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Aligning corporate goals with employee volunteerism
01 October 2004
by Cori Cunningham

The value behind creating a strategic community involvement program is clear; few businesses would be opposed to creating greater impact in their communities as well as greater impact to their bottom line. Where it gets fuzzy is in the creation of this strategy; what is the best way to create grantmaking and volunteer initiatives in a way that balances business interests and employee interests? Are these interests competing or complementary?

Alignment to business goals was a theme that was woven throughout the panels and conversations at The Conference Board's recent Corporate Community Involvement Conference in New York. A number of speakers stressed the importance in linking community strategy to business goals in order to create a coherent, focused program that maximizes impact, motivates employees, and creates senior buy-in.

At one session, a presenter took this idea a step further and maintained that it is both strategic and advisable to engage employees in volunteer initiatives that utilize their business skills and expertise. On one level this resonates – organizations benefit by having trained, skilled individuals share their time and talent, and employees presumably are interested in using their skills to help others. However, several people in attendance took exception to this statement, arguing that in their experience, employees who spend the workweek on a particular task (say, accounting) may not want to use this skill when they volunteer. Instead, they may want to take a break and do other activities – painting for example, or cleaning a park.

So where is the balance? Is a program that offers employees with technical skill the opportunity to volunteer in a non-technical activity somehow less strategic? Is a program offering volunteer activities aligned with employee skill sets somehow betraying its employees in blind obedience to corporate goals?

I spoke with a few companies at the conference who have strategic community involvement programs, to see to what extent their business goals and employee interest guide their philanthropic decision making, and how they achieve a fair balance between the two.

Anne Rouse Sudduth, National Director of Community Involvement for Deloitte & Touche USA LLP, explained that adhering to a company's business goals and encouraging employees to volunteer in activities of their choice are not necessarily mutually exclusive. At Deloitte, one of its key business goals is to attract and retain a talented workforce that shares the company"s commitment to the community, and its values of integrity and ethics. Volunteerism is a tool that Deloitte uses to move toward that goal, and to create a positive employee experience.

Deloitte's Community Involvement initiative has been developing a commitment to ethics education, while the Deloitte Foundation supports accounting, business, and related fields of study within the U.S. As a professional services organization, it is easy to see how the focus areas of both the Community Involvement initiative and the Foundation are aligned with the organization"s business goals. Volunteerism, however, is not restricted to these thematic areas.

To Deloitte, being a good corporate citizen, and being strategic, extends beyond the focus of its contributions; it is about helping to create a healthy community, largely by mobilizing its employees to make a difference in causes that matter to them, not only in causes that matter to the organization. As such, workplace volunteerism is a part of the culture of the company, and employee interests are encouraged and rewarded through initiatives such as the Community Impact Awards, which include a significant cash donation to the non-profit organization of the winners' choice, and a new release-time pilot program for up to 20 hours of community service volunteer time annually. This approach to volunteerism supports, and does not contradict, Deloitte"s business goals.

At ExxonMobil, grantmaking focuses primarily on math and science education – in line with its business goals, as engineers are its future workforce. According to Patrick J. Dexter, Headquarters Community Relations Advisor for ExxonMobil, the company offers a number of volunteer opportunities that fit this theme, such as tutoring at partner schools. Volunteerism, however, does not end there.

Recognizing that employees may want to support initiatives outside of the math/science realm, ExxonMobil has created a robust, flexible volunteer program to respond to employee interest. Its Individual Volunteer Grant awards offer eligible participants that volunteer at least 20 hours per calendar year to a nonprofit organization of their choice the chance to apply for a $500 grant for that organization; this can be done up to four times a year. Team grants are encouraged as well.

Dexter states that employee choice and responding to employees' interest is very much a part of the company's business strategy. During the 1999/2000 merger of Exxon and Mobil, there were 1,800 staff moves to Fairfax, VA from facilities in New Jersey and Houston, Texas. During this time, it was a company priority to help ease the transition of employees to a new location and get them connected to the community, so that the employees would be "ambassadors for the merger and for the company."

Dexter acknowledges that sometimes employees request that ExxonMobil support other causes that they feel strongly about; ones that fall outside of the company"s focus area. He responds that the company needs to focus its giving in order to make an impact on an important issue, reiterates the commitment to math and science education, and shows the programs that the company is heavily invested in, such as the DC College Access Program, which works with DC public high schools to encourage students to enter and graduate from college.

Dexter also reminds employees that the company supports employee interests as well; any organizations employees care about can receive monetary grants from the company if the employees regularly volunteer there. This policy is supportive of employee choice and preference, yet still maintains the integrity and focus of its core grantmaking to an issue the company feels is most relevant.

Eddy Bayardelle, First Vice President and Head of Global Philanthropy at Merrill Lynch shared that an interest in making a difference in a cause was the primary driver behind focusing its community involvement. The selection of the focus area of education of underserved youth, particularly in its signature program "Investing Pays Off," which deals with financial independence and career success for youth, was developed based on its fit with business goals.

Bayardelle acknowledges that volunteerism at any level is important, that painting a house and feeding the homeless are great activities, but he makes the point that while most people can paint a building (or attempt to) not everyone can share knowledge of business and innovation and financial in a way with as much impact as a Wall Street professional. So why not connect the two?

Bayardelle adds that community involvement is not just about the giving of money, but the leveraging of those grants with the intellect of your people; "If the corporate strategy is that we give to education, shouldn't our people then be in front of kids sharing their knowledge?" He felt that because of the background and expertise of Merrill Lynch employees, they can add impact to what a classroom teacher has to offer, as role models with real world experience.

Many of its volunteering opportunities are based around an Investing Pays Off curriculum that puts Merrill employees in front of youth, guiding them through concepts such as leadership, personal finance, business savvy and more.

In order to make it possible for its employees to support other causes they care about, Merrill Lynch offers employees the opportunity to contribute to United Way campaign and to participate in Matching Gifts program, both of which allow employees to support causes they are interested in, and get company support as well.

With regard to whether ML volunteerism is too restrictive, Bayardelle disagrees. "There is the company and there is the individual," he states. "The individual always should have the choice to volunteer for any cause that he/she wishes; this is important, and a personal thing. However, when it is a company sponsored activity, I also believe it is important to focus your volunteerism in an organized way."

Upon closer examination of this issue, all three companies agreed that a contributions focus aligned with business goals was an effective approach to a community involvement strategy. On the issue of volunteerism, however, there is less consensus.

Deloitte and ExxonMobil offer examples of companies that recognize that volunteerism in and of itself can be a part of the business strategy, whether it is through skill development, cultivating a value system, or welcoming employees to a new community. As such, it is not so much the exact tasks that employees are involved in and the business skills that they use in those activities as the sheer act of volunteering. Merrill Lynch makes a strong case for the value of leveraging employee skills in activities that fit a grantmaking theme, in order to achieve greater impact.

The experiences of all three underscore the fact that each company must decide for itself how much a strategic focus will dictate how employees spend their volunteering time, and how best to find a way to afford opportunities for employees to select activities that fit within a larger strategic theme, as well as provide flexibility for employees to express commitment to causes that may be more personally appealing.

Cori Cunningham is a Director in the Philanthropy Division of Changing Our World, Inc. a naional philanthropy and fundraising consulting firm providing corporate and nonprofit leaders with the expertise required to help them achieve their institutional goals.