How to start an employee volunteer program

Massood Baqi | BCBusiness
Massood Baqi was drawn to Vancity because he’d heard ‘great things’ about its volunteer programs.

Whether used as a way to boost team morale, brand a company or help workers develop their skills, employee volunteer programs are an increasingly popular presence at companies across B.C. But choose your nonprofit partner wisely if you hope to succeed

Before you decide if your company needs an employee volunteer program, think about Massood Baqi. Baqi is 25, ambitious, educated and looking for more than a paycheque. Opportunity and training, for sure—but also to feel like part of a company that cares about community, and him.

Vancity always looked like that kind of company, he says. Baqi was 18 when he started working part-time at the credit union while studying business administration and accounting at Simon Fraser University. He had already discovered volunteering was a great personal development opportunity. “I was such a reserved, quiet person through elementary and high school,” he recalls. At SFU, he plunged into volunteer activities with the accounting students’ association and took on a social media role with Vancouver’s Fashion Week. “Volunteering built skills and acted as a perfect step to other activities.”

Baqi’s part-time work with Vancity took him to branches across the Lower Mainland and gave him a chance to take part in a wide range of community activities: “It really gave me a chance to see the commitment Vancity has.” Last year, he jumped at the chance when Vancity offered all employees the opportunity to apply for a 16-week volunteer assignment helping the United Way of the Lower Mainland with its annual fundraising campaign. Baqi was one of about 40 campaign associates chosen to help the charity during its busy crunch season. “We couldn’t manage the 700 workplace campaigns without them,” says Michael McKnight, United Way CEO. “The volunteers get a chance to work outside their normal jobs and network with a wide number of people.” The associates are trained, and then take over responsibility for supporting the workplace campaigns that are critical for the United Way.

Baqi found himself responsible for fundraising campaigns at nine companies in the accounting and natural resource sectors. He plunged into meetings with company reps, helped organize events and presentations and did whatever was needed to support the fundraising efforts.

Part of the challenge was understanding the different corporate cultures. Some companies wanted a low-key approach or to repeat past campaign activities. Others, like Methanex, went at it full-tilt. “It was a four-day campaign,” Baqi recalls. “It was intense—there was something every hour people could be involved with.

“I was working with people at all levels of the organizations, including partners and senior managers—that was probably one of the best parts of the experience,” he says. Vancity kept paying his wages, and his job as an account manager in a Burnaby branch was waiting when he got back. “It worked out beautifully.”

Baqi got a great career development opportunity and new skills and experience, while his ties to Vancity were strengthened. Vancity delivered on its brand commitment to support sustainable, healthy communities. The United Way got a skilled, high-energy “campaign associate” at no cost.

Companies have always written cheques to charities. But more businesses are seeing benefits in going beyond an annual donation and finding ways to support employees’ volunteer efforts—and their own goals.

That doesn’t mean they always do it well, however. Often, there is no structure or strategy. Dave in accounting, let’s say, hears about a great nonprofit that helps poor kids; he decides a company team should repaint their office, and everyone spends a Saturday afternoon painting, with pizza laid on by the company. A job well done—except the nonprofit might not have wanted the paint job, but feared saying no would discourage future donations. Or the nonprofit’s hard-pressed staff might have really needed volunteers from the business who pitched in with their real skills—finance or marketing or whatever—for a few hours each month. Or the charity might actually be ineffective, or even viewed negatively by the community.

Helping is great, and supporting employees’ volunteer efforts can pay big dividends, but you have to do it right, says Michael Samson of Inspire Canada, a Vancouver-based business that helps companies develop effective employee volunteering programs.

A successful program considers the goals of the business, community needs and the importance of strong nonprofit partners. “Look at your business plan, look at where you are wanting to go,” Samson says. “Look at how you can help the community in a focused way and achieve your business goals.”

The best programs have clearly defined objectives and a coherent long-term vision. Some companies are most interested in the potential for demonstrating social responsibility, often as a defining brand quality. Others use employee volunteer events as intensive team-building exercises; a daylong project can develop new skills, break down hierarchies and serve as a workshop in effective collaboration. Yet others see it as a career development tool, or a chance to encourage employee engagement by providing paid time off for volunteering, or lending resources—meeting rooms or printing—to support employees’ efforts.

