Redirecting Corporate Volunteering

By Susan J. Ellis

The new era of welfare reform provides a significant challenge to companies as employers and as philanthropists. Since the idea of businesses as donors to nonprofits began, some critics have questioned whether or not it is the role of a for-profit company to divert any of its profit to social causes. In fact, there is debate as to "whose money is it?" and therefore as to how (and by whom) fund recipients are selected.

Similarly, "employee volunteerism" has its critics. Does the company provide release time, in which case the "volunteer" is actually being paid for doing community service? If the company urges employees to volunteer on their own time, why should the company get any credit? Is it more to the benefit of the company to send out groups of employees for one-time events, generate enthusiasm, build team spirit, and get public visibility--than it is to the benefit of the community agencies who have to make their needs match the services offered by the business?

Creating Jobs
Regardless of one's position on the appropriateness of corporate contributions to the arts or homeless shelters, or on the worth of employee volunteering, it seems valid to point out that--in the long run--a company can make its greatest social and economic impact by creating new jobs and treating its workers well. That's why welfare reform holds exciting potential, both for for-profit and not-for-profit leaders.

For welfare reform to work, every community needs new jobs. But more important, it needs jobs that can be filled by people who may have been unemployed for a long time. This will mean people who lack basic job skills, literacy, transportation and child care, and may not fully understand expectations of the workplace.

This is an incredible opportunity for corporate philanthropy to prove its worth to the community and to the companies themselves. If every business committed itself to creating one to ten new jobs at the entry level and connected with the public assistance office to recruit people previously on welfare for those jobs, we would have a challenge worthy of the label "corporate volunteering." Instead of (or in addition to) asking employees to go out into the community to give their time to a nonprofit agency, now the focus would be in-company services.

Employee Volunteers to Ensure Success
The welfare reform project could recruit employee volunteers to make sure the newly-hired staff succeeds. Some useful projects:

  • One-to-one mentoring for learning job skills and also integrating into the social life of the company.
  • Reading tutoring and small group classes.
  • Budgeting and using banks and credit unions.
  • Orientation to the world of corporate procedures and systems.
  • Clothes buying expeditions.
  • Child care discussion groups.

All these activities should be made available to any employee wishing to participate and I suspect many would. And, in a more untraditional move, nonprofit agencies could partner with business and recruit outside volunteers to help with these efforts, too. The beneficiaries would be the new employees and the community at large. The fact that the company ultimately gains good employees is a deserved by- product of the effort. Of course, this type of collaboration will require an end to the common nonprofit prejudice that sees all businesses as greedy and exploitative (except when a company writes a check to their cause).

The measure of success would be employees still on the job after a year and promoted into higher level positions on the merits of their work. And then they, in turn, have the chance to help the next set of entry-level employees. This is a complete circle of giving and receiving. The company engages in a project that meets a community and individual need, involves its employees in making it successful, and ends up adding to its worker productivity and community goodwill.

Anyone doubt that this is ideal corporate volunteerism?

By the way, I'm not just talking about big companies creating jobs. Why shouldn't middle size and small businesses as well as non-profits consider job creation, too? There are certainly major non-profit employers in every area, from hospitals to colleges. New ideas of "social entrepreneurship," in which for-profit ventures help to fund nonprofit services, hold potential as job incubators. Even small agencies could offer job training internships, again with the support of specially-recruited volunteers.

So...what do you think? How can you, as a leader of volunteers, stimulate job creation in your community?

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