Since its inception in 1994, Citizens Financial Group's sabbatical program has generated more than 48,000 volunteer hours and saved nonprofit organizations more than $1 million. But the benefits of the program go beyond just doing good in the community. The program also acts as a powerful retention and engagement tool.

"One of the things that is most impactful and a benefit to the organization is that [sabbatical participants] come back more engaged, more excited about the work that they do," says Cindy Erickson, executive vice president and head of human resources with Citizens Financial Group.

CFG started the community service sabbatical program as a way to support the communities in which it works as well as employees' own volunteer efforts. "The sabbatical program was really an extension of just who we are as an organization," says Erickson. "We asked ourselves, 'How can we help our colleagues in their own personal passion around volunteerism?' And it just kind of grew from there."

Every year, CFG - a banking company with more than 1,500 branches in 12 states and 20,000 employees - allocates up to 12 sabbaticals. Employees must be with the company for three years before applying. Applications are reviewed by a panel, which selects the sabbatical recipients.

Employees who participate in the program work for their chosen nonprofit organization for three months while maintaining their pay and benefits at CFG.


Off-the-job training

Kevin Ferroni is an assistant branch manager at a CFG bank in Philadelphia. He recently completed CFG's 100th sabbatical at an organization in South Philadelphia called Mighty Writers, which serves nearly 1,000 students each year in the fight against illiteracy. Mighty Writers offers free writing programs, including after-school activities and SAT-prep courses.

As a full-time volunteer, Ferroni used his banking experience to teach two financial literacy workshops - one to students who attend the after-school program and another to high school students and their parents about getting ready for college. He also supported the organization's staff as it further developed its accounting and financial systems. Ferroni also worked at Mighty Writers after-school program, represented the organization at community events and worked to expand its strategic partnerships with community members and local businesses.

"I'm just thankful and grateful that I could work for a company that would actually - for lack of a better term - put their money where their mouth is," says Ferroni, 32. "Volunteerism is one of the core values I remember hearing about from my orientation with Citizens five-and-a-half years ago all the way up until now."

He says he learned valuable skills that he's able to now use in his regular job. "One of my areas of expertise at the bank is working with different business owners and different nonprofit groups, and I don't think I quite had a complete grasp of what goes on behind the scenes," he says. "I'll be able to take some of that knowledge back and be able to relay it to some of my different business customers and nonprofit agencies that I work with."

The sabbatical program also serves as a valuable recruitment and attraction tool, says Erickson. "We are learning more and more from an attraction perspective that employees or candidates are working for companies that are community-minded and offer an opportunity to work with organizations that they feel passionate about," she says.

On the flip side, the program is an investment. It's three months of work the individual isn't doing. Other employers considering launching a sabbatical program "have to make sure they have the appropriate amount of coverage for the work that the employee is leaving behind," says Erickson.

That said, it's an investment in her people that Erickson feels is well worth it. "Any time you take on a new role or work with new people, it's just part and parcel of the day that you would gain new skills, get to know more about a different industry and a different environment," she says. "They come back more well-rounded and take that experience and parlay it into other things."

Ferroni agrees. "It's just an unbelievable opportunity - at a time when you pick up a newspaper and see that companies are struggling financially - that the bank takes the time and the effort and the money involved to allow someone like me to share my expertise."




Giving at a glance

American volunteers served 8.1 billion hours in 2010, valued at an estimated $173 billion, according to research from the Corporation for National and Community Service. Although the volunteer rate showed a slight decrease from 26.8% in 2009 to 26.3% in 2010 (the most recent year for which data is available), volunteers contributed approximately the same amount of hours - 8.1 billion in both years. The proportion of volunteers who serve 100 hours or more increased between 2009 and 2010 from 33.2% to 33.8%, and the median number of hours served per volunteer rose from 50 to 52 per year. The research also showed Gen Xers stepped up their volunteering commitment in 2010, giving more than 2.3 billion hours - an increase of almost 110 million hours since 2009.

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