Understanding CSR and the Value of Employee Volunteer Programs

Understanding CSR and the Value of Employee Volunteer Programs

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) isn’t a fad – it’s a foundational part of company culture and supporting employee engagement.
When Maria Donnelly of The Hartford learned that she was one of 54 randomly selected employees to receive funds to donate to the charity of their choice, she knew exactly where her funds were headed. After all, she and several co-workers had already volunteered with the Syracuse, New York chapter of Sleep in Heavenly Peace (SHP), helping make and deliver beds to children who did not have one.
In addition to providing 8 hours of paid time off to volunteer annually to encourage and support employee activity in the community, The Hartford deposits or "seeds" funds into randomly selected employees' online portals, which can be used at the discretion of the employee.
"When I was gifted the opportunity to donate to a cause that I passionately believe in…I just felt really fortunate," says Donnelly. “To bear witness to that moment when a child realizes that they have slept on the floor or an old couch for the last time – I will carry that image with me for the rest of my life."

Corporate Volunteering Defined

Corporate volunteering programs are directly related to something known as corporate social responsibility (CSR), which “reflects a business' accountability and commitment to contributing to the well-being of communities and society through various environmental and social measures.”1 These programs are woven into the ethos of many companies.
“Corporate volunteering comes with a host of benefits for employees, both personally and professionally. Volunteering helps people build a stronger sense of self, improves well-being and provides an opportunity to learn or develop skills,” says Jessica B. Rodell, PhD, a professor and distinguished chair of management at the Terry College of Business, University of Georgia.
“It also fosters a sense of pride in their employer, deepens engagement and attachment to work and creates opportunities for deeper and meaningful connections with coworkers and others in the community,” Rodell says.
Indeed. According to the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship's (BCCCC) 2021 Community Involvement Study,2 which, among other things, looks at shifts in trends involving employee volunteering and corporate giving, nearly all of the 215 mostly U.S. based medium and large companies, or 94%, offered an employee volunteer program or were creating one. The study found that “Even during the pandemic, median participation rates in corporate volunteer programs held steady at 30%. Community involvement continues to be a key factor for employee engagement.”
Katherine V. Smith, executive director of the BCCCC, explains that the study helps companies understand “where they are leading, lagging or on pace with other companies in their industry and geographic region. We see variation in programs based on both of these factors.”

Corporate Volunteering, Giving and Employee Impact

Donnelly, meanwhile, was so thankful to have been able to make a donation to SHP that she wrote about it for an internal company blog. In addition to seeing a child's happy face upon receiving a bed, she wrote, “the next best thing is being able to donate to the nonprofit that makes these moments happen.”
Companies play an important part by bringing all the players involved in outreach to the table, Rodell says.
“I do believe that companies have a unique role in connecting people, corporations and communities. Much of people's lives are structured around their workplaces. We work many hours, identify with our work and have integration between work and home. We socialize, make friends, meet spouses, etc., at work," she says. “With workplaces playing that elevated role in people's lives, I think it makes sense for it to be an organizing factor for community engagement.”
Volunteering also provides an opportunity for employees to mix and mingle regardless of their roles during the workday.
Amy Bartolotta, who works in strategy optimization and was the 2021-2022 co-lead of The Hartford's Professional Women’s Network (PWN), an employee resource group with more than 6,000 members nationwide, can tell you firsthand of the impact volunteering has had on her life. “My loyalty to this company increases because of the corporate support for doing good in our community. It brings meaning to my life,” she says. “The Hartford is ethical and socially responsible. Collectively, we create a sense of belonging and hope.”
PWN has supported Junior Achievement and other charitable programs. Recently, PWN's San Antonio chapter volunteered with the San Antonio food bank, helping to bag 16,000 pounds of produce. “Volunteering is a critical key for employees to find a sense of meaning and belonging through work,” Bartolotta says.
Sarah Scotti, also of The Hartford, is passionate about community outreach – both in her personal life and at work. She was nominated and now serves as a co-lead on The Hartford's All Year Strong committee. All Year Strong represents the company's culture of employee giving that continues throughout the year.
“I have always been proud to work for a company that remains so dedicated to helping our local communities,” Scotti says. “In my memory and experience, this support isn't a passing trend, it has been a part of the organization's DNA for my entire 15-year tenure with the company.”
The team she works with in human resources volunteered to weed and pick up trash at Riverfront Park in Hartford. They also wrote letters with the nonprofit Letters Against Depression.

How To Set Up a Successful Corporate Volunteering Program

What constitutes a successful corporate volunteering initiative? There are several factors, according to Rodell:
  • Must be thoughtful and authentic.
  • Involve active employee engagement and focus on making a meaningful difference.
  • Showcase the benefits to employees.
  • Balance top-down corporate structure with bottom-up employee passion, allowing companies to take advantage of the benefits of employee voice and intrinsic motivation with the benefits of tying these programs to company missions and goals.
“Ideally, a company's program should be tailored to their strategic mission and goals in a meaningful way,” Rodell says.
Take The Hartford and United Way, for example. “The Hartford and United Way are a perfect fit," says Philip Blonski, senior manager, corporate and community engagement, United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut. “It has been a longstanding relationship both through the employee-giving campaign for United Way and also lots and lots and lots of volunteers each and every year.”
Blonski cited, for example, The Hartford's annual day of service that's held to commemorate the anniversary of Sept. 11, 20011. “United Way is grateful to partner with the company on such an important initiative,” he says. The Hartford and United Way are both invested in the local community and “want to see it thrive,” he adds.
Also, throughout the year, The Hartford employees participate in community-related, volunteer projects where they give back to United Way-funded agencies and partners.
"Typical projects include park clean-ups, general maintenance and working with youth. “And, of course, we are so grateful to all employees that give to United Way throughout our Community Campaign," Blonski says.

Creating Virtual Corporate Volunteering Opportunities

As with many other aspects of the workforce impacted by the pandemic, corporate volunteering, in some cases, had to pivot as well. Virtual volunteering was the most popular type of volunteer program offered by companies participating in the BCCCC’s 2021 study.
“This is in response to remote work in the pandemic," says Smith of the BCCCC. "While many workers were out of the office and all of us were physically distanced from each other, companies were challenged to connect and engage with employees. Remote volunteering, especially activities that could be done online together, became more popular as a means to bring people together. These activities ranged from card-writing to deployed military personnel to online pro bono support for nonprofit partners.”
In other words, there are no barriers when it comes to helping others.
1 Businesses That Practice Social Responsibility Aim to Improve Their Communities, The Economy or The Environment, Business News Daily, Jan 23, 2023
2 Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship's (BCCCC) 2021 Community Involvement Study
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Lauren Curran
Lauren Curran
Lauren Curran is a journalist who specializes in career development and higher education. A former reporter with The Associated Press, she has also written for Brown University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.