Giving the gift of time

Employee volunteer programs like Ascendium’s are a great way to give back and engage workers.

When it comes to corporate giving, donating money is the easy solution. Donating time takes a special kind of commitment

Madison-based Ascendium Education Group, one of the nation’s largest student loan guarantors, gave a record $1.3 million in corporate gifts during 2021. Giving is up $300,000 and a number of employee matches were very successful. But more impressive is the 7,000 volunteer staff hours donated to Madison-area charities.

Ascendium’s volunteer time off (VTO) program allots each employee eight hours of company time to support nonprofits through volunteering during work hours. In 2021, Ascendium employees donated over 1,400 volunteer hours to 87 organizations through VTO, with the majority of those hours being used in Madison — Ascendium has 270 employees across the U.S., with approximately 180 in Madison. To date, 76% of Ascendium employees have used four or more hours of VTO.

In what Ascendium calls Beyond VTO, employees also volunteered over 5,600 hours to 37 organizations outside of work during nights and weekends. Again, the majority of those hours were in Madison.

Brett Lindquist, vice president of strategic communications at Ascendium, says the organization is committed to helping people reach their full potential, and its employees are focused on this as well. “We have a strong culture of giving throughout the organization. While the COVID-19 health crisis has made in-person volunteering more difficult, our employees have consistently answered the call to volunteer. The over 7,000 total volunteer hours in 2021 represents a 16% increase over 2020.”

Lindquist says employees are encouraged to support organizations they are passionate about and Ascendium gives them the choice to donate their time as they see fit. “We also work with local nonprofit organizations to help find volunteer opportunities for our employees. We share information about employees’ efforts, including photos whenever possible, throughout our internal website and via our corporate social channels to promote our VTO program and recognize employees’ efforts.

“We have found employees prefer group activities where they get to work with people in new ways outside of the office,” continues Lindquist. “The group activities are great as they foster collaboration and teambuilding across departments.”

Ascendium also frequently organizes special “Volunteer with an Executive” events. For each of these events, an executive will pick an organization and lead a group volunteer activity. These have been quite popular with employees.

Madison-area nonprofit organizations that Ascendium employees volunteered with in 2021 include Box of Balloons, Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County, East Madison Community Center, Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin, The River Food Pantry, and Operation Fresh Start.

“A favorite volunteer opportunity among Ascendium employees in 2021 was Box of Balloons,” noted Lindquist. “Employees used 391 VTO hours this year volunteering with the nonprofit organization’s Madison chapter, which relies on volunteers to put together birthday boxes so children in Dane County can have memorable birthday experiences — regardless of a family’s current situation, living conditions, or financial status. For many of these children, the birthday Box of Balloons provides will be the first birthday their family has ever been able to celebrate. Making sure a child feels special and celebrated can enhance their perception of their own worth and help them rise to their highest potential.”

In recognition of the dedication and enthusiasm employees have shown towards Box of Balloons, Ascendium recently made a pair of donations to the organization in the amounts of $5,000 and $5,975. According to Cate Valenzuela, who co-leads Box of Balloons’ Madison West chapter, the donations will allow Box of Balloons to add a book and other special treats to each birthday box to help families celebrate children on their special day.

Jeff Oloizia has been working exclusively from his Madison home since joining Ascendium as a senior writer in June. Using VTO to make and distribute meals at The River Food Pantry in November provided an opportunity to meet and network with Ascendium leaders and co-workers in person — many for the first time. It also gave him a deeper appreciation for Ascendium’s commitment to the Madison community.

“I interact with Ascendium’s community giving initiatives on a daily basis, but volunteering really allowed me to see the company’s mission in action,” Oloizia says. “To be able to gather after so long, especially in support of a great nonprofit working to better our community, felt amazing.”

Business systems analyst Evan Benedict uses VTO and Beyond VTO to share his jiujitsu knowledge by volunteering as an instructor at Stoughton Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a nonprofit martial arts school. The school’s primary goal is to support veterans by providing them with free, high-quality Brazilian jiujitsu instruction as a way to work with their physical and mental limitations and create community. However, a variety of classes are offered to people of all ages to reach their training, competitive, or self-defense goals.

Volunteering at the school allows Benedict to put Ascendium’s belief in the power of education and workforce training into practice. He usually teaches two classes in the evening, but with VTO he can host an additional class in the afternoon. From Nov. 2 to Dec. 14, Benedict used VTO to host eight one-hour sessions teaching the fundamentals of jiujitsu to teens and adults.

Create a successful employee volunteer program

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to establishing a successful employee volunteer program, but there are some simple best practices you can follow to begin organizing one for your company:

  1. Give employees a say;
  2. Make volunteering a benefit;
  3. Build your teams;
  4. Document you progress;
  5. Prep your workers;
  6. Include remote workers; and
  7. Follow through on your commitments.

For more information, read these helpful tips from SHRM.

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