community profile, not to get your charitable jollies, because that distracts from your fundamental task, which is to make money.”
A firm may simply serve as a clearinghouse or referral agency for employees and retirees to volunteer for projects. Or its effort may be more extensive, such as when a company complements its philanthropic donations by creating and managing group employee projects, perhaps building in employee-development and image-enhancing activities.
(Volunteer programs differ from sponsorships, though the two confer similar benefits. They also may complement each other as when a firm financially sponsors a nonprofit fund-raiser and supplies company volunteers for the event. See “And Now, Some Words About Sponsors,” Page 38.)
Company owners embrace volunteerism for a host of reasons. ‘We’ve been in the community 30 years,” says Steve Fuller, owner of Fuller Plumbing, a five-employee firm in Chula Vista, Calif. “I felt I should give back to the community after everything it’s provided me.”
Joel Barthelemy, president and CEO of PAR Technologies, says: “Both my parents have ‘servant hearts,’ and I may be influenced by that. … Volunteering also makes me feel good; it’s more than just what’s in it for Joel.”
Besides personal reasons, there’s often much for a company to gain–some call it enlightened self-interest–from having a volunteer program. Some firms believe employee volunteerism adds to a community’s vibrancy, which they say can in turn stimulate business opportunities.
In a 1992 survey of 454 U.S. corporations conducted by the Conference Board, a New York City-based business-research organization, nine out of 10 respondents said they actively encouraged their employees to take part in volunteer programs. The survey also showed that the “overwhelming majority” of corporate volunteerism involved education, including helping youngsters with their studies and career plans.
“The business community is compelled to invest in the education of its future work force,” the Conference Board report stated, “because of its continuing dependency on the availability of responsible and welltrained workers.”
Many companies know the public generally favors socially responsible firms. According to the 1997 Cone/Roper Cause Related Marketing Trends Report, three-fourths of Americans likely would switch to a company involved in a good cause if its prices and product quality were equal to those of a competing company without such involvement.
The study was done by Boston-based Cone Communications, a marketing agency, and New York City-based Roper Starch Worldwide, a consumer-trends consultancy.
Fuller Plumbing has discovered that its community standing and name recognition have been enhanced by its practice of doing plumbing repairs for the needy during the firm’s slow periods. And after articles on those efforts appeared in San Diego newspapers, the company received calls from prospective new customers.
Besides generating publicity, community-service efforts can influence other firms to promote volunteerism. The efforts at PAR Technologies made a strong impression on ComTrans, Inc., a customer in Phoenix. At PAR’s request, ComTrans joined PAR employees in volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, says Neal Thomas, ComTrans’ president.
“All things being equal, I sure would rather work with a firm that is giving something back to the community,” says Thomas, who now asks his vendors to join ComTrans in volunteering.
At Cougar Mountain Software, a 57-employee firm in Boise, Idaho, managers are discovering that community-service projects attract managers from other firms, offering informal opportunities to forge business contacts, says Dave Lakhani director of sales and public relations.
Beyond enhancing community image and improving ties with customers and vendors, a volunteer program may also help attract high-quality applicants and help keep good employees on the payroll.
In a survey of 2,100 job-seeking MBA graduates, 83 percent said that if they were weighing two otherwise-equal job offers, they’d lean toward a company with a reputation for social responsibility. The 1996 survey was done by Mark Albion, founder of You&Company, a career-management firm in Boston.
A volunteer program “adds to a better quality of life,” says Lakhani. “And the happier and more fulfilled employees are, the longer they’ll stay and the more productive they’ll be.”
Carol Cone, CEO of Cone Communications, which has 60 employees, is convinced that her company’s volunteer program-which lets employees use four hours of company time per month for volunteering-is one reason that her firm’s employee turnover rate is far below the industry average.
Other firms believe community service contributes to improved interdepartmental communication. Says PAR’s Barthelemy: “When we were building walls for Habitat [for Humanity], walls were being broken down between departments. No longer was sales the enemy of accounting, credit, and collection. When everybody is pitching in like that, you build enormous team spirit and respect.”
Impact Skills Development
According to the 1992 Conference Board survey, volunteering employees improved their skills in areas such as communication, problem solving, organization, time management, leadership, planning, budgeting, and getting along with others.
In addition, those who took part in the survey said the experience of volunteering taught them more about government policies and regulations, handling responsibility, and appreciating fellow employees and work-force diversity.
For some firms, volunteerism can even outshine workshops and seminars in helping train employees, interns, and apprentices. At Fuller Plumbing, an apprentice plumber learns technical and customer-service skills during company-sponsored community-service work.
Launching a volunteer program, says business author Hood, takes time, effort, and sometimes your firm’s materials-if, for example, you donate your company’s products or other goods for a volunteer activity. It can require cash outlays, too, for items such as refreshments and T-shirts.
Another cost arises if employees are allowed to do at least some of their volunteer work on company time.
Be mindful also that although you may be able to tally media coverage of your community-service efforts, you probably won’t be able to assign an exact value to that publicity or to improved morale.
Also sounding a cautionary note about corporate volunteerism is Elizabeth Levang, a Minneapolis management consultant who wrote her doctoral dissertation on corporations that coerce employees to volunteer. Her 1991 research indicated that three-fourths of the employees felt some coercion from their companies. Coercion, Levang said, can contribute to feelings of hostility and aggression.
Says Barthelemy: “We make it very clear to employees that you may volunteer if you can and want to. You won’t be looked at any differently on the job if you don’t.”
Clearly, a volunteer program offers many potential benefits. Just as clearly, however, small firms should do their homework to make the best use of volunteerism and avoid its drawbacks, says Susan Ellis, president of Energize, a Philadelphia-based training, consulting, and publishing firm specializing in volunteering.
“Don’t go into [volunteerism] thoughtlessly,” Ellis advises. “It’s not that simple. And remember-you’re playing around with things employees hold dearly, like their free time. It’s like any management issue: If you spend a fair amount of time planning it, you’ll have fewer problems and more success.”