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Disaster Volunteerism Builds Company-wide Spirit

December 1, 1999
Related Topics: Volunteerism, Ethics, Featured Article
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As many as 30,000 families in North Carolina were affected by Hurricane Floydlast September. One of the towns in the flooded area received between 50 and 60inches of rain. People scrambled for everything from financial assistance forrent to replacements of such personal and household items as bed linens, cookingand eating utensils and medications.

In the midst of all the turmoil, companies from every corner of the statecame together to volunteer their money and services for some of the cleanup andrelief efforts, including Cary, North Carolina-based SAS Institute Inc., aprivately-held software company.

SAS Institute has long been recognized as the kind of workplace that valuesthe personal and professional growth of its employees. This spirit is carriedover into the community, as evidenced by the strong volunteerism exhibited bysome of its 6,000 employees during Hurricane Floyd. For openers, employeesdonated more than $102,000 to the American Red Cross in response to the company’sfund-raising effort to aid flood-ravaged Eastern North Carolina. The Institutematched the donation, resulting in a total donation of more than $204,000.

In addition, the Institute and its employees were active in cleanup andrelief efforts. Projects included assisting with the rescue of animals, removingfallen trees, cleaning houses, sorting supplies at the food bank, and movingfamilies who lost their homes into temporary living quarters.

At many companies across the country, the cornerstone of community relationsis often volunteerism. Done well, these programs can enhance a corporate image,boost employee morale and enrich the community-service experience. Done poorly,however, these programs can lead to frustration and lost productivity.

To learn more about how to conduct disaster volunteer programs that work,Workforce interviewed Kat Hardy, corporate, philanthropic and external programsspecialist at SAS Institute.

What sort of corporate volunteerism had your company done in the past?

Our volunteer programs have taken a wide scope in recent years. They’veincluded such things as participation in Net Day, a nationwide project to wireschools for Internet access, mentor programs with at-risk students, and SpecialOlympics World Games this past summer. Overall, an extensive and diverseselection of volunteer programs that has grown considerably in the last two anda half years.

What precipitated the call to volunteerism for the flood victims in easternNorth Carolina?

It would have gotten going even if we hadn’t done anything officially. Theminute we got back into the office after the flood, we started receivinghundreds of e-mails from employees who wanted to know how we, as a company, weregoing to help. There’s something about the employees here at SAS Institute,and I don’t know if it’s an outgrowth of the culture or what, but theemployees see this as a place that’s responsive to the community.

How much effort did it take to organize the SAS employees’ contributions tothe Red Cross for your flooded neighbors?

None whatsoever. Once we got the OK from the company to do the collectionsprogram, we sent out an e-mail that went to all the employees in Cary, NorthCarolina. I sent that out around 11 a.m. one day, and by the time I returnedfrom appointments a couple of hours later, I already had $2,000 sitting on mydesk. After that, we tried to get as much information to employees about whatwas happening in the community so they could tap into the volunteer programs onan individual basis.

We also did some really neat matchmaking. For example, one employee who saidshe was getting ready to move said she wanted to donate her furniture instead ofholding a yard sale. We connected her specifically with the niece of anotheremployee, whose apartment was wiped out. We tried to find opportunities likethis. As for the company, we looked at the different places where volunteerismwas happening. We found a project with a local television station that wassending buses down to homes that had been damaged by the flood. That seemed likea good way for us to tap into a program that would have a direct impact onpeople’s lives.

How well-organized was the volunteer group that traveled to eastern NorthCarolina to help with some of the cleanup and relief efforts?

The 20 to 30 folks that we sent from the company had designated homes, thanksto the TV stations that organized this particular relief effort. It seemed to goquite smoothly, and it turned out to be a good partnership.

Thousands of volunteer hours are contributed each year by SAS employees, buthow many actually volunteered for the cleanup and relief effort?

About 20 to 30 [people volunteered] just for that one service. But we hadanother hundred or so that I could name who did things on their own. Lots offolks helped out with the care of animals that were left behind in the flood. Wehad folks who went down to the food bank, folks who cut down trees. And thenabout 900 of our employees contributed to the $102,000 [we donated].

Can employees take time from their jobs to volunteer?

We don’t have a formal paid-time-off policy, but we do have a flexible workenvironment. Employees have the freedom to work it out on a one-to-one basiswith their managers to do some volunteer work when it happens during workinghours. Generally, managers will ‘flex’ the time when appropriate. Employeescertainly don’t lose pay.

What’s the relationship between human resources and your department?

