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The power of corporate volunteering

by Ornella Schillaci

Corporate Volunteering is not just a trend. It's actually happening in many sectors and industries and it has been proved that it benefits to employee well-being as well as productivity, efficiency and ROI. Nowadays, with all the social impact topics and environmental awareness being at the top of news, it would be a great mistake to ignore the importance of implementing a volunteering program within your organization.

From employment with new generations and Millenials to health and mental well-being, or sense of purpose within the workplace, corporate volunteering is a whole strategy that businesses look into seriously and get equipped for more and more. To tackle the topic with a broader picture, we met a few months ago with an expert. Caroline Modave is an organization design, culture & transformation consultant, advisor & coach. 

This discussion was also recorded and edited for our CSR Connect Podcast, so if you'd like to listen to the episode, you can just listen to it here.


Optimy: How did your career start?

Caroline: I started my career about 20 years ago. My background is in economics. I've always been about people, about themes, about organizations. And therefore, very naturally, I started my career within human resources. I thought this is the place where I need to go to fulfill my passion. I worked for eight years at Accenture in different roles in Nature. After eight years, I joined GlaxoSmithKline, a big pharma company, and did a lot of different roles over there as well, but mainly focused on large project transformations, change management, leadership development.


Optimy: What is your personal experience with corporate volunteering?

Caroline: I had a great opportunity during my employment here in that I also spent seven months with UNICEF as a volunteer as part of an internal volunteering program. And last year, I gave my resignation at GSK to start as a consultant, organization consultant, CSR and funded a with a former colleague of mine, a company. We are a company organization in transformation, so I am always with the human side in my head then and doing the work around people and around teams.


Optimy: True transformation needs to come internally from the engagement of employees and managers. What are your thoughts on that?

Caroline: It's probably depending a little bit on where the organization is in terms of how much the value employee volunteering today, what they can take out of it, and how they link it to their own. That's their strategy, but also the work they are doing and what is the added value that they see as an organization so really need to be able to support and sponsor employee volunteering in an organization that's probably a first step to understanding how would it be received by the business today? Where are we on our journey and what are the challenges we face in implementing employee volunteering? I think the key ingredient is indeed to start with first. What is the organization standing for? What type of activity will what do they want to deliver? What is their purpose and how much can you link employee volunteering to that, that specific purpose as an organization to really get the traction at the senior leadership level to get their sponsorship, but also in order for people to really understand what is the impact I can have within the organization, but also by doing volunteering linked with a with maybe the skills and the work, then them doing on a day to day basis with my organization.


Optimy: Many experts believe that relying on employee leadership and highlighting each person's strengths can be a way to guarantee a sustainable and growth-orientated path for the future of your company's employee engagement initiatives. Do you share that view?

Caroline: I do believe, indeed, that the awareness on how volunteering can help your own organization, that the awareness is not yet there in many organizations. What employee volunteering can bring to your organization when you send your own employee's free volunteering? If you get happy employees back it will feel like they can have an impact on the world. You get employees back who have potentially also opened up their minds and see other things in other types of organizations and built new skills. And definitely, if you do employee volunteering, let's say not in a stand-alone mode, but you, you send teams to work together for a specific organization. There you actually build relationships in your teams. And it's a way to develop and strengthen the relationships within your own organization. If it's the case for change there and building that awareness, it comes through stories. It comes to people coming back from these experiences, and that's the shining when they've learned how passionate they are about the work they've been doing and how much he brings to them. And this is how it will inspire other people to join, to do the same or to implement it in in their own department. So it's probably a combination of both making sure at some point in time that there's indeed the senior leadership sponsor sponsorship and aligning it to the purpose of your organization. See where you can have synergies around what you deliver to the world and at the same time, tap into the energy of the people who did it and who can bring this back to the organization. 


Optimy: This synergy can benefit even small companies. Some specialists argue that smaller groups have a better dynamic in which change and transformation thrive. Do you think that the key is to make sure this group shared the same interests?

Caroline: I do believe that the way you will engage your management is by really understanding the situation of those managers. And what do you need, what are really the challenges that they experience as a manager is to let go some of their employees for volunteering? So definitely you need to shape the context of those managers and the people in the teams to make it easy to do these volunteering experiences. So there are different ways actually to do volunteering. You can do skilled-based volunteering for one or two hours a month. You can do full-time volunteering a full day or several days a month or like I did at some point in time where you completely out of your organization for a number of months to make it easy for a manager in these different situations. You have different ways to help them let go of some of their employees for a specific time.

