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?

Responses from Readers

Submitted on 29January2004 by Udeni Salmon, Head of Volunteer Support, Leonard Cheshire, United Kingdom
In the UK, corporates are wising up to the PR benefits of corporate volunteering project: nice photos of bosses digging gardens and smiling with the deserving poor... but without the need to write a large cheque. If you are a volunteer manager planning a corporate volunteering project, make sure:

  • there is a genuine need for the project
  • you can present a detailed cost estimate to the corporate (don't forget to include your staff's time)
  • you can afford to spare staff for the day, and that your users won't mind the disruption
  • that your organisation is mentioned by name in any PR material that the corporate is planning in future

You may find it more cost-effective to offer volunteering projects as a thank you to your corporate sponsors, once they have already committed to a sponsorship programme.

Submitted on 27Oct1997 by Lori Lucier, Manager of Volunteers, Development Department, AIDS Committee of Toronto, Ontario, Canada

It is interesting timing that I have come across this essay, as I have just returned from a National Conference here in Canada called Many Visions, One Future: the 1997 Canadian forum on volunteerism. One of the topics of discussion for the weekend was something we call Workfare. For the purposes of our discussion, we defined it to be based on the Ontario model, which is "the welfare recipient is obliged to participate in a volunteer program or they will lose their basic benefits." The government, without having consulted the voluntary sector, decided that the volunteer centres and their member agencies would be the main administrators of this program.

The discussion group that I participated in came to the conclusion that when government ties obligation to the activity of volunteering, we are no longer talking about volunteering. Since we would then not be referring to "workfare participants" as volunteers, the voluntary sector should not be responsible for administering the programs; the government should be. There are many others reasons that many of us around the table felt that concept was inherently flawed, and could not be supported. I wont go into those.

You bring up an interesting point though. Perhaps this could be proposed as a government initiative, administered through the Social Service Sector. I am sure that the voluntary sector would be willing and interested in sitting down with government and business to talk about new thinking around corporate voluntarism. I am equally sure that the voluntary sector should not be responsible for massive training, placement and evaluation programs that would be necessary to make something like the program you described work.

I think that it is definitely time that business got directly involved in job creation, although that is contrary to what many profitable companies are doing right now. Indeed, many companies that are gaining profits, have been shedding jobs as they post their quarterly profits. It is my opinion that until the voluntary sector draws the line, and states that we are not in the market to perform either the government or big business' jobs for them, we will continually be pushed to pick up the slack.

Response from Bob DeHaan, Retired
Your essay on corporate volunteerism regarding hiring people who had been on welfare is one of the best analyses I have read or heard. I agree that more jobs must be created to make it possible for people to get off welfare. That's one key. Another is that employers need to offer the supportive services you listed because people recently on welfare face many obstacles to being successfully employed. That will be a hard one to sell to prospective employers, I would guess.

Jim Lehrer's News Hour of Friday, Oct. 10 reported on a project (I forget the name of the outfit) that brought prospective employers together who had job openings for ex-welfare people. The latter would come in to this circle of prospective employers and present themselves and their skills. One or more of the prospective employers would then offer a position. But they did not have the supportive services that these people needed. The project had to do that. So again, your emphasis on the necessity of supplying these supportive services is of the essence, I believe.

Keep up your good work.

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