Children and Teacher

Good for Business: Employee Volunteer Programs

“It’s you! You’re back!” The child’s face lit up with glee as I walked through the classroom door with our team.

“We are!” I smiled.

“You didn’t forget us?” His fourth grade brow furrowed.


Marian Wright Edelman, attorney and founder of The Children’s Defense Fund, once wrote, “Service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time.”

My grandmother was a nurse who volunteered her time to help end polio and support organizations researching cancer. My engineer grandfather taught math to economically disadvantaged youth. As a social worker, my mother has spent her career working in child protection and counseling teens and adults. For most of my work life, I worked in nonprofits and ran a youth program. My wife teaches English to adult immigrants.

My family has lived Marian Wright Edelman’s words, which might make my working at a for-profit company seem like an anomaly – unless perhaps you have seen some of the articles about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in places like Forbes, Harvard Business Review, and Fortune Magazine.

Most of the articles tend to be about big companies: IBM, Intel, or PepsiCo.

In a large company like CenturyLink, corporate social responsibility may add up to some really big numbers. For example, in 2014 CenturyLink employees reported 52,000 volunteer hours. It would take 1300 employees volunteering 40 hours each to log that many hours. However, most of the big companies also consider their programs successful if they get 20% participation.

In my role at Avista, I have gotten to envision and implement an employee volunteer program on a scale appropriate to a local business with fewer than 50 employees. Our participation rate is 100%.

Good for Business

Like my grandparents, my mother, my wife, and me, many of us believe being socially responsible and serving our community is a moral imperative. It is also helpful to understand that there are sound financial reasons for a company to serve the community.

CSR – which often includes an EVP – has become a way for companies to build trust with their consumers, partners, governments, and employees. Trust in business is down. Lack of trust negatively affects the bottom line, and so 64 % of CEOs are increasing investment in CSR programs for 2016.

The research is clear: EVPs are good for businesses of all sizes. The consensus is that service opportunities increase employee engagement and improve recruitment and retention. Evidence indicates that employee engagement in volunteering can significantly improve job performance and employee loyalty, in part by highlighting shared values with both clients and the company. Volunteering as a team can increase camaraderie. In UnitedHealth Group’s 2013 Health and Volunteering Study, “64 percent of employees who currently volunteer said that volunteering with work colleagues strengthened their relationships.”

Good for Employees Personally and Professionally

One of our Avista employees says volunteering with the team gets her outside of her comfort zone. She likes the opportunity to experience a bigger world. She likes the relationships we build with each other and in the community, but mostly she likes that “it’s a priority for Avista and we just do it.”

“What’s important to me,” she says, “is that it’s important to our company. I get to work for this company that wants to share our time with the community. I know we are doing it to make something in the world better, but it also makes us better. It makes us a better team, and it makes me a better person.”

UnitedHealth Group’s 2013 Health and Volunteering Study indicates that “people who volunteer report that they feel better emotionally, mentally, and physically.” Research from the University of Georgia Terry College of Business shows that employee volunteering is linked to greater job satisfaction. Jessica Rodell, author of the research, says, “Overwhelmingly, employees who volunteered gave more time and effort to their jobs, were more willing to help out their colleagues, [and] talked more positively about their companies.”

Good for the Community

I began this endeavor at Avista with almost 20 years of experience coordinating volunteers and developing relationships with local nonprofits.

Our goal is to develop long-term relationships with local organizations conceptually related to our work. We sought out organizations that know and are deeply engaged with the demographics they serve, that develop long-term relationships with their participants much like we develop long-term relationships with our clients, and that in some way are about building connections. Our team typically volunteers 3-4 hours during the paid work day four times a year.

On the National Day of Service, on or near September 11, we volunteer with English Language Learners at Neighborhood House as reading buddies. In December, we join classes at Northeast College Prep playing cooperative games and doing art activities. In March, we partner with Ujamaa Place and provide a career development computer skills class and mock interviews. In June, we do yardwork at Women’s Advocates and then come inside to make a craft project with the residents.

This year we have a bonus opportunity.

The holiday gifts Avista sends our clients includes a gift in their honor to one of our four partner organizations. In 2015 that gift went to Northeast College Prep to co-sponsor a kindergarten field trip to the Minnesota Zoo for the culmination of their life-cycles unit. We were delighted when the kindergarten class invited us to join them in June as chaperones.

Erika Sass, assistant director and co-founder of Northeast College Prep tells us, “Northeast College Prep benefits greatly from making community connections.” She says, “Students grow more by knowing people in their community, and the students excitedly remember the day the Avista volunteers came.”

Good for Everyone

A well-planned, well-organized EVP benefits everyone.

In the coming months, I’ll be writing about how to envision, develop, and implement EVPs and corporate social responsibility initiatives in a business with fewer than 50 employees.

Does your company have an EVP or CSR program?
What is it like?

Is your company interested in developing something like this?
What questions do you have?