A few years ago, when New York residents were recovering from Hurricane Sandy, an enterprising JetBlue crew member had a game-changing idea. Many people in the area were stranded without food, electricity and resources. Businesses were shuttered and public transportation was down. JetBlue Airlines, best known for its New York air service, was grounded as well.
“[You] were either north of the power, or south of the power,” explained JetBlue’s manager of corporate social responsibility, Kate Wetzel, “and we realized our hometown was in need.” Wetzel said the enterprising crew member, who had only just finished her internship with JetBlue, lived in one of the areas that was hardest hit by the hurricane and realized people were not only cold, but also going hungry.
“She said, 'You know what? All I want right now is food, and I think there are a lot of people in the neighborhood who would love it if there were more food.'”
JetBlue contacted the New York Food Truck Association and arranged for a fleet of food trucks to visit the region’s hardest hit communities. They also took portable charging stations out to areas like Hoboken, New Jersey, where neighborhoods had been inundated by flood waters and people were unable to get to work or call out.
“And then a great thing happened,” Wetzel continued. "Other companies wanted to sponsor food trucks.” Local companies that heard about JetBlue’s efforts stepped up as well, “and then the Food Truck Association itself donated money back.”
The experience was a seminal moment for both JetBlue and its crew members, who were able to see their company’s initiative succeed.
“[It] was a great moment where one person had an idea that everyone rallied behind. It became something that people wanted to participate in and then everybody became so passionate about it that we weren’t the only ones carrying the weight of the cost,” said Wetzel, who noted that skilled volunteering is a part of JetBlue’s corporate mission.
Wetzel said while the company received a significant boost in brand recognition from those efforts, it also realized the power that comes from passionate, engaged staff. It not only connects employees with their community needs, the company found, but also connects them more passionately with the jobs they are hired to do.
“What we have learned is there are a high number of crew members who volunteer who have better on-time departure rates, better baggage-claiming rates and better [customer response].” What is more, said Wetzel, "the airport stations where those crew members work are more engaged, too."
A case in point, said Wetzel, is JetBlue’s recent efforts to reach out to families with special needs – a project that, again, was spearheaded by the enthusiasm of station crew members.
“What they were seeing was a dramatic rise in customers traveling who had been touched by autism,” she explained. Nonprofits in the Boston area had reached out to provide support, “and crew members rallied around it straight away.” The employees realized that the customer base had changed, and began networking to find ways to help support families affected by autism. But they were personally touched by the need as well.
“We have a crew member whose daughter had been diagnosed with autism two years before the first event. And that passion and enthusiasm really got the ball rolling.”
In response, JetBlue partnered with the Charles River Center and Boston Logan International Airport to launch Wings for Autism. The program aims to help children with autism get used to the environment inside an airplane by going through all the motions of a regular flight without leaving the tarmac. “It was so successful that we were able to do two boardings and reached 400 families the first time we did it,” Wetzel told us.
Encouraged by the success, crew stations across the country asked to get involved. And in 2013, Burbank, California, launched its own Wings for Autism program, inspired by their own local family story and lots of community support.
“When Burbank found out it was so important, not only did our crew members participate, but the entire Burbank Airport Authority.” The Transportation Security Administration and the air controllers stepped as well. Even the fuel was donated.
“And with every event we have held, we have realized how many families have been touched by this and how personal this story is. It has been an experience where some people only make it to the jet bridge, or only make it to the plane door or only make it to the security checkpoint. And all of those little triumphs are steps to get customers to actually get on board,” Wetzel said.
One of the primary reasons that JetBlue’s skilled volunteering strategy works, Wetzel said, is the way it looks at its brand in relationship to philanthropy.
“I think it is important to think of our business in a way that wouldn’t necessarily be your traditional skilled volunteering organization, like an arts studio or a consulting firm,” she explained, where staff skills are “borrowed” by nonprofits. At JetBlue, community activism and corporate social responsibility (CSR) is part of what it strives to be as a company.
“We are a company that hires for culture fit,” said Wetzel, and it’s an identity that the potential applicants seem to look for as much as the company.
“Our crew members by and large look for a company that cares about the community it serves. Many of the applicants they hire," Wetzel explained, “think volunteering is an end of itself a reward.”
But it is JetBlue’s structure that probably best reflects its commitment toward community service. Each one of its roughly 100 stations has a CSR representative, or “champion,” that helps spearhead local programs. While the CSR champion position is completely volunteer, Wetzel said, the company does pay for a yearly CSR conference that connects staff, helps them plan and keeps them updated on current CSR strategies.
“Those crew members are tasked with running programs three times a year, and then they can do whatever they want at their stations.” The enthusiasm that is nurtured by this structure leads to “friendly rivalries, such as who can raise the most food for the local food bank.”
Over the years, JetBlue has learned a lot of lessons about what makes a skilled volunteering program a true success. Wetzel said one of the first takeaways is that planning counts. Start slow, with a few stations or departments first. Use the momentum to engage and encourage other departments gradually.
Make it a company strategy. Involve your staff in your CSR concept and planning. “Make sure your employees or crew members are part of making that decision. I think while it is very easy to ‘voluntell’ what you think they should do, you will get a lot more sustainability if they are genuinely volunteering and participating with you,” Wetzel said.
And show that leadership is participating as well. Staff members who see the CEO is willing to shovel mulch, canvass for donations or mix that concrete right alongside them can’t help but feel engaged.
“I think in the crew member’s mind, it’s a great reason to work and stay with the company.”
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.