So being able, for instance, to rotate people within the team, being able to shift some work on other people within the team and also creating that space, but also for many of those managers, it also comes to giving them the permission for them to be the leaders who give this freedom to people to do some volunteering work, of course, is a framework within some guidelines and tools, et cetera. Because, yeah, of course, you are in a company with objectives and KPIs to be delivered. Yeah, but there's definitely a mindset shift that needs to happen, that you can get something in return. And it's not only permitted, but you should encourage. Sometimes you have people also step out of their comfort zone because you'll get more out of it. So it requires a certain dialog within the organization. You could also think and that's really on the other side of the spectrum, you could really think of making volunteering, let's say, a lever or an action as part of an individual development plan. I mean, you know, on a yearly basis, employees, have a conversation with the manager saying, OK, where do I see myself in the future? What skills do I need to build to get there? And potentially volunteering work can bring those capabilities and those skills. So, therefore, it's really seen then as an investment, and therefore time needs to be created for this kind of intervention. 


Optimy: What is your advice when it comes to measuring the impact?

Caroline: So measuring the impact for me goes in in two buckets, let's say of domains. One is. The impact you have actually on society and in the nonprofit organization that you're sending your employee as a volunteer. And the other is the impact you have on your own organization by doing that. So these are two different things for me. Starting with the nonprofit organization where you are sending your employees. What is critical is, is making sure that there is an alignment between the sending organization and the receiving organization, what is it that the employee volunteer is going to do what we can expect from this person and whether we want to see as a result of this conversation, absolute needs need to happen to make sure that the employee feels fully supported, but also knows what is expected from him or her. And based on that, actually, you can draw some, let's say, performance indicators or measure the impact that the person will have as a volunteer both at the end, during, starting before, in the middle, and at the end of the mission the impact on your own organization as a sending organization. 

Again, it depends on how you position your employee volunteering program and what you are trying to achieve with it if it's indeed the level of engagement of your employees or more in kind of feeling committed to the organization, retaining your key talents. You can use those classical indicators by ring-fencing your people who have been acting as volunteers. Then see whether you see a difference with the ones who are having them volunteering. If your program is positioned as a way to build new skills and new capabilities the best way is probably to measure it through the management line and see with the management before by looking at this person before and after the mission. Have you seen a difference in terms of how they show up? How did they deploy their capabilities and does that have an impact on the work they are doing? So I would say there is a number of elements you can look at. Again, it all depends on what you're trying to achieve with your volunteering program. 


Optimy: When doing volunteering work, we have to remember that both employees and local communities are bringing something to the table. Everyone can contribute with something, whether it's new insights, skills, content, connections, and even those people who are seasoned professionals in the corporate world. What is your view on that?

Caroline: Most of the time, let's say corporate environments are quite, let's say, a regulator. There are a number of guidelines, rules, and so on. And then you get into a world where there's much more informality and ways of working are a little bit different. So in terms of learning, it's helping you to shift from one type of environment to another one being able to scan the context in which you are and adapt yourself. So there's a lot of humility that is needed when you do volunteering work. You're not the person who knows everything and you come up with all the solutions. Know you're there to listen, to understand the challenges, and adapt your style to have the most impact. So that's probably one of the biggest learning that you can have as a volunteer. And then my second learning is more like a conclusion of actually, well, the type of work that I've been doing as a volunteer, which are more people and team related than and related to transformation. Actually, there's there are so many similarities between the corporate world and the nonprofit. Some dynamics are quite the same. And I think both worlds can be inspired one from the other. Definitely. I was also very much inspired by the values that are living within the nonprofit sector and how those values are driving engagement energy. And this can be brought back definitely to the corporate world so far. But the biggest learning is learning to listen, understand and adapt yourself to a new context. 


Optimy: What is the power of PR in such projects?

Caroline: Your employee value proposition and your employee branding are supported by a number of actions. And one of those actions can be employee volunteering. It gives a sense of what type of organization you are, how you treat your employees, how you want to develop and to develop them, how you invest in them. And definitely, people who go on volunteering programs. Those who see this as a success and as a gift from their organization, they talk about it and they do not only talk about it to their colleagues. They talk about it outside the organization and they talk about it for a long. Because of some of these interventions and volunteering experiences, can really change your mindset completely or change your life choices, and you shouldn't underestimate the impact it has on employee branding and reputation.

Now if you're convinced of the power of corporate volunteering, you might need inspiration on how to get started. Luckily, we've got you covered. Making sure that you make the right choices for your volunteering activities or, more broadly, for your social impact projects is not easy. However you shouldn't neglect the numerous tools, ressources and experts that you can lean on to get the best insights on the topic.