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Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

Aetna Foundation Sponsored Series

Building Healthier Communities

Engaging Employees Around Community Action


Engaging employees in community action is a win-win for companies: It improves corporate image, makes the workplace more enjoyable and, of course, benefits the community. 

Points of Light, a nonprofit focused on voluntary service, says employee volunteering in particular can improve relations with stakeholders by positioning a company as a leader in the community. It also boosts employee morale, loyalty and productivity, said Jenny Lawson, president of networks for Points of Light. 

“Employee volunteer programs are important because they sit at the intersection of three goods,” Lawson told TriplePundit. First is the “good that corporate volunteering programs can do for communities." This can range from beach clean-ups to playground builds to garden plantings and school painting. And when companies expand their volunteering efforts to include skills-based and pro-bono volunteering, “the value of that service can go up 500 percent," which saves nonprofits from spending money on financial strategy or marketing plans.

Employee volunteering also offers plenty of "good" for workers and their employers. Volunteering connects people to a “sense of purpose and meaning, which supports more engaged employees in the workplace,” Lawson explained. Companies with volunteering programs have “more engaged employees, increased employee retention and reduced recruiting costs that translate into real bottom-line value."

Beginning an employee engagement program

“The first step to engaging employees in community action is to develop a corporate strategy,” Susan Hunt Stevens, founder and CEO of the employee engagement platform WeSpire, told TriplePundit. And the best employee engagement programs “provide volunteer opportunities for employees to address issues that are strategic to the company, as well as empower them to serve their communities in ways that they’re most passionate about."

Stevens identified “four key elements" essential to any successful employee engagement program: connect, commit, communicate and count.

To connect is to ensure an employee engagement program “is clearly tied to a business initiative,” such as a mission, vision or values statement, Stevens explained. To commit is to ensure there is support from a company’s executive team. Communication is the key to developing and maintaining an effective program. Or, as Stevens put it, “No matter how well-planned a program is, if it’s not effectively communicated to employees, participation levels will be low.” Lastly, counting a program means to “hold it to the same standards as other business initiatives and that includes collecting and measuring data related to it.”

How to start a pro-bono program

The Taproot Foundation seeks to engage professionals in pro bono work, which it defines as “the donation of professional services to social change organizations.” Mobilizing your employees to help community organizations can be vastly impactful and empowering for all parties -- but it may take time. 

A company looking to start a pro bono program must “shed the expectation that they have a huge, knockout program in year one,” advised Catherine Ward, national director of advisory services for the Taproot Foundation.

The best thing a company can do is to “start small ... begin with a pilot.” She suggests that companies ask themselves certain questions before starting a pro bono program:

  • What social impact does your company wish to create? Get specific.

  • What skills and expertise are available at your company? Keep in mind that the talent available at your company is its greatest asset.

  • What business objectives do you want your pro bono program to support? As Ward said, “Whatever matters most to your business, that’s what you should focus on.”

  • What’s your company’s context, and what constraints do you need to design around? Ward calls that a company’s “fixed variables.”

AT&T embeds community service into its company culture

AT&T is a company with over 280,000 employees and a robust program to engage them. In 2015, AT&T employees volunteered 5.4 million hours through employee and retiree volunteer programs, worth an estimated $124 million. And 120,000 employees took part in an Employee Resource group focused on volunteerism. The following year, employees provided over a million hours in student mentoring alone.

“Community service has been an integral part of our company culture for over 100 years,” Jason Leiker, assistant vice president of AT&T Community Engagement, told TriplePundit. Employees donate “their time and talent every day to make the communities where they live and work a better place."  

AT&T describes its Do One Thing (DOT) initiative as a voluntary, company-wide effort to encourage employees to commit to taking regular and measurable actions that are good for their communities and themselves. “DOT personalizes sustainability and makes it relevant and meaningful to each employee,” Leiker explained. The DOT activities of employees range from water use reduction to encouraging peers to use less paper in the office.

“More than 49,900 employees have chosen more than 92,000 DOTs, which have resulted in impressive collective results such as keeping more than 6 million pounds of trash out of landfills and saving more than 41 million gallons of water,” Leiker said.
In 2015 AT&T launched Your Community Day, a paid day off for management employees to be able to volunteer in an organization or cause. Through Your Community Day, management employees can volunteer their services for one work day a year to an IRS tax-exempt charitable organization and still be paid by AT&T. “This time is above and beyond any AT&T organized volunteer activities where employees participate, and employees can use these hours whenever they want throughout the year,” Leiker explained. 

Employee Resource Groups are a core component of AT&T's program and have over 120,000 members who donated 362,000 hours of volunteer time and granted over $619,000 in scholarships in 2015. ERGs help support AT&T’s “commitment to diversity and inclusion through their efforts in the workplace, marketplace and the community,” Belinda Grant Anderson, spokesperson for AT&T diversity and inclusion told TriplePundit.

In other words, a good employee engagement program gets employees excited about community action while raising money for good causes.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/Fiat Chrysler Automobiles; 2) Flickr/State Farm; 3) Flickr/BMW Foundation

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

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