Volunteerism: A Win-Win Proposition

A new trend in corporate volunteerism programs is leveraging specific skills of the workforce, such as financial, communication or legal skills, to aid the operations of nonprofit organizations. In creating such programs, however, HR leaders must make sure employees know their participation is voluntary.

Monday, June 11, 2012
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Earlier this spring, A Billion + Change -- a national campaign to mobilize pro bono and skills-based volunteer services from corporate America -- announced that 100 companies have pledged to create or expand skills-based volunteer programs in their workplaces.

In six months, these companies pledged a combined total of $1.7 billion and at least 11.5 million hours of time and talent to nonprofits -- one-fifth of the way toward the organization's goal of recruiting 500 companies by 2013.

Volunteerism is nothing new for corporate America, but the element of skills-based volunteerism is, and it is a concept that is resonating with organizations and individuals.

"We align everything with our mission, which is to help people lead healthy lives," says Kate Rubin, vice president of social responsibility for UnitedHealth Group and president of the United Health Foundation.

"We have created focus areas for not just volunteerism, but also for our philanthropic efforts around chronic disease prevention and care," she says.

"A Billion + Change has started something that is catching fire very quickly, and that is skills-based volunteerism and micro-volunteerism," says Rubin. "That means that people can use their real business skills -- their legal skills, their financial skills, marketing, language translation, communication skills -- to help people."

Micro-volunteerism, she says, "is the idea that you can do this in little spurts of time."

To organize these "spurts," UnitedHealth Group uses an online platform,, that has been customized for the company. People around the company can volunteer in 15-minute increments, up to a couple of hours, she says.

"They can assist anywhere in the world for the nonprofits that have listed opportunities," Rubin says.

Importantly, she notes: "We are using our real skills which are much, much more valuable to those nonprofits than just making a sandwich or doing the standard kinds of clean-ups. I don't want to denigrate that -- that's really, really important work, and we do a lot of that as well, but when we can take our business skills and apply those to solving business problems for non-profits it really makes a difference."

Corporate Executive Board, a research and advisory services firm headquartered in Washington, has also pledged its commitment to A Billion + Change, says Melody Jones, chief administrative officer for CEB.

CEB's second annual Global Service Day was held around the globe on May 18, in 14 cities from its headquarters to Singapore, she says.

More than 1,500 employees partnered with 20 service organizations that focus on entrepreneurship, sustainable growth, social impact and innovation, with projects ranging from working with migrant women and disabled children to helping underprivileged schools and historic sites.

Philanthropy and volunteerism fall under one of CEB's core values ? the spirit of generosity, says Jerry Sorkin, an executive director at CEB who is responsible for the firm's philanthropic and community affairs.

CEB policies support the efforts of employees, he says.

A daytime leave policy, for example, provides employees with up to 40 hours a year of daytime leave to volunteer. Another policy allows employees to earn additional PTO time for volunteering more than 50 hours; employees can earn up to three additional days off through their volunteerism efforts.

"We have about 2,000 staff around the world and we encourage their volunteerism," says Sorkin. CEB has mobilized a core group of 60 service leaders who work with their offices or teams to set up volunteer activities throughout the year.

Organizations like UnitedHealth Group, CEB and others find that volunteerism offers many benefits for their organizations, their employees and, of course, for the nonprofits they serve.

Advantages of Volunteerism

The Advisory Board Co., a global research, technology and consulting firm based in Washington, also takes volunteerism very seriously and supports a skills-based approach that provides benefits in terms of staff development as well as community impact.

"We think about it from both a macro and a micro perspective," says Graham McLaughlin, director of community impact there.

The macro perspective focuses on establishing policies and procedures that support volunteerism -- employees can take up to 10 hours of leave time a month to volunteer in areas of their own interest.

The micro perspective focuses on aligning employees' skills with pro-bono work that provides a service-learning opportunity. Marketing staff, for instance, might work with a nonprofit to help with marketing efforts. Accounting staff might help to set up financial systems.

"They get to see the application of their business skill sets to the needs of nonprofits," says Michelle Paquin, director of career management at The Advisory Board. "They have the ability to hone some of those skills and then maybe take on more elevated leadership roles."