Our volunteer coordinator is a member of the HR staff, the work/lifedepartment. Probably 80 to 90 percent of her time is spent on the company’svolunteer programs so there’s a really close link between HR and publicaffairs, which gives us both an employee and philanthropic focus. She works outlogistics and communications. She answers employee questions, registersemployees for volunteer programs, and researches new projects.

This team approach has worked wonderfully. We feel like we get a broaderperspective in the whole decision-making process, and we get more information byhaving two divisions.

Are managers encouraged to use volunteer activities as career-developmentactivities?

Actually we haven’t looked into that, but we encourage managers to use themas team-building activities.

Are the results of your volunteer programs reported back to the employees viaa newsletter or Web site?

With this particular project, we [sent] a companywide e-mail, and we put anarticle on our intranet. We have a section on our internal home page that’sdevoted to daily news. Those articles are updated on a daily basis, so we keptan article there about the volunteer donation projects.

In general, though, we include all information and photos on our company’sinternal and external Web sites, as well as the printed version of our employeenewsletter. It helps reinforce employee morale for our volunteer programs. Itlets them know the company thinks what they’re doing is important enough forus to share with the rest of the company and the outside world. And it alsohelps us the next time we’re recruiting; when employees hear good things aboutthe last volunteer project we did, they’re more likely to get involved.

It’s been said that volunteerism, done well, can enhance a corporate image,boost employee morale and enrich community services. Done poorly, it can lead tofrustration and lost productivity. What separates one from the other?

One big factor is the folks who are responsible for organizing the projectneed to have their homework done. If you’re starting a volunteer program,first find out what your company has done in the past, if anything. If you canfind a nugget to grab onto, anything, take that run with it. Use it as alaunching pad. Turn it into a companywide project. That’s basically what wedid.

Two years ago, it was hodgepodge, but we made an effort to become aware ofwhat was available in the community. We listened, watched the news, read, andexamined everything to see if it felt like a good match for our employees.

If you already have a volunteer program, do your homework. If we’ve gotemployees volunteering but we can’t answer questions about what clothes theyshould wear or if lunch will be provided, that creates a lot of frustration.Figure out the goal you’re trying to meet so you can communicate that clearlyto volunteers, before and after the project. Make sure you know all of the nutsand bolts that need to go into place as you’re doing the recruiting. Andcommunicate that to the volunteers.

Is there a business return for employees who volunteer their services, andhow do you measure that?

There’s definitely a business return, both in terms of employee morale andteam building. One of the things that happens when you have 3,000 employeesworking on one work site is that you don’t know everybody by name or evenface. You tend to know only those who work in your division on your floor.

Our volunteer projects give people a chance to build relationships across thecompany in different divisions, with R&D managers working alongside day-careworkers. So there’s an opportunity for folks to interact that doesn’t happenon a day-to-day basis.

Externally, it’s really nice to have that image in the community -- theimage of a contributor. We think we’ve gotten a lot support from the communityby showing people we’re giving back in tangible ways. It’s important for usand it’s important for the community.

It’s been said that a successful volunteer effort is aligned with thecompany’s mission, capitalizes on employees’ strengths and ideally,strengthens their weaknesses. Has this been the case with SAS Institute?

Our volunteer programs are an integral piece of our philanthropic attitude,which focuses on education and children and families at risk. Recently, though,we’ve broadened the scope of our volunteer projects beyond those two areas,recognizing the needs of our employees, as much as the needs of the community.

We try to have a mix of projects that tap into a wide range of interests,values and issues that employees care about. For example, we have employees whovolunteer at the soup kitchen, employees who mentor kids in high school andgrade school, and we recently had a crew of 80 or so employees who helped builda neighborhood playground. These projects are chosen by the philanthropy staffand our volunteer coordinator with the human resources department. We all worktogether to look at the options in the community, to review what we’ve done sofar, and to figure out what we can do in the future.

Do you conduct surveys to determine which projects are appreciated byemployees?

We haven’t done that yet, but we get a lot of suggestions from employees.The visibility of these projects in the company is really high right now. Ouremployees know who they can call with a suggestion or a request. And we listen.That’s where we get a lot of our ideas from. The neighborhood playgroundproject, for example, was the result of an employee suggestion.

Above all else, we make sure everything’s aligned with our company mission.It’s one of our goals to better serve the industry, our customers and to hireand keep the best people. One of the ways we’re able to do that is to let ouremployees know they’re valuable to us. And what’s important to them isimportant to us.

Workforce, December1999, Vol. 78, No. 12, p. 111 -- Subscribenow!

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