The Art of Possibility: Volunteering and Corporate Citizenship

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Muhammad Ali captured the true and honourable pursuit of volunteerism when he said: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

Community-based volunteering has the power to redirect perspectives and values, and stimulate human connection and meaningful relationships. Through service to others, volunteers are able to resolve feelings of disconnection and overcome social isolation and loneliness that is so apparent in today’s world.

The United Nations insists that “volunteerism benefits both society at large and the individual volunteer by strengthening trust, solidarity and reciprocity among citizens, and by purposefully creating opportunities for participation.” Each year, the U.N. publishes its State of the World’s Volunteerism Report and its aim to “show the art of the possible.” Their comprehensive report details volunteer efforts around the world, and demonstrates that volunteering is a vehicle for bringing skills, knowledge and expertise together in the pursuit of participation, action and solution.

Volunteerism offers a number positive outcomes, including community building and outreach, but did you also know that volunteering makes you happier? In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote about his famous Hierarchy of Needs in his ground-breaking paper “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Emotional and social belonging is the third most fundamental thing that humans need most, after safety and physiological health. Volunteering brings people together to socialize and bond over a common goal –  the social connections that are developed contribute to an overall feeling of human belonging.

In their report Social Capital and Our Community, the University of Minnesota emphasized that social capital – a form of cultural capital in which social networking is central – is an especially important concept in community volunteering. Their findings show that places with higher social capital also benefit from a higher quality of life, and they demonstrate that volunteerism is a great way to create social capital, which ultimately leads to community building and social connectedness.

In an article for Forbes, writer Mark Horoszowski discusses the surprise benefits of volunteering, including the advantage of “time affluency” – a feeling that some volunteers are less time-constrained because they are not affected by feelings of self-disappointment for wasting all of their free time on themselves. He also notes that volunteering your skills or experience can help you to gain new ones, which inevitably contributes to a one’s career path and overall professional development.

It is easy to see the benefits of volunteering at the individual level, but, at the corporate level, businesses are now realizing that they, too, have something to gain from volunteerism. The Triple Bottom Line is a term coined by social entrepreneur and writer John Elkington in 1994 and is used to describe a company’s willingness to measure its three “Ps”: People, Profit and Planet. The idea is that companies should have three equally important and separate bottom lines. Profit is, of course, the first measurement to consider, and it is also one that companies have considered the most crucial for the longest period of time. The second P is People and, according to The Economist, is the measurement of “how socially responsible an organisation has been throughout its operations.” The third bottom line, Planet, refers to a company’s measurement of their environmental responsibility.

The Triple Bottom Line – or Triple P framework – is now commonplace practice, as companies recognize that they must be accountable for their actions in the 21st century. Furthermore, they are also under scrutiny by socially and environmentally conscious organizations to be accountable at all costs. The demand for socially responsible corporations is at an all-time high and organizations such as CorpWatch or the Canadian Network for Corporate Accountability (CNCA) exist to ensure corporations follow specific ethical standards. Investors, consumers or even employees can take matters into their own hands if they feel corporations are not acting responsibility. For example, investors concerned about a company’s potentially irresponsible practices “could boycott its products or services, refuse to invest in its stock or speak out against that company among family and friends.” Therefore, being socially unaccountable, or even divesting rather than investing in the community in which they operate, can be costly to an organization.

These responsible practices and models all fall under the realm of Corporate Citizenship: the idea that businesses, while still accountable to their stakeholders and profit margins, must work to encourage high standards of living and quality of life in the communities in which they operate.

So, how can a business leverage its profitability aims and its commitment to social and environmental responsibility without breaking the bank? Supporting an employee volunteering program to invest in the larger community is a great way to do both. Corporate volunteering is a unique strategy that engages employees and offers team building programming without booking an expensive, off-site high-ropes course. In 2010, Volunteer Canada reported that over five million Canadians received support from their places of work in order to volunteer in their communities, and Canadian corporations are continuing to integrate volunteer programs into their business models each year.

Corporate citizenship is also the theme of an annual international conference run by Boston College’s Center for Corporate Citizenship. The International Corporate Citizenship Conference has covered the topic of employee volunteerism each year, using keynote speeches and workshops to drive the message of the importance of volunteering. At the 2011 conference, convenors formed a panel entitled From Volunteering to Involv-a-teering, which brought together a number of experts to discuss innovative ways for engaging employees, partnering with community organizations, and measuring and analyzing impact in corporate volunteer programs.

Volunteer Canada is a national organization that aims to foster volunteer opportunities and civic participation. One of their largest initiatives involves working with the private sector to advance their community participation efforts, and their website hosts an entire section devoted to Corporate Citizenship. Their commitment to corporate responsibility and volunteer service is so strong that together with Carleton University and RBC Foundation, Volunteer Canada developed the Canadian Institute for Business and Community Engagement. The institute’s mission is to “provide businesses and non-profit organizations with knowledge, tools and resources in the field of corporate community investment, through a Canadian lens.”

Major corporations all over the world have not only developed impressive employee volunteer incentive programs, but they are also developing materials for other businesses to adopt volunteer program measures. Through the Deloitte Volunteer IMPACT research series, the company has consistently measured important aspects of corporate citizenship and engagement, and offers businesses downloadable reports of useful information and recommendations for the purpose of setting up a successful employee volunteer strategy. Their research suggests that corporate volunteer programs are incredibly beneficial, as skills-based volunteering provides “much-needed support to local nonprofits”, and also helps to “foster meaningful business and leadership skills among employees.” It’s a win-win scenario.

Manulife is one such Canadian corporation this is committed to employee volunteerism. In 2014, Manulife employees around the world gave 88,694 hours of their time to help charities through its established programs. They offer their employees one paid day off to volunteer to the cause of their choice and, through their PowerMatch initiative, Manulife also matches pledges of up to $150 collected for employee charity fundraising efforts.

Google is a major global corporation that also boasts an impressive employee volunteer program. Every June, they host a week called GoogleServe, where Google employees head out into the community and do everything from cleaning up graffiti to helping non-profit organizations use technology. In 2015, more than 6,500 Google employees logged 80,000 hours of community volunteering. They also match time and money contributions made by their dedicated “Googlers” – to date, the company has match $21 million in employee donations.

When you examine the world of Corporate Citizenship and volunteerism, journalist Tom Brokaw’s words ring true: “It’s easy to make a buck. It’s a lot harder to make a difference.” Employee volunteer programs provide a whole host of benefits to not only the business itself, but also to the individual employees and the local community. The act of volunteering offers new life experiences and social connections, and when employees are encouraged and incentivized by their companies to volunteer, non-profits and charities are given a big boost to their community efforts. There is, after all, strength in numbers. And it is through these acts of volunteering that communities can begin to create relationships, which foster social connectedness and ensure that value is placed on solidarity and mutual support.