Volunteer assignments give employees a chance to develop new skills and experience other organizations, according to Grant McTaggart, Best Buy Canada’s vice-president for administration and human resources and campaign co-chair for the Lower Mainland United Way. “It really stretches them and pushes them out of their comfort zone,” he says, adding that their absence also creates opportunities for other people in the business to take on new responsibilities. “Everyone gets a little more cross-trained and stretched.”

It’s not just about skills, social responsibility or branding, however. Managers talk all the time about the importance of attracting, keeping and motivating employees, especially the so-called Millennials—but employee volunteer programs actually build loyalty and engagement. “Some of the most positive feedback we get back on employee surveys is the work we allow our employees to do in giving back to the community,” says Best Buy’s McTaggart.

The research backs him up. Deloitte, the largest professional services firm in the world, has built employee volunteerism into its culture, from an annual Impact Day where all employees have the opportunity to work on community projects to longer-term international volunteer commitments (see sidebar: Case Study: Deloitte and Cuso). In 2011, the firm produced a major report on Millennials and volunteer programs, based on surveys of 1,500 people between the ages of 21 and 35 employed by large companies. Those employees who participated in company-supported volunteer activities were twice as likely to rate their corporate culture as very positive and twice as likely to be satisfied with their career progress. More than half of those who volunteered—52 per cent—said they felt very loyal to their company, compared to 33 per cent of non-volunteers.

It’s critical, however, that employees feel their volunteer efforts are productive and making a real difference to communities—and their careers. Deloitte’s research found 51 per cent of the young workers surveyed said they wanted to benefit professionally from their volunteer activities.

And it’s not just younger workers who are looking to companies to help provide meaningful volunteer opportunities, according to Paula Speevak of Volunteer Canada, an Ottawa-based nonprofit that champions and provides resources and consulting to support volunteering. “Many Baby Boomers, particularly younger ones, are talking about wanting meaning in their lives and making a difference for someone.” A 2010 research study by Volunteer Canada found volunteers of all ages want opportunities that enhance their skills and produce measurable results. And they want to be involved with nonprofits that are organized and efficient, and clearly communicate expectations.

Darrell Ert, founder and president of ES3 Insurance Services, has made support for volunteering a core value at his company. The ES3 team knew it wanted to do more than write cheques for charities, Ert says, and that supporting communities was part of its vision. But developing a successful volunteer program for the 16-year-old company and its 12 employees started with a lot of trial and error, he says. ES3 eventually called on Inspire Canada for help.

“We look for something that is aligned with our resources and competencies,” says Ert. For example, ES3 helps companies develop and administer employee benefit plans. The ES3 team has begun talking to the benefit providers it works with about creating a foundation or alliance to deliver dental services to people who can’t afford them. “It’s a very important project for all of us,” Ert says.

ES3 provides other opportunities, including a half-day a month of paid time off to contribute as volunteers in the community. The company has held “Pay-It-Forward” days where employees develop and implement their own community projects and done group volunteering at the Greater Vancouver Food Bank. “When you can add that element of humanity into the work environment, it creates more passion and community in the office.”

When choosing a nonprofit partner—for a short- or long-term commitment—you want an organization that’s credible, respected and working in an area that your clients, or your employees, will see as important. You also want to work with an organization that needs your employees’ skills. Best Buy Canada, for example, looks for projects that focus on kids and technology.

The benefits of these sorts of partnership are clear. But to reap them, businesses need to think seriously about their goals, their employees’ skills and interests, and the opportunities in their communities. They need a business case for the time and energy, and sometimes money, involved.

“They need to look at employee volunteering from a deeper business perspective of what they can gain and give back,” says Inspire Canada’s Samson. “What’s the biggest contribution for the business and the biggest for society? It requires effort in terms of time, brain power, dialogue.” The commitment can be especially challenging for smaller businesses, where someone’s absence is really missed. But for those businesses, finding partners where there is flexibility or a longer window to complete a project is key.

