Building Community Builds Business

Enabling employees to get involved in the community through volunteering opportunities, community outreach or other corporate social responsibility efforts can yield positive results for an organization’s diversity strategy.

“The conversation is changing from volunteerism as altruistic from a corporate perspective to what’s good for the community is good for business, what’s good for the business is good for the community,” said Jackie Norris, executive director of the Points of Light Corporate Institute, a volunteerism and community service nonprofit.

Good for the Community, Good for the Business
Having a community involvement strategy can be a boon to recruitment, retention and engagement efforts. Corporate social responsibility is important to many employees — and millennials, in particular — and can not only serve as a tool to attract such individuals, it can help to retain them, said Charisse R. Lillie, vice president of community investment for Comcast Corp. and president of The Comcast Foundation.

“Our employees like the fact that they work for a company that wants to extend itself to the community,” Lillie said.

According to the 2011 Deloitte Volunteer IMPACT Survey — based on interviews with 1,500 millennials who work at companies with 1,000 or more employees and that offer employee volunteer activities or programs — millennials who frequently take part in their company’s volunteer activities are twice as likely to rate their corporate culture as “very positive” when compared to those who rarely or never volunteer.

Data from the same survey showed those who do so frequently are also more likely to be proud, loyal, satisfied and recommend their company than those who don’t.

“With the millennial generation, most companies wouldn’t be shy in saying part of the reason we are doing this program is because we are hearing it day in and day out from the employees that we’ve hired that it gives us a cutting-edge opportunity over other companies,” Norris said.

Norris said one side effect of corporate volunteering is that it puts an employer’s brand in front of people. In some cases, it also facilitates employee interactions with customers or potential customers. Further, she said research shows that consumers reward companies for social consciousness and impact.

“So when we walk in [a store we think]: OK, we know they’re giving part of their profits back to education, or we know they’re helping make over school libraries. As a result, we probably have a stronger connection to that brand and a desire to reward them for what they’re doing through our purchases.”

Norris also said she sees a growing trend where affinity groups within companies undertake volunteer projects together. For example, she referenced an LGBT affinity group in Los Angeles that volunteered together as part of Harvey Milk Day and African-American affinity groups that do so on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Broaden Experiences, Enrich the Community
One of the largest corporate days of service in the U.S. is Comcast Cares Day. Participants include employees, their family members and local chapters of national partnerships. It started in 2001, and Lillie said last year approximately 75,000 volunteers participated at more than 600 sites.

Projects include an array of activities, including creating a walkway in Philadelphia, painting murals in schools and art projects on playgrounds, refurbishing a baseball field in Camden, N.J., planting trees, removing weeds and beautifying various locations.

This year volunteers will be engaged in post-Hurricane Sandy cleanup efforts in New Jersey, such as refurbishing homes and restaurants, rebuilding a boardwalk and beach cleanup. On the West Coast, there also will be volunteers helping to refurbish a Native American center, Lillie said.

“We’ve worked hard to make sure we are doing projects in diverse communities, and we’ve increased the number of Comcast Cares Day partner organizations serving diverse communities from 110 in 2011 to 143 in 2012,” Lillie said.

Canadian law firm Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP also recognizes the importance of giving back to the community. The firm, which has about 1,200 employees and more than 700 professionals, conducts pro bono work in all of its offices.

“We set a budget every year and we communicate across our firm to everyone so people can take on pro bono projects, do that during the day and get credit for it as if they were doing billable work,” said Sharon Mitchell, chief operating officer.

In the past, Gowlings has helped a charity for young entrepreneurs with no credit history by guaranteeing loan applications and other legal agreements. Some associates also have assisted individuals who crossed the border into Canada but can’t afford representation in immigration matters. Another initiative involves donating formal clothes to underprivileged people who need them for job interviews.

Giving back seems like second nature to the firm, Mitchell said. “We never used to think of it as a competitive advantage because it’s just who we are and what we do.”

Mitchell said the firm has begun to speak about such efforts during recruitment — for instance, when the staff visits law schools — because it can make a difference.

Influence the Next Generation
Beth Gallagher, director of community involvement with Aon, said it’s important for her company — or any other employer, for that matter — to undertake these types of programs in the community.

“It’s no longer just a nice thing to do to offer these opportunities, but it’s definitely more and more of an expectation — particularly for younger folks — that Aon and other employers are investing in the communities where we operate and helping address the needs in these communities,” Gallagher said.

In addition to serving as a retention hook, it also can provide a window for those who may not have the opportunity to mingle with people from diverse communities with backgrounds different from their own.

“Getting our colleagues out there and connecting with communities they otherwise may not be exposed to helps broaden their perspective; it gives Aon and those colleagues who are especially involved with our partner schools a stake in what’s going on in our broader community, and that’s important,” Gallagher said.

In Aon’s partner school program, it works with two elementary schools in underserved communities in Chicago.

For the past four years, Aon has partnered with the schools to provide a grant to support enrichment activities at the schools in addition to sending volunteers who undertake a variety of tasks, including a weekly literacy program where employee volunteers conduct 45-minute reading sessions one-on-one with students, facility improvement projects and social events such as back-to-school barbecues where parents are invited.

These types of partnerships and outreach activities aren’t just beneficial to one party. According to Gallagher, it’s a win-win. “The schools appreciate having supportive adults from diverse backgrounds come … and ultimately Aon has a stake in the success of these young people,” she said.

In a similar vein, chemical and pharmaceutical company Bayer Corp. is taking steps to increase diversity in the STEM fields.

The company’s Making Science Work program has evolved during the past 20 years from an employee volunteer program to one with a focus on diversity, said Lauren Trocano, manager of corporate communications and corporate social responsibility for Bayer Corp.

The program, which was formalized 15 years ago under the banner “Making Science Make Sense,” involved some of Bayer’s chemists visiting local schools to conduct science experiments and try to get young students engaged in such activities.

This program has evolved over the years to target schools with underrepresented minorities to attempt to engage diverse young students in science-related activities. Trocano said the program has helped ensure there is a diverse STEM workforce in the future.

“We’re talking to colleges and universities about where the pipeline clogs are for underrepresented minorities in the STEM fields, and we’re talking to underrepresented minority engineers and women engineers about what have been the roadblocks and opportunities for them to get into STEM fields,” Trocano said.

With the shifting demographics in the United States, Trocano said part of remaining competitive is ensuring that women and minorities aren’t underrepresented in industries such as STEM.

“[Diverse] population groups are becoming a larger portion of the general population and have a diverse perspective to offer to the company, and we want to see that reflected in our workforce,” she said.

One strategy for companies that want to appeal to diverse candidates is to promote volunteer work and corporate initiatives in the broader community.

By providing assistance to underserved communities and underrepresented minorities in particular, companies can improve their image for candidates who want to give back while simultaneously enjoying benefits such as recruitment, retention and engagement.