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Corporate Volunteer Programs: A Virtuous Circle

By Elizabeth Bales Frank

Recently, Deloitte issued a report revealing that “millennials who frequently participate in workplace volunteer activities are far more likely to be proud, loyal and satisfied employees compared to those who rarely or never volunteer.” The Deloitte report confirms that the best way for an employer to keep this group engaged is by, quite simply, engaging — in the community and in charitable organizations.

More than half of the millennials responding to the survey said they were “likely to factor a company’s commitment to the community into their decision if choosing between two jobs with the same location, responsibilities and pay and benefits.”

Among the benefits to employers are higher employee satisfaction, greater retention and loyalty, and the opportunity to train employees in the development of a variety of skills — leadership, board membership, public speaking, fundraising, teaching, and mentoring — through hands-on experience, which at the same time provides a direct benefit to a charity or community endeavor. Savvy employers are already in: a recent survey indicates that roughly 90% of Fortune 500 companies conduct corporate volunteer programs.

Good for Business Too?

It’s good for morale, but is it good for business? A study, “Corporate Social Responsibility and Financial Performance, which appeared in the Strategic Management Journal, asserts that it is, while at the same time admitting that it lacks the numbers to back up its thesis. “We hypothesize,” state the authors, “that there is no direct relationship between CRP and CFP, but that there is a virtuous circle connecting both performance measures through intangibles.”

How so?

“Most intangible resources have a direct connection with employees,” writes Chris Jarvis, co-founder of Realized Worth, a consulting firm which works with corporations to develop and optimize their volunteer programs. “So it makes complete sense that developing employees’ ability to perform is a highly valued tactic towards increasing a company’s intangible resources. Businesses investing in employee development can expect to see gains in performance, organizational commitment and innovation.”

“There is not a direct link to profitability,” Jarvis adds, “but companies who do this tend to become more profitable.”

Such companies include AT&T, Bank of America, Campbell Soup Company, Intel Corporation, PWC, and Merck & Co., among others, all of whom have been named finalists by the Points of Light Foundation for their Corporate Engagement Award of Excellence. The Points of Light Foundation also provides standards for tracking the success of corporate programs with their Employee Volunteer Program Reporting Standards [PDF] guide. Yet a company need not be a mega-corporation to contribute to the community. Among the names on the honor roll produced by the Companies That Care Foundation is Umpqua Bank, a community bank with branches in Washington, Northern California, Nevada, and Oregon, with its headquarters in Portland.

Exciting and Energizing Employees

Of its 2300 employees, 77% participate in Umpqua Bank’s corporate volunteer program, which they call “Connect Volunteer.” According to their 2010 in-house survey, 86% of the whole company are more satisfied with their employment because of Connect and 90% recommend as a good place to work. Listed for the past three consecutive years on Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For,” Umpqua Bank allows its employees forty paid hours annually to devote their time during the work week to a local school or community organization.

Nicole Stein, vice president of community responsibility and corporate communications for the bank, attributes Connect Volunteer’s success to its specific focus (in the bank’s case, on youth programs) and strong communication within the bank and with local organizations.

“It’s really about knowing your organization, and aligning your program to be successful based on who you are as a company. Understand your business and understand your cycles …. Figure out what you’re trying to achieve. Many companies are very generous in this space, but not many formalize it. Formalize the program, give it parameters and goals. With focus areas, we can articulate our program better. Give it a name.”

As a community bank, Umpqua focuses on its immediate community, a tactic of which consultant Chris Jarvis approves. “Be aware globally, but act locally,” Jarvis advises. “An employee living in a community wants to be able to drive somewhere and do something.”

Stein adds, “So many of them who come back [from volunteer service] come back energized and excited to share with customers what they’ve just done.”

An excited and energized employee, sharing his enthusiasm with a client or customer, devoting himself to the community and proud to match his employer’s commitment with his own? Sounds like a virtuous circle indeed.

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