Volunteer programs make good dollars-and-sense


Communities are challenged like never before with limited resources to educate and protect their citizens, provide health care and social services, and defend the environment. Employee volunteers can contribute professional skills to solve pressing community problems and at the same time acquire new skills.

These programs can enhance a nonprofit’s ability to fulfill its mission and reduce expenses through saved labor costs. For companies, programs that are integrated with core business objectives offer many benefits: build brand awareness and affinity; strengthen loyalty among consumers; enhance corporate image; improve employee morale and retention; and increase employee productivity.

Most important, the programs can expose your company to new opportunities through contacts in the community and result in increases to your bottom line.

Getting started

Striking the balance between employee interest, community needs and business goals can be a challenge. First, identify the business objectives of the program, which should reflect the culture and values of your company.  For example, Dannon, the Westchester-based food company, aligns local volunteer projects with its corporate philanthropic goals of environmental sustainability and healthy eating.

You can also incorporate current trends. One trend is leadership training, where volunteers develop solutions and programs that address a local societal issue, rather than simply performing tasks requested by a nonprofit partner. Other trends include volunteering in response to disasters or volunteering to reduce racial, ethnic and cultural disparities within an organization’s industry.

Next, consider your resources and what clients and customers may be interested in.

For your employees, use a survey to gauge their volunteer interests and identify organizations to support. The Volunteer Center of United Way (www.volunteer-center.org) offers samples of employee surveys, a community needs assessment and local volunteer opportunities through its online database.

When evaluating organizations to support, consider their impact in the community and if your company’s involvement can further enhance the achievements.

Level of involvement

Volunteering can be a one-day event or an ongoing relationship, each of which can improve team-building strategies among employees. Some businesses find the best way to get employees involved is to give an allotted number of paid community service hours each year to dedicate to volunteerism.

The Volunteer Center’s staff can produce a full-service volunteer day for local businesses and assist in the selection of the project, recruitment, orientation and management. According to Jeannette Gisbert, coordinator, corporate programs at The Volunteer Center of United Way, “We have thousands of hours under our belts of connecting nonprofits and businesses to make positive changes in our community. We offer to the small-business community this wealth of experience and knowledge so they don’t waste valuable staff time.”

Leverage skills, talents

Starbucks found a creative way to use its executive talent at a time it had no immediate positions, by “loaning” the executives to nonprofits. Local IBM employees developed and facilitated free basic computer training for Westchester residents 55 and older and a science fair for Peekskill youth.   Businesses can also assign teams of employee volunteers with marketing, human resource, technology and other professional services to nonprofits, in the same way a consulting firm would advise nonprofits.

Educate and engage

The more support the program has from the top of the company, the more employees will be motivated to join. Enlist senior management to engage in volunteer activities and promote the program. Have nonprofit partners talk to employees about their needs and encourage employees to strategize how their skills can best be used. If you are organizing a one-time event, name it, such as Pepsi Beverages Co.’s “PBC Gives Back Days,” and publicize the event well in advance to create a buzz. Publicize the results of your volunteer efforts through newsletters, company intranet and website, e-mail, social media and media releases to motivate employees.

Develop structure, policies

The structure of your program will depend on the size of the company and corporate vision. A more structured program can present challenges to the capacity of your resources and staff. To deal with this, some businesses create a volunteer action committee or council to obtain employee input, make recommendations to senior management, plan the events and divide planning responsibilities.

Because even a one-day event involves time and resources, companies may need to get creative by limiting the number of employees who can participate on a project, or offer volunteer opportunities to specific departments on different days, or on weekends.

No matter what the structure, it is essential to develop written company policies around volunteering, including a business plan, like any other core business function. Contact CVCinfo@HandsOnNewtork.org for company program examples. 

Recognition, awards

Recognition is essential to keep employees motivated and generate excitement about volunteering. Rewards should reflect the company culture and can include acknowledgement by senior management in company emails or newsletters, a certificate of appreciation, T-shirts, extra vacation time, monetary donations to their charity of choice, or a volunteer breakfast or luncheon attended by senior management and the nonprofit recipients.

Is it effective?

Now, more than ever, companies are looking for ways to measure the return on their philanthropic investments and develop strategies to manage their volunteer programs that align with community and business goals and objectives. An employee survey may make sense to measure employee interest, overall experience and satisfaction.

The HandsOn Network offers resources on how to measure the return on investment and impact of programs. Contact www.handsonnetwork.org for more information.