8 Essential Steps of Starting an Employee Volunteer Program

Scott Vaughan Scott Vaughan: Chief Marketing Officer, UBM Tech Scott leads a performance marketing team focused on using data-driven marketing to engage and serve B2B professionals and the marketers trying to reach them. He is also responsible for UBM Tech brand management and outbound communications.
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Employee volunteering programs are increasingly the “heartbeat” of where social innovation is happening to improve business and impact communities. At the Business4Business (B4B) Conference, executives from Alcoa, BJs Restaurants, and Edwards Life Sciences shared their knowledge on starting and delivering impactful employee volunteer programs, organized around 8 steps. The session was moderated by CEO of OneOC, Dan McQuaid.

After listening carefully to this lively 45 minute discussion, it is clear there is no single way to go about starting and managing an employee volunteer program. However, there are core steps executives can take. Here is eight as shared in the Business4Better session.

1) Assess employee interest and community needs
Key pieces of advice centered on having a basic framework to assess needs and interests, some formal and some much more ad-hoc. Alcoa’s approach is to reach out to employees, forming an employee steering committee, and/or organizing a community advisory board of stakeholders (which may include government entities, nonprofit leaders and other community organizations). The team at Edwards Life Sciences, a leading manufacturer of heart valves, focused on finding on employee passions and match philanthropy around core needs of business. For example, Edwards aims programs at patients with cardiovascular disease and communities where they work (each region takes on task force to localize it for the communities in which they work and live).

2) Identify business priorities and goals
Determining volunteer program-business alignment can be critical to garnering support, but not essential. Edwards’ program impact is tied to the success of company, literally. Charitable giving is 1% to 1.5% of the company’s pre-tax income. In contrast, BJs Restaurants, a public company with roughly 140 stores and 8,000 employees, does not have or focus on business or revenue alignment. Rather, they take action within communities based on employee passions “because it is the right thing to do”.

3) Align volunteering with financial contributions and in-kind support
Edwards does not just practice checkbook philanthropy (they made roughly $5m worth of donations last year). Their goal is 100% employee participation and that volunteering programs following the charitable money. For example, the company donates to American Heart Association serving Hispanic communities. Accordingly, they organize their Spanish-speaking employees to become ambassadors, leading and implementing the program in the community. Alcoa, which operates in 30 countries, is very surgical with their programs. The company has narrowed their efforts to 2 primary areas of focus: education and the environment. For example, Alcoa focuses on the tremendous knowledge and “skills gap”, aiming their resources on educating on critical movements such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), even starting with children in grade school.

4) Secure top management support
Employee volunteerism can start form the bottom up or from top down driven by a passionate, infectious CEO or leadership team. One pitfall to avoid is employees being “voluntold”, according to the Alcoa team. Their goal is to co-develop programs that are so available that it is easy for a majority of employees to participate in efforts that unlock their passion. The BJs team takes a combination of bottom up and top down. BJs team members volunteer and the company backs this effort by donating pizzas (one of their most popular products!) and/or financial donation to the community program.

5) Develop a program structure and program policies
Formal or informal, some form of structure helps get the program off the ground and accelerate its impact. Edwards has developed guidelines, forming a committee made of employees and managers that brainstorm to guide areas of focus. Then they solicit input from their communities and nonprofits to shape the volunteer programs for the coming year. Alcoa adopts a similar process with a corporate committee that links employee volunteerism to all social responsibility programs, and think of their approach as structured AND flexible.

6) Measure the program and evaluate results
Measurement is mostly an aspiration when it comes to aligning with direct outcomes. Rather, metrics are gathered via employee satisfaction surveys, tracking employee volunteer hours, or the number of trees planted, for example. On the other end of the spectrum, the team at BJs steers clear of any measurement simply because it is hard to measure impact of comparing an employee program around school cleanup versus work done with Make-A-Wish. At BJs, it is part of the culture.

7) Establish a recognition or awards program
A “pat on the back” or personal recognition seems to have the most impact. For example, Alcoa recognizes employees by a simple, personal thank you. Edwards sees the biggest impact when they get a note from the CEO or they are cc’d on an email that goes out to peers and colleagues.

8) Publicize your efforts, both internally and externally
Many companies shy away from external “PR”. Rather, they use social media to celebrate and engage their employees and the broader community. At BJs, team members from restaurants around the U.S. send in their photos and stories. These are shared in corporate newsletters and posted in stores. Edwards has no formal process for marketing and publicizing. They promote program awareness in the community by nominating employees for awards such as OneOC spiritual volunteer awards (www.oneoc.org/get-involved/sov).

All agree it is important to get started on volunteering programs to impact your business, employees and community! Points of Light and Business4Better have partnered on an in-depth paper and guide called the “Highly Effective Practices of Effective Employee Volunteer Programs”. You can download the paper here to go deeper: http://www.business4better.org/points-of-light.

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