How and Why Employee Volunteering Generates Value for Your Company

Employee volunteering isn't philanthropy - it has the capacity to generate important value for your company as well as your community.
Sep 7, 2011 12:41 PM ET

The Business Case for Employee Volunteering - Case #7: Value Generation

Employee volunteering has the capacity to generate important value for your company and community. This blog series offers compelling reasons why your business needs to invest (a bit more) in employee volunteering. 

Corporations are fast becoming the new gatekeepers of civic engagement. This trend has been growing in the US for some time. A study conducted in 1996 discovered that the workplace had become second only to religious bodies as an organizational source of volunteers. Now almost one-third of US corporations embrace some form of employee volunteering representing a growth of nearly 150% in the last few decades. Currently, as part of the CSR or the efforts of a Corporate Citizenship strategy, the idea that employees participate in volunteering time within community activities is widely accepted as a norm.   Despite the apparent self-interest of companies regarding employee volunteering, it is important to note that this self-interest is not at the expense of the interests of the public, but in collaboration with them. US companies intend to send nearly 2000 employee volunteers to 58 nations this year (up from just 280 in 2006). Stanley Litow, the President of IBM International Foundation views these ‘citizen-diplomats’ as something more than a means to making IBM more productive and profitable. These programs work toward a more civil society on a global scale, to the benefit of all.   The strategic importance of utilizing employees in local and international communities “for the benefit of all” is a powerful idea. Employee volunteering goes beyond the efforts of CSR strategies in its unique utilization of social capital. Corporate volunteering programs enable employees to mobilize their personal resources for broad social benefits.   These actions are akin to social movements that are “a purposive and collective attempt of a number of people to change individuals or societal institutions and structures.” (Read more here PDF) To effect social movements necessary to address many of the massive social issues of today, mobilizing resources of people, money and most importantly legitimacy are essential. (Read more here PDF) By organizing employees and mobilizing numerous types of resources, companies are positioned to play a key role in broadly addressing contemporary global concerns.   Social Capital There is no easy definition for social capital. A concept born out of sociology, it is now used by multiple disciplines (economics, organizational behaviour, political science, public health) with numerous interpretations. In simple terms, social capital is the value that accumulates in actual human relationships. There is valuable information, skills, and networks to be found in most relationships. This value is accessed every time individuals or groups gather to ‘do something’ for the greater good by making contributions of skills, information, and connections. The health of a society may be measured in the generation and use of social capital (read more here PDF).   Generating Value for the Community CSR is an effective avenue for companies looking to generate and use social capital. When corporations pursue a CSR strategy, it is possible to leverage the networks that form out of shared social concerns. By contributing corporate resources such as skills, intellectual and physical capacities, companies are able to collaborate with communities in the discovery of new solutions. Social capital generates from the opportunity, motivation and ability to act. It is “the sum of the actual and potential resources embedded within, available through, and derived from the network of relationships possessed by an individual or social unit” (read more here PDF).   It is this context of mobilizing resources and establishing broad networks within and without the company that employee volunteering becomes a uniquely powerful strategy. Employees not only leverage the assets of the business, but also combine these assets across broader social networks accessing trust and localized norms of cooperation. In doing so, they are able to effectively act as a conduit between the company and the community acting as levers in the creation and use of social capital.   As noted, social capital is a telling indicator of the health and potential of a community. For example, in a study conducted in Italy it was discovered that communities with greater social capital and stronger traditions of civic engagement were far more likely to grow and thrive. The growing popularity and unique qualities of employee volunteering hold the promise of accruing significant value for local and global communities in which companies operate.   Generating Value for the Company Employee volunteering not only enables the growth of social capital in surrounding community contexts, but also within the corporate context. Specifically, this expression of social capital may be understood as the set of resources, tangible or virtual, that accrue to a corporate player through the player’s social relationships, facilitating the attainment of goals. These resources are only accessible if high levels of trust exist within the culture of the company. Employee volunteering programs tend to foster trusting relationships between the participants. The visible expression of higher levels of trust is more effective cross-functional work and teamwork.   Obviously, creating cooperative relationships among employees is one of the most important factors in creation of a highly productive firm. The ability of employee volunteer programs to create strong and trusting relationships should be a key consideration when looking to improve the performance of a company. Social capital is an essential intangible asset and offers significant competitive advantage.   Generating Social Capital through Employee Volunteering   Keep it social. Given the social interaction necessary to produce social capital, it follows that only those corporate volunteering programs designed as social experiences will be successful. Employee volunteer programs should “facilitate social interaction, use existing social networks, foster bonding and trust among actors and allow for participation which is for the mutual benefit of actors”(read more here PDF).   Find your influencers. As we’ve already noted, employee volunteer programs have much in common with social movements and as such are somewhat fragile in character. It is essential to achieve the acceptance and support of the core activists or influentials. Without their blessing and participation, widespread acceptance will probably never happen. For more about how to find and collaborate with your influentials.   Keep it voluntary. Corporate volunteering must be seen as less corporate and more voluntary. For the two out of three employees who don’t volunteer on a regular basis, this is a non-negotiable. Without a strong voluntary component, the program may likely feel manipulative and forced. In some cases employees have been known to work against employee volunteer programs in an effort to assert the voluntary nature of the movement.   Let people fall in love. Understandably, companies want to present a compelling case for employees to participate in the corporate volunteer program. While this is not ‘forced volunteering’, it runs very close to it. Employees will comply with these expectations to volunteer to avoid penalties and obtain the approval of their supervisors. The unfortunate result is that the pressure provides “an external justification to which they can attribute volunteering, preventing them from internalizing it as a self-determined, intrinsically motivated choice.” (Read more here PDF) Be sure to check out the other blogs in this series:

Business Case #1: Employee Volunteering Creates Employee Engagement
Business Case #2: Employee Volunteering Attracts Better Talent
Business Case #3: Employee Volunteering Is Employee Development
Business Case #4: Employee Volunteering Offers A Competitive Advantage
Business Case #5: Employee Volunteering Increased Corporate Intelligence
Business Case #6: Employee Volunteering Reduces Health Care Costs 

  Contact us anytime at Realized Worth to discuss corporate volunteering. or or 317.371.4435.