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Volunteer Efforts Offer Low-cost Training Options

June 1, 1994
Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Featured Article
Last October, employees from EDS in Caparra Heights, Puerto Rico, volunteered their time on a Saturday to clean a local beach. For eight hours, the employees sifted through warm sand, removed debris and hauled away bags and bags of garbage. By the end of the day, the beach sparkled again, and the employees were exhausted and proud.

But a clean beach wasn't all EDS saw for its efforts: A new team spirit and camaraderie had developed between workers. This was timely, considering that the Puerto Rico account was a new one for the Dallas-based data-systems company, and the 160 employees acquired with the account hadn't had much opportunity to get to know their new bosses, who were brought in from around the globe. For that matter, few of the managers had worked together before.

"Cleaning the beach gave new employees a sense of pride in EDS. It helped them understand the company culture," explains Fanni Blando, an EDS business analyst. "The event also helped experienced employees—many of whom hadn't worked together before—get to know a little bit about each other's work styles."

The cleanup effort in Puerto Rico was part of the company's first Global Volunteer Day, an event designed to increase employee commitment to volunteering. On the same day Blando and her colleagues sifted through sand, 10,000 other EDS employees in 18 countries, 42 states and 155 cities gave up their personal time with friends and family members to participate in their own local community-involvement projects.

In Singapore, employees visited an orphanage to play with underprivileged children. In Marysville, California, employees planted 1,200 campothecia trees, which are known to produce a cancer-fighting substance. And in Mexico City, employees refurbished the third floor of a homeless shelter, providing space for 100 children.

Although EDS employees have shown a greater interest in volunteering since Global Volunteer Day, the most lasting impact of the effort may be the business benefits EDS has seen—benefits such as increased teamwork, higher morale, employee skills development and company pride.

Human resources executives looking for innovative employee development activities may not think of encouraging employees to build a homeless shelter or plant trees. More likely, they'd consider such traditional development techniques as experiential learning or on-the-job training. But organized employee-volunteer programs such as those sponsored by EDS can reap tremendous HR benefits.

"Volunteer activities develop such characteristics as creativity, trust, teamwork and persistence. They build skills and attitudes that foster commitment."

According to a 1993 report by The Conference Board in New York City, volunteer programs help companies attract and retain good employees. Volunteer activities help to develop characteristics such as creativity, trust, teamwork and persistence. They build skills and attitudes that foster commitment, company loyalty and job satisfaction. And through their community involvement, employees can develop many valuable contacts with government and business leaders.

Largely because of these factors, 31% of the executives responding to the Conference Board study said they use employee-volunteer programs as part of their strategy to address critical business issues, and 19% incorporate volunteerism in their business planning.

Furthermore, a study conducted in 1992 by IBM and the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University shows a clear link between volunteerism and return on assets, return on investment and employee productivity. Thus, a company with a high community-involvement score also was likely to score high in profitability and employee morale. Morale is as much as three times higher in companies with volunteer programs.

To the cynic, corporate-volunteer efforts are thinly veiled attempts to generate good public relations, and sure, PR is a prime motivator for many companies. This is the reason why most organized volunteer efforts are run by community affairs or corporate relations departments. But in the process of encouraging employee volunteerism, many employers are finding out—as an added bonus—that volunteering is a way to address serious social problems and create happier, more productive employees.

Volunteerism boosts employee morale.
More HR departments are taking on the responsibility for coordinating employee-volunteer programs. In fact, 11% of companies surveyed by the Conference Board manage their volunteer efforts through the personnel or HR departments. One of these companies is Minneapolis-based National Car Rental System, Inc. Ronald Knez, corporate vice president of HR, explains that volunteering is viewed as a human resources effort in his company because the efforts build teamwork, encourage professional growth and boost morale—and the ripple effect of increased morale can't be underplayed.

Questar, a natural-gas company in Salt Lake City, for example, has been able to retain employees, even though it pays less than the other utility in town, partly because of its volunteer effort. "Our morale is higher, and our employees are more productive because they are involved with the community," explains Jan Bates, director of community affairs. "The more involved you are with the community, the better you feel about yourself."

Questar researches and publishes a list of local volunteer opportunities as a way of encouraging employees to become involved with community organizations. Projects often are chosen based on their potential for family involvement because the company wants to break down the invisible barrier between work and home and encourage family togetherness.

One employee, a lower-income divorced mother, dragged her son to a volunteer activity when he was 12 years old and at risk of being influenced by local gangs. Now 16, the son participates in Questar's community-involvement activities without his mother. His grades are good, he has a part-time job, and he has resisted gang involvement. His mother credits the volunteer program with building her son's self-esteem and showing him positive role models.

