Volunteering initiatives have an interesting relationship with ROI, experts say. Image: Comic Relief/Chris Wilson

Wednesday 3rd February 2016

Give and take

Do volunteering programmes really benefit employers?

Pretty well everywhere you look, organisations are dishing out employee volunteering (EV) programmes – approximately 70% of FTSE Top 100 businesses have one. So far, so touchy-feely. But what, if anything, is the benefit in, um, paying people to volunteer?

Millennial magnet

It’s widely circulated that Millennials are among the most socially and environmentally conscious groups to ever enter the workplace. EV can arguably help recruit and retain them by providing concrete evidence of a company’s conscience.

The Deloitte Millennial Survey estimates that 75% of Millennials believe companies exist purely for their own benefit, yet over 60% accept that their perception of how an employer works in their community would affect their decision to accept a job offer.

Volunteering at the Dorchester Group

It’s also reported that they are twice as likely to describe their company culture as “very positive” after volunteering. So rather than agonising about how many iPads and ping pong tables are needed to keep Millennials happy, it turns out the best way is to just send them somewhere else.

The principle where a dog is extremely excited to see you after you’ve left the room for only five minutes? The exact same one is at work here, we’re pretty sure.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

A 2006 survey of 1,800 13-to-25-year-olds found that 79% want to work for a company that cares about how it affects or contributes to society. Sixty-four percent said their employer’s social and environmental activities inspire loyalty, according to Cone Inc., a Boston-based brand strategy and communications agency, which conducted the survey.

Millennials are already the group in society most likely to donate to charity, evidenced recently when Mark Zuckerberg announced he will be donating 99% of his Facebook stock to charity.

So as an attraction tool for morally upstanding Millennials (surely, they’re the ones you want anyway) you could do a lot worse than EV.

Satisfaction guaranteed

If you’ve got attraction all stitched up, but retention’s on your mind, again it seems like retaining your employees just a little less can work wonders. According to this study the introduction of EV helped British Gas achieve the following:

  • Higher employee satisfaction
  • Better employee retention rates
  • Lower absence rates
  • More positive media coverage
  • Increased opportunities for employee development

All the good stuff. Everybody wins — employees, employers, and charities. Follow suit and it’ll make up for all those New Year’s resolutions you don’t follow through on.

Another study by the University of Florida concluded that “employees who volunteered felt more connected to their companies and were more likely to work harder on tasks… They spoke positively about their employer in public and were less likely to daydream, cyberloaf or take extra time off work… Employees felt a stronger bond with their company because they believed it shared their ideals in caring about the community, and they were more likely to be better employees because of it.”

So counterintuitively, by paying employees to work somewhere else, they ended up reaping more rewards than if they had paid them to stay and work their regular hours. Turns out good karma actually affects your bottom line. Who knew?

One survey by the Center for Corporate Citizenship reported that “64% of executives surveyed say that corporate citizenship produces a tangible contribution to the company bottom line. Among executives at large companies, 84% see direct bottom line benefits.”

Putting the wheels in motion

If you’re finding yourself tempting to start handing out soup ladles already, Katherine Smith, executive director of the Center for Corporate Citizenship, recommends that you:

Begin with an aim in mind… if you’re seeking to attract talent, focus on those issues that are most important to current and prospective employees.

So, for an example, Patagonia (the outdoors specialist) has a focus on environmental non-profits. They pay 20 employees salaries and benefits for a month to work at any environmental non-profit of their choice. Timberland also offer 40 hours paid volunteering every year. (These outdoorsy types, eh?)

Timberland: 40 hours a year

Making time off for volunteering a reward is also a possibility. While we tend to think of material and financial incentivisation, it is well known that experience, especially from helping others, contributes more to a person’s happiness than money, and for longer.

All around successful and happy person Richard Branson also espouses the business benefits of volunteering, and suggests that it be an organisation-wide initiative, from the leadership down to the interns for it to be most effective.

At the very least, it’s a chance for some employees to get to know each other better outside of a work environment.

While paying people to not work may seem like a sop to CSR that is at best bottom line neutral, the evidence points to many beneficial returns. Certainly something to think about if you haven’t already. 2016 could be the Year of the Volunteer.

About the author

Jerome Langford

Jerome is a graduate in Philosophy from St Andrews, who alternately spends time writing about HR and staring wistfully out of windows, thinking about life’s bigger questions: Why are we here? How much lunch is too much lunch? What do you mean exactly by ‘final warning’?