For most people, volunteer work means a shift at the soup kitchen, or an afternoon wielding a hammer to build low-income housing. This fall, for Andrew Nawoichyk, volunteer work meant seven weeks in Buenos Aires, Argentina, helping a fledging footwear company create an expansion plan.
"The idea was to integrate directly into the company and really work with them hand-in-hand," said Nawoichyk, a senior manager at EY (previously Ernst & Young). "It was interesting and challenging, being in a different culture, working with a company in a different language."
Nawoichyk's experience was one of a growing number of volunteer opportunities available to corporate employees, as more and more companies are looking to formal volunteer programs as a way to attract the best candidates, improve employee engagement and retention, and better target their philanthropic efforts to the needs of the organizations they serve.
In 2012, 70% of companies offered employees paid time off to pursue volunteer work, up from 53% in 2007, according to a study by CECP, an organization promoting corporate philanthropy.
The uptick may be due, in part, to the impact of the economic downturn. As philanthropic giving decreased from 2008 on, many non-profits started to lean more heavily on volunteers and rethink how best to use their skills, corporate responsibility officers reported. At the same time, more companies were developing programs to match employees with volunteer opportunities that use their professional skills.
There has been a "shift from traditional volunteerism to thinking about, what am I, as an employee of a corporation, best suited to address?" said Danielle Holly, executive director of Common Impact, a Boston-based non-profit that helps corporations plan and execute volunteer programs.
Volunteer opportunities are also becoming a must for businesses looking to hire the best employees, she said: "Companies are feeling pressure from potential employees."
At EY, Nawoichyk participated in the highly selective Corporate Responsibility Fellows program, which sends high-performing mid-career employees to help growing companies in South America and Mexico work through a business challenge. EY also runs a program called Earthwatch Global Ambassadors in which employees earlier in their careers travel in groups of 10 to Brazil and Mexico to assist in environmental research and offer business advice to local entrepreneurs.
These programs help recruiters catch the attention of outstanding job candidates, said Deborah Holmes, America director of corporate responsibility for EY. But there are other effects as well.
"The brand reputational benefits are very real, very tangible and very much appreciated," Holmes said. "We do get press coverage, we do get asked to speak at conferences."
Enterprise software company SAP offers a range of volunteer opportunities, from working on hands-on projects in their communities to the Social Sabbatical Program, which sends teams of employees to four different countries to help non-profits, government agencies and universities. In October 2013, the program sent 48 volunteers from 30 different countries – chosen from more than 320 applicants – to work on projects in Brazil, India, China and South Africa.
As unemployment numbers edge lower, volunteer programs such as these will help ensure SAP attracts and keeps high-quality employees, said Brittany Lothe, the company's global head of corporate social responsibility.
"It is not only about recruiting, it is about retaining the best of the best," she said. "I fundamentally believe the investments we're making here will help differentiate us in what will become a very competitive market again."
Since 2010, Zurich-based financial services firm Credit Suisse has also sent select employees abroad to complete service projects with partner organizations through its Global Citizens Program. More than 130 employees have gone for stints from one week to three months. The company also gives all employees at least one and as many as four days off each year to do volunteer work.
Health insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts recently launched a new skills-based volunteer program that chose 35 employees to work on projects in collaboration with 11 non-profit groups. One project helped a youth services organization improve its systems for analyzing the outcomes of its services; another helped a domestic violence group improve its financial planning.
The program appeals to job candidates, engages current employees and helps workers hone valuable professional skills, said Lucy Darragh, director of corporate citizenship. It has also boosted morale within the company and the insurer's profile in the community, said vice-president of corporate citizenship Jeff Bellows.
"It's hard to anticipate all the positive ripple that these programs will have," Bellows said, "but we see time and time again what they do."
Credits: Sarah Shemkus, guardian.com