Driving Social Sustainability Through Volunteerism
By Jerome Tennille
Conducting operations while not depleting the resources these operations depend on is the pinnacle of any company pursuing sustainability. With countless factors to consider when tackling environmental or economically sustainable initiatives, many companies struggle to find a starting point. Some even quit before they begin.
Knowing this, I urge companies to start where they have the greatest influence: their employees.
Social sustainability is perhaps the least quantifiable and understood pillar of the triple bottom line, yet nearly everyone can relate to it. Why? Because it’s rooted in our needs and desires as humans. And because humans are widely considered the most valuable asset at a company, social sustainability can arguably be the most important “p” in the “people, planet, profit”-triad. While planet and profit are important, the intellectual capital held by your employees is priceless.
It behooves companies to recognize their employees as a treasure trove of experience and to take steps toward engaging them. A company without engaged employees simply isn’t sustainable.
Volunteerism as Social Sustainability
Companies can increase employee retention while reducing absenteeism, while also increasing workplace satisfaction, morale, and productivity. How? Through social sustainability practices that include a formal outlet for employees to volunteer their time. For companies that don’t already have a sustainability program, this type of employee engagement effort is a great place to start.
Social sustainability is broad, encompassing labor laws, human rights, workplace safety, employee health and wellness, and nuanced subjects like diversity and inclusion. It also includes actions that are outward facing, such as employee engagement, philanthropy, and community engagement. At its core, successful social sustainability practices have a positive impact on both the business operations of a company and the communities they serve. Creating a formal mechanism for employees to volunteer can address both, resulting in a win-win for all involved.
First and foremost, an employee volunteering initiative should be pursued authentically and strategically to have maximum results. When implemented with purpose, volunteerism can transform the way a company does business.
Everything Starts With Social
Beneath the surface, every domain of sustainability can be considered social, because humans have a unique relationship with both the planet (environment) and profit (economy). Efforts that focus on the social aspect of sustainability are almost guaranteed to leave a positive impact on both planet and profit.
Some business leaders may assume that employees who volunteer away from the office hurt their bottom line, but that’s unwise. I’m a firm believer that you get what you put in. Efforts such as this will only yield dividends in the long run. Engaging employees through volunteerism has a myriad of benefits. Below are just a few.
- Opportunities For Leadership, Growth & Mentorship
You can incorporate employee volunteering into your company’s career development program by connecting volunteer opportunities to a career advancement and recognition process. This creates opportunities for employees to gain valuable leadership experience by volunteering.
Junior employees can be empowered to plan volunteer opportunities with a nonprofit organization or local governance with a need. They’ll gain new skills while honing those they already possess. For junior employees, this means gaining managerial experience, and for senior leadership, this is an opportunity to mentor others through the process of leading.
- Reduce Stress While Gaining New Perspective
Stress, burnout, and being stuck in a rut is a clear path to underperformance or worse yet, quitting. Mitigate this by providing an outlet —something other than work — for employees to focus on. You can offer employees a sabbatical to volunteer, for example. While they’re out, they’ll gain new perspectives and skills, and become reenergized to get back in the saddle.
For employees who are not eligible for such reprieve, create policies that allow them to give their time while being paid. This doesn’t have to be a big number; start with four hours a month of volunteer time off (VTO). Incentivizing employees to channel energy into stress-reducing activities will almost guarantee they’ll gain more than they give.
- Establish Connectedness by Aligning Employee and Company Values
Just as customers purchase from companies that align with their values, employees want to work for companies that maintain the social norms important to them. Creating a formal employee volunteer program increases an employee’s sense of belonging, reminding them that their company shares their values. And retention rates are higher among employees that feel a sense of belonging with their place of work.
- Increase Inherent and Acquired Diversity
Companies that engage in employee volunteering, corporate giving, and social sustainability have a greater ability to recruit and retain top talent. This is very much the case for younger generations such as Millennials. Encourage those who make hiring decisions to acknowledge and value volunteer positions as “work experience.” This opens an avenue to qualified candidates who may have been out of the workforce for extended periods of time while keeping their résumé alive through unpaid work (i.e. military spouses, students, or the underprivileged).
These actions contribute to fostering a better environment for employees, and in the long-term, can save thousands of dollars in costs associated with employee turnover. The cost of replacing an employee can range from the thousands to 1.5 – 2x that employee’s annual salary. Traverse through these HR challenges by engaging your employees.
According to Deloitte research, at least 70% of respondents in a 2017 volunteerism survey indicate that volunteering provided them an “improved sense of purpose,” believed it was more likely to “boost employee morale” (compared to a happy hour), and aids in having a “more pleasant work atmosphere.” Additionally, at least 77% of respondents in the same survey found volunteering “essential to employee well-being,” and contributing to having a “better overall working environment.”
Let’s face it, happy employees are more productive and are more likely to be loyal to their company.
Being a Good Neighbor
Also important to your employees are those living in the communities the company serves and resides. There’s an aspect of being a good neighbor that’s important, too. In a world where globalization and connectedness is the norm, consideration for others can’t be ignored. So take some time and give back to those who help keep your company afloat. The payback is immeasurable. Here are some benefits of working with those your company’s sphere of influence touches.
- Increase Customer Loyalty
In a socially connected-era, customers want to know the products they purchase fund responsible companies that align with their values. There’s no better way to demonstrate this than by getting employees engaged in volunteering. Create official company volunteer t-shirts and get out in the public eye. The home improvement retail giant Home Depot does this well through their foundation and Team Depot, mobilizing over 400,000 store associate volunteers to improve local communities. While this increases the company’s social responsibility standing, it also doubles as a billboard to those who wouldn’t otherwise know of a company’s existence (i.e. new customers).
- Strengthen Community and Neighborhood Relations
Companies are dependent on the communities and neighborhoods in which they live. Invest back into the company’s very foundations of success by serving the same community and neighborhood in which you do business. Seek organizations within the community that align with company values as equal partners. Look beyond the episodic “team building” service project by engaging in work that satisfies true organizational goals. This can be in the form of skills-based pro-bono work or larger legislative action that fulfills a gap in society.
- Create Awareness of Community Issues
As employees volunteer through a formal program, they become ambassadors between the company and community leaders. This demonstrates an interest in local issues that can forge relationships instrumental to the company’s long-term success, while keeping a finger on the pulse of social norms. These new relationships will help company leaders make better-informed decisions when navigating the current social and political landscape.
Peering Through the Lens of Sustainability
In an era where connectedness is crucial to success, companies need to recognize that they’re a part of a larger ecosystem. There are links and interactions that exist between a company and all the elements it impacts economically, environmentally, and socially. Socially, success can be driven by both the employees and community members.
For many companies, trying to map a path to positive environmental change may be beyond their capability, due to technological limitations or lack of subject matter expertise. Employee engagement and volunteerism, however, are basic concepts that most people already understand, have been a part of, and can champion.
Instead of biting off more than they can chew, companies can simply turn inward to a known but often forgotten asset: their employees. Volunteer activities can do more than just boost an employee’s dedication to your company. It will also transform the entire system that surrounds and props up a company’s success.
Social sustainability as a concept can be hard to grasp, and can seem out of the realm of possibility for many. Start by doing something that’s concrete and can be easily implemented, such as an employee volunteer program. By doing so, social sustainability becomes obtainable.