Why employee community service programs? Why not?

It’s always good to do the right thing, for no other reason than that it’s the right thing. What’s even better is when there are multiple reasons for doing the right thing. 

Such is the case with employee community service programs. They’re the right thing, because helping people is a self-evident good. But they’re also the right thing for your employees, your company, and obviously, the community. The benefits are almost too many to mention. Among them would be "giver's glow,"  which describes the physical effects volunteering can provide in terms of better mood, physical health and increased longevity.  

For your employees, volunteering can help lower stress, provide a greater sense of purpose, increase camaraderie with teammates and expand perspectives. Meanwhile, the company benefits from higher retention rates, increased brand visibility that helps both sales and recruitment, and without question, a stronger corporate culture. The community gains more engaged citizens, additional resources and an expanded framework for approaching problems. This is truly win/win/win. 

As one of the largest employers in our region, Maritz Motivation has a long and very distinguished history of active community involvement in the St. Louis area, as well as in communities served by our other offices. The recent "We Learn Together" program, involving a local elementary school, is just one example of the impact a corporate effort can make. Contributing on a material level, by providing basic classroom essentials, as well as on a personal level, with employees volunteering their particular motivational and incentive skills, we're proud of the results brought about in a short period of time. Working toward attendance, culture and student achievement goals, the academy enjoyed an 8 percent increase in attendance (up to 90 percent) and a 1.5-year average boost in reading levels in a single year.

I’d like to offer a few of the volunteering lessons we’ve learned over the years, with an eye towards how these programs can benefit, and benefit from, the employee experience. 

Take it seriously. If you’re going to do a program, then do a program. There’s always a danger with endeavors like these to check the box and go through the motions: the company community service program gets a slide at new-hire orientation, and then is rarely heard of again. Take the time, effort and funding to really make the program purposeful. And that starts with giving employees paid time to volunteer, which today is more or less a given. 

Look for lasting impact. Raking leaves for someone is a very good thing, but there’s not a lot of lasting impact. Those are great local-level projects. For a corporate effort, select projects—either physical projects or people projects—that employees will be able to take pride in now, and hopefully years from now, having contributed to a tangible good. 

Recognize people for their service. This is key. A well-designed recognition program increases the visibility of these programs, drives participation, champions behaviors aligned with the company mission and culture (see below), and ultimately boosts ROI. 

Listen to your people. Many of your employees already perform service on their own time, so it makes obvious sense to leverage that experience, energy and passion. Involve them in the program design and operation from the start. 

Walk the walk. Leadership, as with all employee engagement/experience initiatives, has to set the pace. The better the example, the more employees will follow it. (And not coincidentally, the greater the belief and confidence they’ll have in their leaders and in the company.) This humanizes leadership, no small consideration in large organizations, and helps people feel more connected. 

Variety is the spice of service. Frequently, corporate leadership will have one or two main efforts that they either personally care deeply about, or that carry a long tradition of involvement. In our own case, it’s the United Way. But what a CEO happens to care about won’t always align with what each employee happens to care about. So far as you’re able, offer a wide variety of options to appeal to a wide variety of interests. 

Publicize, publicize, publicize. Programs that aren’t relentlessly publicized and promoted don’t really exist. Employee recognition, company intranet, emails, town halls, etc., all have to play their parts. As I write this, for the past 10 days there have been fliers in the elevators and stairwells providing the details of the annual employee community service fair. Every employee sees them every day. And don’t forget external publicity.

Align with corporate values. As you create your hopefully long list of volunteer options, consciously seek opportunities to connect the work to your mission statement. To borrow our own example, as a company that focuses on the development of people, the vast majority of our approximately 75 partners offer some type of educational or mentoring aspect, as noted above. That’s the way we think we can best translate our company values into an impact on our community. 

Don’t forget to look for the surprises. Employees love volunteering. Ours spent 3,000 hours doing it last year. That’s not a surprise, but one of our favorite aspects of these projects are the unexpected things you find along the way, and how important they can be in cementing a healthy company culture. People find they have skills for things they never tried before. Employees finally have a chance to demonstrate hidden talents. And that account exec you always thought was a little too self-centered? There he is, spending eight hours in the sun loading carton after carton of school supplies into a waiting truck. 

A frequent reason given for these programs is that Millennials and younger workers desire and expect them. If you don’t provide them, they’ll find someone who does. That’s likely true, but there are enough reasons to vigorously support these efforts that there’s no need to focus on any single one. The question isn’t why should you do community service programs, but rather, why would you not when it creates so much value for your company?