In addition to the opportunity to build skills and experience in different areas, notes McLaughlin, employees enjoy the sense of accomplishment they get from seeing the benefit and impact of their volunteerism on the organizations they work with.

Companies that are serious about their volunteer efforts know that measuring the impact of those efforts is important. Most point to a tie between their organization's support of volunteerism and employee engagement.

Paquin says staff surveys conducted biannually show a "steady increase in our staff engagement over the past several years. We've seen specific mentions of the increasing emphasis on community work."

At CEB, says Jones, periodic employee surveys have indicated that "all else being equal, they would not choose a company that did not have a robust community service program."

There are other benefits that go beyond engagement. A 2010 UnitedHealthcare and VolunteerMatch study found that:

* 68 percent of those who volunteered in the past year reported that volunteering makes them feel physically healthier;

* 95 percent agreed that volunteering improves emotional health;

* Volunteering appears to correspond to a healthier Body Mass Index, with a significantly lower proportion of volunteers identified as obese (31 percent), compared to non-volunteers (36 percent); and

* Nearly 30 percent of volunteers who suffer from a chronic condition say that volunteering has helped them manage a chronic illness.

"I could never have estimated the goodwill, the positive impact on the culture and the pride that employees have in working for our company because of doing good in their communities," says Rubin. "It's incredibly rewarding to hear those anecdotal stories, along with the data that we get back, and know that we're making a difference."

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Structuring the Programs

Jess Chipkin is the public and community relations manager for Geneca, a 100-person software development firm in the Chicago area. She is in the process of starting a volunteer initiative at the company, and has used a model used by Edelman, a PR firm, as the basis for many of her ideas.

(Here are some other tips for creating a volunteerism program.)

Geneca's program, says Chipkin, will allow employees to nominate their favorite charities for company volunteerism efforts.

"These charities must have specific technology needs," she says. "The company will vote and we'll select three charities. The company will divide into three teams. Each team has 72 hours to complete the project. We'll have a celebration where we can vote on the best project." 

The firm is already committed to giving back to the community, with 5 percent of profits donated to foundations and charities, she says.

"But, I felt the need to do something more -- something that was more inclusive and that would engage and excite the employees more. And, something that would enable us to really use our unique skills in software development and technology for social causes. I wanted it to be something that was very uniquely Geneca."

Each organization needs to determine for itself what it can afford in terms of support for volunteer efforts, says CEB's Jones.

"The specific answer is going to vary by company, but doing something is really important -- do whatever it is you can do."

But, HR leaders should also be cautious in planning such initiatives. While volunteerism appears to have many benefits, there are some potential risks as well.

First, "voluntary" must mean voluntary, says Joel Rudin, a professor in the management and entrepreneurship Department in the Rohrer College of Business at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J.

"When participation is mandatory, the company opens up a hornet's nest of risks including potential violations of safety and overtime pay laws," he says. "The key to avoiding the risks is to make sure that employees know that they are free to participate, or not, as they see fit."

 Another area of risk, primarily for nonprofits, is to ensure that volunteers are volunteers, and not unpaid employees, says Joseph Harris, an employment-law attorney with the firm of White Harris in New York.

"Essentially what the Department of Labor is worried about is underpaid employees," he says.

Nonprofits taking on volunteers, he says, must meet these specific factors to avoid violating federal or local laws:

* There must be no expectation of compensation. "Some nominal fee is OK, but essentially, in most cases, we would advise that volunteers be completely unpaid so as to not blur the lines."

* The volunteer activity needs to be for a civic, charitable, human, religious or nonprofit purpose.

* The service of the volunteer needs to be offered freely without any pressure from his or her employer. "So, for example, if someone is an employee of a nonprofit and the employer says, 'We strongly urge you to volunteer for this in your spare time,' it's no longer volunteer work."

* Workers cannot volunteer to perform the same services that they perform as an employee of the nonprofit.

Despite the risks, however, experts say, the focus on volunteerism has been attractive to a growing employee demographic that values these opportunities -- and an economic climate that means demand for services has never been stronger.



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