Samson says that while corporate support for volunteering is catching on, it’s still early days. “It’s going to increase,” he predicts, as companies that establish effective employee volunteer programs demonstrate the benefits in recognition from both the public and clients, in employee development and in the ability to attract and engage a committed, loyal workforce.

Massood Baqi, for one, points to Vancity’s employee volunteer culture as a key reason why he’s there. “I’d heard great things about Vancity and I wanted to be part of that,” he says. His United Way opportunity brought new skills, new contacts and a chance to contribute.

“That’s important to the generation that’s coming into the workplace now,” he says. “It’s all about the culture.”


Case Study: Deloitte and Cuso International

Ravi Mohabir, 40, had done some volunteer work in Victoria in the time left outside his busy schedule as a Deloitte partner helping big clients make the best use of information technology. But he knew he wanted to do something more—“to give back.” He just didn’t know what.

A light bulb went on when, in 2013, Deloitte sent out a note offering its Canadian employees the chance to be an overseas volunteer with Cuso International, a Canadian organization that has been placing skilled volunteers with agencies in developing countries for more than 50 years. Deloitte has been a Cuso partner since 2008, and more than 45 employees have volunteered to share their skills in developing countries over the past six years.

Mohabir jumped at the chance, even though it would mean six weeks out of the office. Cuso offered placements in Africa, Cambodia or Guyana. Mohabir left the choice up to Cuso staff and ended up in Guyana, the country he had left as a toddler. The post let him make full use of his skills in helping organizations use IT to increase their effectivness.

In Georgetown, Guyana’s often-steamy capital, he was plunged into meetings with Cuso staff, volunteers and local development organizations. The goal was to come up with a simple, effective way local partner agencies could track program results and assess their real effectiveness in changing lives. The questions were basic for any organization: “Are we really getting the best bang for our buck? And what is the change that’s happening for the end user?”

It was a great experience, says Mohabir, and a chance to test his abilities in an entirely new environment with new challenges. “You actually think outside the box and have to learn quickly about the capacity of the local organizations. You’re starting fresh—you need to prove that you can be useful. And the experience provides valuable skills in understanding different work cultures.”

The result of Mohabir’s work—a standardized, easy-to-use system for monitoring program effectiveness—will help Cuso’s partner organizations in Guyana and Latin America improve programs. And it will satisfy the growing demands by their international funders for clear evidence of effectiveness.

Mohabir was the first Deloitte partner to take a placement; previous volunteers had been less senior. Deloitte and his partners in B.C. were quick to support the effort, he says, and without that it wouldn’t have been possible. He helped prepare a detailed work plan to ensure clients were supported in his absence, and used vacation and unpaid leave for the time away.

His time away was also an opportunity for others on the team to take on more responsibilities and showcase their abilities. “It’s a chance to step up and show the partners what they can do,” he says. And clients appreciated his commitment: Mohabir even did a lunch-and-learn presentation to a group of interested clients when he returned.

The volunteer commitment was rewarding professionally and personally. “It’s a pretty big step and is pretty scary, but it is a remarkable experience.”


So you want to start an employee volunteer program?

Set your goals: Do you want a quick team-building exercise? Specific career development opportunities? Community or client recognition? Link the program to your business plan, as Inspire Canada’s Michael Samson suggests.

Identify your strengths and limits: If you have a hot social media team, look for a nonprofit that really needs those skills. How much time away can you allow people?

Determine your employees’ interests: A successful program needs commitment from the top, but it also has to be built around employees’ passions. “To really have the most impact, build on the vision of employees,” says Paula Speevak of Volunteer Canada.

Put someone in charge: HR, community relations, the CEO—someone has to be responsible for running the program. Consider an employee council.

Pick the right partners: It’s vital to find an effective nonprofit—one where volunteer support from the company can make a real difference, and one that’s aligned with the interests of the business and its employees.

Tap existing information resources: Learn from the experts—and others’ mistakes. Volunteer Canada, Inspire Canada, Community Volunteer Connections, Cuso International and the United Way are keen to help businesses create effective employee volunteer programs.