Corporate Volunteering – a New Approach

Nicki McKenzie - Friday, December 16, 2011

When it comes to workplace giving, data regarding its benefits is starting to stack up. When you consider that 46% of organisations experienced a decline in employee engagement in 2010 (Hewitt, 2010), and that, 86% of employees at organisations with high engagement agreed that they worked for an employer that was socially and environmentally responsible (2010 Hewitt Best Employers), it really does make you sit up and think.

In fact, 2010 engagement levels represented the largest decline in employee engagement research that Aon Hewitt has seen in the last 15 years. Not an encouraging outcome when you consider the wealth of research that already correlates engagement with improved profitability, innovation, and customer service.

So how do we help people become more engaged?

Although engagement is a complex beast, what we do know is that 79% of people prefer to work for a socially responsible company (Cone Millenial Cause Study), and that the second most important driver of employee engagement in North America is an organisation’s reputation in the community (Towers Perrin Global Workforce Study, 2008).

Although these findings may be surprising, a recent report from UWA showing that Western Australian businesses are well behind the rest of the country in terms of giving back also makes these results a little disturbing.

How can you get the most from your corporate giving – both for the community and your employees?

Giving money directly to charities and community groups can be noble, but often these gestures, although well meaning, can feel hollow and provide little satisfaction to your staff. The outcomes of monetary giving are often unclear to the giver, and there is certainly limited connection between the giving organisation and the benefits realised from the gift. Monetary giving has its place and its importance should in no way be underestimated, but when it comes to gaining organisational benefits, such as increased employee engagement from corporate giving, there may be better ways.

It is no surprise then that corporate volunteering is in the spotlight, and with good reason: team days based on giving back not only strengthen a constructive corporate culture, they also help with employee retention, engagement and work performance, and better embed your organisation in the community. A case in point is Atlas Iron’s recent community volunteering efforts.

The Atlas Iron 2011 Hedland Community Day

David Flanagan, Managing Director of Atlas Iron, is passionate about corporate giving and adamant that his employees and organisation benefit directly from their community engagement.  Like a lot of organisations, Atlas Iron run an annual teambuilding day, but unlike a lot of organisations, Atlas’ day in 2011 focused entirely on volunteering.

In September 2011, over 200 Atlas staff and contractors descended on Port and South Hedland to contribute to a range of community projects in a one-day “blitz”. With Atlas’ presence in the Pilbara on the rise, David Flanagan wanted to give back to the people that don’t always gain directly from local mining activity.

“Ngayanhtharti” or “We Together” in the local Kariyarra language was the theme of the day, and volunteers from Atlas Iron joined with members from the local community across 5 locations and 4 primary schools to deliver some incredible outcomes.

Schools received a gift of their choice, with gifts ranging from BBQs to iPads  - the latter being utilised at Cassia Primary School to assist speech impaired students to communicate more effectively. To add laughter and a little interaction, teams heading out to schools also engaged in a variety of other activities such as gardening work, assembly items and book readings – an activity that is unusually close to Atlas’ heart as employees penned a children’s book for Starlight Children’s Foundation last year.

Locations for more involved projects included the Tkalka Boorda Aboriginal Community, Lawson Street Youth Centre, Southern Cross Care, Youth Accommodation Program, and a building that the Hedland Community Living Association asked Atlas to turn into a radio studio.

Volunteers at Tkalka Boorda worked beside residents to install new play equipment, shade sails and swings at the local playground, provide a BBQ area, create basketball and netball courts, and plant trees – including fruit trees at every residence and mature trees in the newly re-developed park.  Fortunately Atlas’ volunteers were not alone: as word got out about Atlas Iron’s plans Tkalka Boorda, numerous local service providers offered to be involved. There were donations of earth moving equipment and operators, trees, skip bins, concrete, scaffolding, and cherry pickers. Even the Council’s Parks and Gardens workers turned up on the day to assist by mowing lawns and pruning gardens and verges. The SES turned up to provide shade, water, and lunch-time catering, and got roped into helping install the 13x9m shade sail, while Variety took care of tea, coffee, sweet treats and the end-of day celebrations.

Other Atlas volunteers at Southern Cross Care created paved areas and wheelchair accessible garden beds, a BBQ pit, and a secret garden complete with shade sails, raised beds, water feature and 36m of lattice work.

Volunteers at the Lawson Street Youth Centre painted the centre inside and out, and delivered a new 6mx6m shed, while their colleagues at the nearby Youth Accommodation Program gave the youth housing complex a facelift with paint to all doors, ceilings and walls; a re-vamped and re-painted pergola with raised garden beds and shade blinds; and new beds, bedding, rugs and curtains.

The team at the community radio station installed furniture and audio baffling, and cleaned up a long uninhabited building to magically transform it to a radio studio, complete with offices and reception area – nothing short of a Cinderella-style transformation that left the Hedland Community Living Association crying tears of joy.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about the day’s achievements without mentioning that Atlas Iron’s reputation in the Hedland Community is now at an all-time high, and that Atlas’ staff managed to connect with the community in a meaningful and personal way that simply can’t be replicated through monetary donations. Many volunteers had never entered an Aboriginal community, let-alone worked, laughed and played side-by-side with residents, and all volunteers bonded, planned, and worked hand-in-hand to deliver extraordinary results in a way that no traditional team-building event could match.

Corporate Volunteering – a new form of teambuilding

Atlas Iron is an ambitious business that likes to achieve what others deem impossible, and their volunteering day was no exception, but it’s important to remember that it doesn’t require 200 people to fly 1600km to reap corporate volunteering benefits. Perth abounds with social and environmental projects, and if corporates swapped traditional teambuilding days for team-based volunteering days, just imagine what could be achieved. And although the world we live in will benefit, so will your organisation’s community profile, corporate culture, employee satisfaction, and of course, employee engagement.

So, if we know that an organisation’s reputation in the community was the second most important driver of employee engagement, what was the first? Having executives that sincerely care about employee well-being. Anyone care to guess whether empathising, supporting, and sharing on a volunteering day helps managers hone those skills for better application in the workplace? Atlas Iron think it does, and we’re thinking they’re probably pretty much right.

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"Transforming Teams led an amazing day that delivered on so many levels."
David Flanagan, Atlas Iron

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Transforming Teams is a Western Australian training company that was founded in early 2010 by trainer and experiential facilitator, Nicki McKenzie.Having seen the benefits of experiential training first-hand, Nicki was excited by the idea of delivering quality training that utilised both traditional classroom techniques as well as experiential activities to create a more effective learning environment.

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