When it comes to success in business, volunteerism no longer optional

If surveys on the business benefits of volunteering are to be believed, companies without volunteer programs are not just missing the boat, they’re nowhere near the harbor — especially if they want to find and recruit the best young talent available.

According to the 2011 Deloitte Volunteer IMPACT Survey, 71% of millennials said they were either very likely or somewhat likely to take a company’s commitment to the community into consideration when choosing between jobs with similar pay, benefits, and responsibilities.

“I think many companies underestimate the value and benefits they receive from allowing and encouraging their staff to volunteer.” — Candace Stohs-Krause, CUNA Mutual Foundation

In fact, most informed observers will tell you that corporate volunteerism is no longer just an afterthought — increasingly, it’s an indispensable part of one’s day-to-day operation.

“There have been studies that show when [a volunteering] culture is part of a business, the return on investment is really high,” said Kathy Martinson, senior director of community engagement for the United Way of Dane County. “Employees are really proud of where they work, the retention of employees is higher, and they talk about what a great place it is to work.

So it’s good for the company’s reputation, and you end up with a really great return on investment as far as the bottom line. The products may sell better, you employ a stronger workforce, and morale is high.”

To Martinson, volunteerism isn’t part of a quaint bygone era characterized by canned food drives and annual bake sales; it’s the wave of the future. And to that end, the United Way is spearheading a reevaluation of the way local businesses approach their volunteer efforts.

In December, the United Way held its inaugural Reimagining Service Summit at Promega. The summit brought leaders in the business, nonprofit, government, and faith-based spheres together to “inspire a revolution of local volunteerism” under four key principles, which were developed by the national Reimagining Service organization:

  1. The volunteer ecosystem is more effective when all sectors participate in its revolution — nonprofits, private organizations, government and educational institutions, and faith-based organizations.
  2. Make volunteering a core strategic function, not an add-on.
  3. Focus volunteer engagement on true community needs rather than the supply of volunteers.
  4. In order to get a return, you have to invest. Well-managed volunteer programs can generate as much as three to six times the community value as the cost to manage them. But upfront and ongoing financial investment is needed.

The first principle was largely fulfilled through the Reimagining Summit itself, which drew a host of organizations and businesses — including heavyweight business partners like M3 Insurance, Madison Gas and Electric, Summit Credit Union, and TDS.

For Candace Stohs-Krause, assistant director of the CUNA Mutual Foundation, the summit was a great way to both generate new ideas and motivate the company’s employees.

“We’ve been working for some time to create a structured program for skills-based volunteering for our staff, but the summit gave us some great ideas for moving it forward with our HR team and actually formalizing it into our development plans that staff create,” said Stohs-Krause. “Several members of our Employee Philanthropy Team also attended, and they left feeling reinvigorated and excited about expanding volunteer opportunities for the rest of the company.”

To Martinson, that level of commitment is key to a successful volunteer program.

“It’s important that you have somebody in the organization that’s ensuring that the company is, let’s say, giving paid time off for their employees to volunteer,” said Martinson. “How do you help engage employees in meaningful ways? How do you align that with the mission of your company so there is, again, that kind of alignment in what you’re doing?”

With respect to principle 3, one way for businesses to better target their efforts is by participating in the United Way’s Business Volunteer Network.

“That’s a membership group of companies that are interested in engaging their employees in volunteerism,” said Martinson. “There are 35 companies that are members. … If businesses are interested in learning more about the Business Volunteer Network, they are welcome to come to membership meetings, where we usually talk about an issue in our community — it could be homelessness or literacy or older adults staying independent. Companies also share best practices with each other related to their employees’ volunteerism — what works at your company, how do you handle salary versus hourly employees, and can they volunteer in the same way?

“So just sharing those best practices and hearing from different community leaders about issues [is valuable], and then we also coordinate some volunteer opportunities for our companies.”



But while it’s not necessarily vital to be part of the network to have an effective volunteer program, Martinson says it is important to have strong corporate buy-in.

“To businesses I would say that having a corporate culture and corporate commitment to employee volunteerism has so many benefits — and it really needs to come from the CEO at the top level,” said Martinson. “First of all, it’s good for the community. It shows that the company is a good corporate citizen, that they care about their local community.”

For Stohs-Krause, the benefits of a strong volunteering culture go well beyond that.

“I think many companies underestimate the value and benefits they receive from allowing and encouraging their staff to volunteer,” said Stohs-Krause. “We’ve seen a range of benefits from productivity gains to increased team cohesion, professional development, company pride, and good PR. I would also emphasize the need for every business to have a dedicated volunteer manager to organize and coordinate volunteering opportunities for staff and ensure that everyone — the nonprofit and the company — get the most out of the experience. Even if this is only a small part of their role, I can’t overemphasize the importance of having a staff member serve in an official capacity as a volunteer manager.”

For more information on the United Way’s Business Volunteer Network, click here.

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