Workers can learn new skills.
Another tangible benefit of volunteer programs is employee development, which is especially important in an era when many organizations are tightening the purse strings on worker training. As Jenny Welch, director of administration and volunteer services for Helene Curtis in Chicago, explains, "Volunteerism gives employees the chance to develop skills they may not be able to in the workplace."

Citing a recent fundraiser to fight AIDS, Welch says volunteers from her company learned project management and media-relations skills, public-presentation skills, and planning, organizational and teamwork skills that will make them more effective on the job.

In another philanthropic project, an American Cancer Society bike-a-thon, Helene Curtis employees not only raised $40,000 for cancer research, they also put together a training book for future volunteers, detailing the activities that are needed to make the bike-a-thon a success. It included a list of job responsibilities, budget considerations and an annual timeline. The book was put together by lower-level employees who wouldn't have the opportunity to gain this administrative experience otherwise.

Welch and her colleagues at Helene Curtis see volunteerism as so important to employee development that a committee is now working to identify the competencies that can be gained from volunteer experiences. The committee plans to present this list to the company's human resources department with the goal of having volunteer activities listed as alternative ways for employees to gain new skills.

Instead of sending an employee to a course on public speaking, for example, Welch hopes that someday HR managers will point that employee toward involvement with a non-profit board of directors or an educational speaker's bureau. Instead of diversity workshops, employees might be encouraged to volunteer with minority groups. And instead of carting employees off to a hotel for a day of team-building exercises, the company might sponsor a local community-improvement project.

A similar effort is underway at The Pillsbury Company in Minneapolis, where the training department is researching volunteer activities that might enhance employee development in the same way that Outward Bound courses do. Volunteer activities are not only cheaper than professional skill-building courses, "but employees gain the skills while giving to the community," explains Barbara Haugan, manager of community relations.

So valuable is volunteerism to Pillsbury that the organization will provide release time in certain situations for an employee to participate in a community project. For instance, a manager in sales and marketing was recently provided three months of paid leave to coordinate the building of a house for Habitat for Humanity. This manager gained valuable project-management skills, and his co-workers learned to work together more effectively as a team to make sure that the manager's work was done in his absence.

Volunteer efforts are replacing some traditional team-building activities.
The experience at Pillsbury is not unique; better team skills are often a by-product of volunteer activities. At GE Plastics in Fairfield, Connecticut, for instance, several departments have eliminated activities such as the annual golf tournament in favor of community-service projects. These projects take place over a day's time at the company's annual department meetings.

In 1989, when the concept was implemented, nearly 2,000 people took part in five events, including renovation of a homeless shelter, a boys' club and a YMCA. After picking the facility, GE employees worked together to plan, organize and totally renovate that facility within a single, eight-hour day. Although these projects require a significant investment of time and resources, the company gets back a team of workers that have learned how to share a vision, blend their talents and work together to overcome obstacles.

According to Joel Hutt, manager of marketing communication, the idea was to take "the tremendous energy and creativity of the 400 people in our department and do something to help other people. The goal was to get to know each other by sharing a hard day's work for a good cause."

At its annual management seminar, GATX Capital Corporation in San Francisco also has replaced competitive group activities such as beach olympics with philanthropic projects. When group activities are sports oriented, employees become divided over who is better or worse, who are winners and who are losers, explains Jill Wilson, project coordinator. But when employees work together to completely renovate a children's day-care center in a single day—as they did during GATX's 1992 management meeting—everyone is on a level playing field. "The chairman of the board and the president had a paint brush in hand along with everyone else," she explains. "Community activities are successful in breaking down barriers so that employees can really get to know each other."

Volunteer programs give a boost to retention and recruitment.
It's easier to retain employees when they feel good about the company they work for, and it's easier to recruit employees when they realize a company is concerned about more than its bottom line.

Tizziana Weber, manager of community relations at United Technologies Corporation in Hartford, Connecticut, finds that "people from MIT and Wharton ask about volunteering and community service. We have to be able to show our involvement." Pam Butler, officer of external programs at Public Service Company in Denver, says that "when we interview people, they come in knowing about our programs. The volunteer activities help with new hires." And Gina Warren, director of community affairs for Levi Strauss in San Francisco, adds, "I came to Levi's because of its reputation and image as a company that is concerned about and involved with its community."

Finally, volunteerism can help companies create an ethos of service, suggests Cathleen Wild, author of the Conference Board study. Why? Because volunteer programs create favorable and lasting impressions of what service to other individuals means. "This service behavior can then be brought back to the workplace and modeled," she says.

Coors Brewing Co., which has had an employee volunteer effort for several years, summed up the company's reasons for volunteering in a billboard campaign that ran throughout the Denver metropolitan area last year. On the billboards, Coors pictured employees volunteering their time in the community. The headline read simply, "Because we live here too."

Personnel Journal, June 1994, Vol.73, No. 6, pp. 38-44.

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