THE BEST way for a company to invigorate its employees is to get them to do something other than their usual work and to ask them to do it in their leisure time.This may seem a doubtful aphorism for human resources managers, or perhaps an advertisement for reviving communist-era working hours on Saturday. But in fact it comes from the experience of Slovak companies discovering the benefits of corporate volunteering.
Companies have long used teambuilding activities to generate new ideas, lift morale, and increase profit, be it through parties, sport competitions, golf tournaments, or outdoor events. And the method of teambuilding has largely remained the same: employees form new personal connections through fun activities that help them solve the challenges of their work.
But in the early 1980s, construction firm GE Plastics tried a different approach. It had merged with Borg-Warner Chemicals, and needed to connect the two competitive worlds of employees from two different corporate cultures.
“Why, instead of playing golf, fishing, or yachting not use the enormous energy and creativity of four or five hundred people and not do something constructive, something of lasting value,” said Joel Hutt, GE’s manager of marketing communications, according to “Aiming Higher” by David Bollier.
So Hutt and his team quietly prepared a huge corporate volunteering project. The plan was to renovate a dilapidated youth centre in San Diego. Hutt then called a conference attended by all employees of both companies in which he showed a brief video about the centre, which provided neighbourhood youth with a safe haven from drugs and gangs.
“According to estimations, the reconstruction of the centre will cost $500,000, and it will take several years,” Hutt announced, according to the book. “But I want to tell you here and now that it won’t take years. This place will be conquered by the army of GE employees. We want to do it in eight hours, and we want to do it tomorrow!”
The next day, 30 teams of employees from both companies competed to see who could finish their portion of the work faster. GE employees then went on to renovate other youth clubs and a homeless shelter. Together, they helped improve life in the San Diego community. And the impact on GE Plastics, its unity and solidarity, was better than Hutt and his team had hoped for.
From that point on, volunteer projects became the main tool for improving the competitive and mistrustful relations between the companies. Hutt’s “Share to Gain” project inspired other branches of GE Plastics to do the same, as well as many other companies.
This story illustrates that both employees and the community profit from corporate volunteering. Employees are more likely to be proud of a company that shows interest in its environment and does something apart from making profit.
The projects are well suited to busy people in big companies who only have time to communicate through e-mails. They can get to know each other better, talk together, connect in an extraordinary situation – all while doing something good. Volunteering is also an excellent opportunity for new employees, who are offered the chance to integrate into the team and show what they can do. If the firm decides on more creative activities, employees can develop new professional skills, such as organising an event, fundraising, and appearing in public. Closer teams reduce turnover and inspire greater productivity, which, in turn, produces higher profit.
Of course, mending one orphanage’s fence will not save a company from red figures. But if volunteering becomes a natural part of company culture, it can have a great influence on its potential and the quality of human resources.
One city, 40 firms
The second annual Naša Bratislava (Our Bratislava) was a corporate volunteering project that took place last weekend. On September 12 – 13, more than 750 volunteers from 40 important firms wore red T-shirts and took to the streets to help dozens of the city’s community organisations decorate their environment; paint walls and fences at centres for mothers and seniors; and improve the lives of children, older people, and animals in shelters or the zoo. The help was not limited to what the employees could accomplish with their hands. They donated blood, others donated clothing to a homeless shelter, and some aided NGOs in the sphere of information technology or marketing.
Unlike working on Saturdays during socialism, this event was strictly voluntary. Some companies asked their employees to take part during their leisure time, and others gave employees a day off on Friday. A similar event took place this spring in Košice, and firms in other Slovak towns are also considering trying it.
In this way, corporate volunteering has started to become the norm in Slovakia.
Pavel Hrica is programme director of the Pontis Foundation.
15. Sep 2008 at 0:00 | Pavel Hrica