Organizations and companies, small and large, offer volunteering programs, especially here in the U.S., where volunteerism has long been part of culture. For many, volunteer programs are the most seamless way to launch a corporate citizenship agenda. The companies that have the resources and make the commitment to corporate responsibility reporting often disclose the time their employees spend on volunteer projects, and often enumerate that time to the exact amount of hours.
But beyond heartfelt words and high-res images that display a company’s dedication to volunteerism in a report or on a website, what are the exact benefits of such a program for a company and its people? One company that offers lessons on how firms, employees and local communities can thrive due to a comprehensive volunteer program is the American division of Boehringer Ingelheim (BI), the German pharmaceutical giant that employs over 47,000 people worldwide. To learn more about BI’s volunteerism journey, I spoke with Lilly Ackley, president of the BI Cares Foundation.
The foundation was launched about 10 years ago and largely focuses on two missions. First, BI employees are given the opportunity to work with NGOs to improve access to health care in underserved communities, especially in Connecticut, where the company’s U.S. headquarters are located. In addition, BI volunteers work to improve STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education within poorer school districts. Over time, BI Cares has expanded its programs and partnerships with NGOs, offering more opportunities for employees to give back.
BI’s skills-based volunteering program began approximately four years ago. “At that time, what we wanted to do was amplify our financial contribution to nonprofits in Connecticut,” Ackley told 3p. “We asked ourselves: How can we do more for our nonprofit partners, and how can we do more for our communities where our employees live and work?”
Ackley and her colleagues started researching volunteer programs, and discovered that BI’s lawyers were already providing pro bono work for many local nonprofits, largely because such tasks were a natural outgrowth of what they were already doing daily on the job. “Once we understood what the legal team was doing on this front, we started talking to them to find a way to create a more ambitious program across the larger population of our employees,” Ackley added.
The result was an arrangement with the 9/11 Day of Service and organization that strives to pay tribute to the victims and first responders of the Sept. 11 attacks. One of the programs with which BI employees became involved included sending company scientists to a Connecticut high school to encourage students to pursue STEM-related careers; another enlisted employees to partner with a local AmeriCares chapter in Connecticut that provides free medical services to those in need.
“From those pilot programs, we saw how employees were engaged and were more than willing to participate, while our nonprofit partners continually needed our help,” Ackley said, “and from that, we grew the skills-based program into a year-round service so that our employees can participate all year.”
While the BI Cares Foundation is primarily focused on challenges related to STEM education and health care access, Ackley and her colleagues realized there were plenty of other employees who were willing to volunteer for the right organization. “Whatever our partners need, whether they need help with reviewing their finances or need support in marketing, we realized there was opportunity to match our employees with organizations that needed those skills,” Ackley explained.
Matching BI’s employees with a nonprofit that could most benefit from such assistance was a huge chore at first. “It was very much a lot of elbow grease in the very beginning,” Ackley said, “as we made a lot of calls throughout and beyond our headquarters as we started telling organizations about this program and solicited people to participate.”
That initial heavy lift, however, paid dividends quickly. Through what Ackley described as a “focused connection” with BI’s human resources department, more employees became aware of the company’s volunteering program, and awareness and knowledge accelerated throughout the organization. Ackley learned that many employees were already volunteering their time in one way or another, which encouraged more of the company’s professionals to consider taking on such assignments as these messages amplified throughout the company’s U.S. offices.
“What is so critical for anyone managing such a skills-based volunteer program,” Ackley insisted, “is to be very well connected to human resources because your company’s HR department is most likely networked throughout the whole organization, and they are focused on the development needs of these employees.”
One example of how BI leverages an employee’s experience and skills to find success on a community project is the relationship that the company has with Community Solutions, a Connecticut NGO that works on a bevy of local issues including health care. Community Solutions’ executives approached BI to find ways in which it could improve the delivery of health care services in northeast Hartford, one of the poorest areas of the state. Alissa Heizler-Mendoza, who worked within BI’s patient advocacy department, was tasked with bringing a new perspective to the issue. Together, after studying area outcomes and speaking to area locals, they learned that managing illness within the community is dependent on much more than what happens inside a doctor’s office or a hospital. With this insight, BI, Community Solutions, and other partners developed a community healthcare worker (CHW) pilot program designed to better coordinate care and raise the quality of life for 500 medically vulnerable North Hartford residents.
The benefits BI gained through this volunteer program have gone beyond employee engagement and community citizenship. Ackley estimated that, in the past year, the 600 employees that worked on 125 projects in the U.S. and worldwide did work valued at approximately $600,000. However, the company saved an estimated $500,000 in employee development costs since they were able to practice their key skills in a new environment.
Strong community partnerships; open communication throughout all levels within a company; and developing a work culture that seeks results not only for the company, but for the communities in which they are based — all contribute to BI’s rewarding skills-based volunteer program that enrich the lives of employees and better the communities in which they serve.
Image credit: Boehringer Ingelheim