Savvy employers are tuning in to the idea that employees and consumers feel good about working for, and buying from, companies that give to charitable causes. Whether it's Pepsi's Refresh social media project, which funds community projects chosen by consumers through online voting, or the (RED) campaign, which works with some of the world's most iconic brands to give part of the companies' profits to those living with HIV and AIDS, employers are getting on board with giving back.

"The trends around workplace giving are part of a larger trend of companies investing more time, attention and resources in CSR [corporate social responsibility] and community investment initiatives," says Bryan de Lottinville, CEO of Benevity, a Calgary, Alta.-based company that has recently launched new software designed to help organizations streamline their workplace giving programs. "Workplace giving programs are an increasing part of the HR toolkit around employee engagement, attraction, retention, brand and reputation and productivity."

The software, called Spark!, allows benefits managers to set up their own donation website — branded with the company's logo — that highlights the specific charities the organization wants to encourage donations to. The platform is embedded inside the employee intranet or HR application. "It's designed to be a midmarket and even small company solution. "It's very DIY. The customization that's required is part of the setup," says de Lottinville.

The site is then managed similar to a blog. Content can be created to highlight specific campaigns, and employees can log on and donate online, or through payroll deduction. They can see how much they've donated and whether the company has matched it. Employees can also set up their own personal foundations and create their own portfolio of causes and manage how much and how often to give.

"If engagement is part of the goal of a workplace giving program, then user experience is important. And it should be an experience, not a chore," says de Lottinville. "We live in a one or two click world now. And if it isn't easy and visually compelling, the likelihood of people using it is very low."

One of the key features of Spark! is that it offers flexibility in charity choice. Employees can donate to any registered charity in the U.S. or Canada, or to a subset of charities vetted by the employer. Employers can promote the charities they want by offering an employer match.

"When you're a national company, and you want some local relevance, the ability to create your own campaigns is pretty compelling," says de Lottinville. "Smart companies realize they're not serving anyone well by limiting choice."

Spark! also includes a volunteer module where employees can search for volunteer opportunities. "A company can create its own volunteering campaign through the admin tool, and people can volunteer for that event, and the company can create a reward mechanism or not," says de Lottinville. Companies can, if they choose, reward their employees for volunteering with grants to those charities at which they volunteer. "A lot of people, particularly in a recessionary environment, still have the appetite to give back but may lack the means, so being able to translate volunteer efforts into grants for charities that mean something to them is very important," de Lottinville says.

Another feature of the software is the giving account. Employers can seed the giving account with funds that the employee can use to donate to a charity of their choice. There's also a charitable gift card tool that allows the employer to reward employees with a donation to a charity of their choice. "It's a nice way to reward employee behavior," de Lottinville says. "As people struggle with reward and recognition, some of these social- responsibility-oriented approaches are resonating."

In terms of cost to the employer, there's a modest set-up fee and a hosting fee, both of which are driven by the number of employees. Benevity also sets up a minimum donation threshold so that if a company meets or exceeds the threshold, the hosting fee is credited. "It's a way for companies that may not have a big budget to get in the game," says de Lottinville.

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