A Little Bit of Employees' Time Can Go a Long Way as a 'Microvolunteer'
Unlike traditional volunteerism, which may take hours of time, microvolunteering focuses on making use of the free time employees have during the workday, such as lunch breaks and coffee breaks.
Angela Zarazua, a mother of three, works full time and has a long commute each day, so free time is in short supply. But she has found a way to use her skills to give back to society, taking part in "microvolunteering" projects with the blessing of her employer, Kraft Foods Group Inc.
The diversity communications specialist has done everything from translate documents into Spanish to brainstorm for a children's game, spending from a few minutes to a few hours on various projects for nonprofit agencies.
Leah Bradford, associate director of community involvement for Kraft, says Kraft is passionate about having its employees serve as volunteers. "We were looking for ways to make it more convenient."
Through microvolunteering, employees can devote their free time to aiding nonprofits by working in short bursts of time from the computers in their offices, Bradford says.
Microvolunteering is a relatively new concept, inspired by the thought of the hours each day employees spend on social media, says Ben Rigby, CEO of the website Sparked, which launched in 2009 and helps connect employees with volunteering opportunities.
A survey this fall of 1,100 employees in various fields by SilkRoad technology Inc., a Chicago-based company that specializes in talent management software, found three-quarters of employees used their personal mobile devices to access social media at least once a day while at work, and 60 percent used it several times a day.
By channeling some of that time spent on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter into volunteer work, Sparked aims to "add whole bunch of capacity to the social sector," Rigby says.
Sparked has linked up major corporations, such as Kraft and SAP, with organizations such as the American Red Cross and Room to Read.
Unlike traditional volunteering, which may take hours of time, microvolunteering focuses on making use of the free time employees have during the workday, such as lunch breaks and coffee breaks.
And there's no need for employees to drive to another location to volunteer, spending a half-day or day. "That's really precious time they likely want to spend with family and friends, and don't want to do it [off-site volunteering] more than one or two times a year," Rigby says.
Microvolunteering also taps into an employee's skills, asking them to do things like design a logo for a nonprofit, help craft a fundraising letter or track website users, he says.
Encouraging employees to volunteer is more than just a nice thing to do, says Evan Hochberg, national director of community involvement for Deloitte Services. "The benefits come back to both the employer side and the employee side."
Making use of employees' skills allows them to develop professionally and gives them an opportunity to network, he says.
Within organizations, volunteering helps build connections among employees, which span business units, hierarchies and geographies, Hochberg says.
While employees in general enjoy volunteering, it tends to be particularly important to millennials, who grew up with "the ethic of service," Hochberg says.
Volunteering also builds relationships between corporations and the community. "It's one of the least leveraged business strategies," he says. "It's a shift companies have made, to realize we have to value the donation of time as much as we value the donation of money."
Sparked has 7,000 to 8,000 nonprofits in its database that are seeking assistance, and about 30 major corporations where employees are lending a hand, Rigby says. Most of the nonprofits are small and benefit greatly from the assistance of an employee from a major corporation.
Kraft became involved in a pilot project with Sparked in 2010, with about 80 employees volunteering with about 50 nonprofits, Bradford says. After the pilot ended, Kraft conducted a survey of those who took part.
"One hundred percent said using their expertise was exceptionally important in volunteering," Bradford says.
In 2011, the program was rolled out to Kraft employees around the world. The company and employees like that they can volunteer at any time, and not just at specific times or for specific events, she says.
Zarazua took part in the microvolunteering pilot, and has continued on ever since, focusing on projects that either tap into her passion for Latin America and her Spanish skills or her personal interests, such as children's issues. "Brainstorming on the kid's game took a couple of minutes, and I contributed to something that matters to me.
"This is a great way for someone to give back in a meaningful way," she says.
Since Kraft began the full-scale rollout of microvolunteering in April 2011, almost 400 employees have assisted 130 nonprofits, Bradford says, and it's no surprise. "Volunteering has been part of our heritage for so many years."
Susan Ladika is a writer based in Tampa, Florida. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.