How to Give Back: Company Volunteer and Service Programs

Marianne Hayes
June 3, 2019

Corporate giving, company volunteer programs, and social responsibility are on the rise; these encouraging trends suggest that the way we work is changing for the better. Volunteering is a social experience that helps people connect and build stronger bonds among peers and community. In addition, the desire to be of service is an intrinsic motivation, and companies that weave this into their culture give themselves a major leg up when it comes to fostering meaningful relationships between their employees.

There's also a recruitment and retention component at play. Those who participate in company volunteer programs are more likely to be loyal, proud, and satisfied employees, particularly among the millennial sect, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

With more and more offices looking to up their community service and philanthropic initiatives, one big question moves to the forefront: How do we make company volunteer programs both meaningful and an opportunity to build company culture? And how can we ensure that these initiatives actually help the organizations they're designed to serve?

For expert insights, I spoke with Dr. Una Osili, the associate dean for research at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Here are some best practices for those looking to establish effective, lasting ways to give back at work.

Find an company volunteer program that fits with your culture

There are close to two million non-profits in the U.S. alone, according to Osili, but finding one that embodies your company's values and spirit takes a little work on the front end.

"You need to think about the company's overall strategic goals," says Osili. "If it's a health care company, maybe wellness becomes a signature initiative, for example. Gather as much evidence as you can, meet with leaders in the community as well as within the company to clarify your priorities."

This last point directs us inward, beyond corporate leadership and more toward what matters to employees. Something as simple as an employee survey can help take the philanthropic temperature of the office.

"What do employees care about? How are they already giving back in their own ways? What organizations are important to them?" Osili asks.

The way your team answers provides a snapshot of the causes and modes of volunteering that speak to them on a personal level. It also serves as a jumping-off point to help managers begin to narrow down potential community groups and nonprofit organizations to work with.

Another key piece of the puzzle is what your customers care about. Osili suggests leveraging social media to learn what issues matter to your clients. Open the lines of communication and actively engage with folks on your social platforms to get a sense of their passions and concerns. Can your company take meaningful action to address these issues at the local level? Are there any nearby opportunities to put your company's boots on the ground and potentially invite customers to get take part?

"Many companies are getting involved either supporting what their employees are doing or taking a stand on an issue in a way that adheres to what their customers, shareholders, and corporate leaders care about," adds Osili.

Make company volunteer initiatives meaningful and relevant to employees

Getting your team interested in participating in a company volunteer program is the first step. From there, it's about creating opportunities to give back that are actually meaningful. What you're looking for are worthwhile programs that won't bring on volunteer fatigue. Many companies, including Salesforce and Autodesk, help combat burnout and stoke motivation by offering employees paid time off for volunteering.

Timberland provides 40 paid hours for volunteering annually. The company also hosts two global days of service each year along with one lower-key monthly service event. As SHRM reports, Timberland measures employee engagement by looking at how much they're volunteering as well as the number of paid hours actually being used.

"Volunteering as a group can be a really important way to further the company's goals by building links between volunteering, culture, and relationships," says Osili. "A lot of companies also offer 'dollars for doers' programs where employees volunteer in significant ways, and the company then provides a matching grant to the organization." She also suggests diversifying how employees participate, rather than repeating the same activity again and again. If helping the environment is a signature initiative, for example, one month can be about cleaning up a local neighborhood; the next can invite employees to plant trees together at a nearby park. The idea is to mix it up to appeal to a wide variety of team members.

Properly vet company volunteer partners

If you work for a medium-to-large business, a day of service or a regular company volunteering program can be a massive initiative to organize. Teaming up with a community service partner can help simplify the logistics, communication, and coordination it takes to create a meaningful company volunteer experience. Before you approach potential service partners, set a budget for volunteering and clarify what it is you actually want to achieve. Are you looking to launch a sustainable, ongoing program of company volunteer opportunities? One annual day of service? Both? Use these questions, along with the interests of your employees and customers you identified, to provide direction when it comes time to choose the partners you work with.

Before you finalize your decision, take the time to properly vet all potential company volunteer programs. A few points to guide your conversations with them:

  • Does their campaign mission and overall vision align with your company's?
  • Do they have the bandwidth to operationally support your program and do the legwork?
  • Do they fit within your budget?

A community service partnership should feel like a win-win between your company and the organization you support. Even better, it can open up new company volunteer programs and opportunities for your team members. An effective company volunteer program makes giving back accessible and reflective of your company's values and culture while making a meaningful impact in your community.

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