If you need a deal-closer to get a prospective millennial generation recruit to join your company, Tracie Sponenberg has a suggestion: Institute a volunteerism benefit.

“When I do interviews, they always ask about it,” says the senior vice president of HR for The Granite Group (TGG), a 500-employee Concord, New Hampshire-based regional distributor of plumbing and HVAC products. “Some even demand it.”

A positive experience with a volunteer effort at a previous employer primed Sponenberg to launch one at TGG. Owners of the privately-held company had been quietly supporting local community projects for many years. She correctly predicted they would welcome an initiative that would engage employees in such efforts.

The program at TGG was an outgrowth of a strategic plan aimed at reducing voluntary turnover. A component of that strategy is a broad vision of wellness that embraces not only physical but financial and social wellbeing.

“We’re hoping this will become embedded in our culture,” Sponenberg says.

To Sponenberg, engagement in voluntary charitable efforts is a dimension of social wellness. TGG supports employee volunteering efforts, among other ways, by picking up fees that community-based volunteer project organizers charge to offset administrative costs.

Interest in such programs has nudged up in recent years, although “it hasn’t been a stampede,” says Mary Tavarozzi, managing director of Willis Towers Watson’s health and benefits practice in North America. “Over the last five or six years, the prevalence [of employers offering a volunteer benefit] has moved from around 15% to around 20%.”

According to the latest employee benefit survey from the Society for Human Resource Management, 22% of employers offer paid time off for volunteering; 20% offer paid time off to serve on the board of a community group or professional association, and 42% offer community volunteer programs.

Everybody wins?

As Tavarozzi sees it, volunteering programs yield two benefits for the price of one: “Employees feel good, and the company gets the benefit of good will from the community,” she says. And that doesn’t even count the benefit to the targets of the volunteer efforts.

But getting employees to “feel good” about their activities can be enhanced by their involvement in project selection and organization. “Get employees passionate about what they’re supporting; it can’t be a top-down thing,” Tavarozzi cautions.

She characterizes TGG’s program as a second-generation volunteer initiative. The first was companies simply encouraging employees to engage in such efforts, but not putting any money behind them.

The third generation, she suggests, involves a highly organized effort that includes not only corporate financial support, but a consistent theme and, frequently, a focal point companywide event. A classic example would be Deloitte’s “Annual Impact Day,” launched by the giant professional services company early two decades ago.

Approximately half of Deloitte’s 50,000 employees in the U.S. participated in the event last year, says Lynn DeHoyos, leader of the company’s “strategies and programs” team within its corporate citizenship unit. Employees will be volunteering at around 1,000 project sites, without sacrificing a day’s pay; the event is held on a Friday.

The hope is that employees will go “above and beyond” Annual Impact Day in their volunteering efforts, DeHoyos says. An overarching theme of projects on Annual Impact Day — and year-round as well — is “helping kids be college-ready.”

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A typical project might be giving the halls of an under-resourced high school a fresh coat of paint. But rather than just have volunteers gather brushes and immediately get to work, project team leaders engage volunteers in a discussion to focus attention on the relationship between a school’s state of repair, and students’ motivation to take their studies seriously. That underscores the goal of “making an impact that matters” — which, not coincidentally, is Deloitte’s mission statement.

The hope is that Impact Day will have an impact that matters not only in the community, but upon employees themselves, inspiring them to pursue their professional careers in a manner consistent with Deloitte’s mission.

“Corporate social responsibility is almost table stakes today,” DeHoyos says. In other words, it doesn’t set an employer apart as much as it once did. It can’t just be to make a good impression, but rather, “be consistent with who we are,” she adds.

Nevertheless, Deloitte recognizes that private sector employers are not charities, and need to consider the practical results of ambitious volunteer promotion efforts on the company itself. It therefore conducts an annual survey of working Americans who have been engaged in volunteer programs, to assess how such programs are faring to help employers to get more out of those initiatives.

Mixed picture

Deloitte’s most recent survey yielded a good news/bad news story. On the one hand, large majorities of working Americans believe that:

· Corporate volunteerism provides an improved sense of purpose,
· Volunteer activities are more likely to boost corporate morale than company-sponsored happy hours, and
· Employers that sponsor volunteer activities have a more pleasant work atmosphere and overall working environment.

However, the survey also found that few employees believe that volunteering can help enhance their career opportunities or help them develop new skills. The implication is that while virtue may be its own reward, some employees might see even more merit to volunteering programs if they perceived that they made themselves more valuable to their employers.

Also, most respondents — particularly millennials — said they would volunteer more frequently “if they had a better understanding of the impact they are making.” Deloitte itself appears to be striving to address that issue in its pre-roll-up-your-sleeves pep talks, as noted.

Another early adopter of volunteering initiatives, UnitedHealthcare, like Deloitte, organizes its volunteerism effort under a broad umbrella: “Do Good. Live Well.” A current specific emphasis for the healthcare giant is reducing hunger and obesity, a natural outgrowth being a healthcare company, according to Shannon Loecher, leader of UHC’s corporate social responsibility efforts. Typical projects supported by UHC are related to physical fitness and nutrition.

Local control

However, Loecher notes, United’s program is not micro-managed from headquarters. “Employees in offices around the country have the autonomy to volunteer in whatever way is best for their community” under the broader Do Good Live Well organizational infrastructure. Employees can do some volunteering during working hours, and occasionally are able to pull family members into the activity as well.

On way UHC encourages employees to volunteer is to make a $500 grant to nonprofits that employees spend at least 30 hours of volunteering with over the course of a year.

To maximize its volunteerism effort’s impact, UHC establishes partnerships with organizations such as the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, which improves fitness facilities and nutrition programming at high schools across the U.S.

UHC research shows that the Do Good Live Well program has done well by UHC in terms of employee engagement, and by giving UHC way to “present a more human, compassionate side of what can be known as a big corporation,” Loecher says.

Where do company volunteer programs go from here? Willis Towers Watson’s Tavarozzi believes they have a “promising future.”

Why? First, there’s the volunteers’ perspective. With most families consisting of two working parents, the high demands on their time mean they’re more likely to be attracted to programs that have organizational and even financial support from their employers.

And from the employer perspective, polling suggests prospective employees are attracted to community-minded companies, so there’s little reason to doubt that volunteer programs will continue to grow.

“The key,” says TGG’s Sponenberg, “is making sure you’re talking to your employees, because it has to be driven by them, not forced on them by management.”

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