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Increasingly, organizations are finding success by encouraging employees to focus not only on their jobs — but also to engage in volunteerism and support causes in their communities. The Society for Human Resource Management Research Institute found that 47% of U.S. companies offered community volunteer programs in 2022, up from 40% in 2014.

Doing so can have triple benefits: Employees enjoy greater job satisfaction, employers benefit from more engaged employees and improved work performance, and the community gains from the volunteer efforts. What makes such programs successful? Strong leadership support and tools that make participation easy can help a volunteer culture take hold and thrive.

Realizing the Business Benefits of Volunteering

Organizations can and do give back to their communities for altruistic reasons, but it can be good for business, too — particularly if employee volunteer programs are connected to the larger purpose of the company. One way that Elevance Health works to make it easy for associates to participate is by hosting Volunteer Days around the country each fall. Efforts are centered on four key areas essential to community health and a whole-health approach: maternal and child health, food as medicine, substance use disorders, and disaster relief.

“We do a survey every year after Volunteer Days where we ask questions around, ‘Is this program satisfying to you? Do you believe in it? Does it connect you with Elevance Health?’ And our survey results always come back saying yes,” said Ashley Sowders, program manager for the Elevance Health Foundation.

Operated in partnership with Lions Club International, the Volunteer Days program has engaged more than 10,000 volunteers who have donated 27,500 hours of service in hundreds of projects since 2015. The impact of those volunteer hours has been significant, benefiting 2 million people in the U.S.

How do employee volunteer programs pay off, aside from helping local communities? Research has shown that they can assist with recruitment efforts, improve employee satisfaction, and even improve performance:

  • 96% of companies that tracked the connection between job satisfaction and employee volunteerism found that employee volunteers were more engaged at work than non-volunteers, according to the 2021 Community Involvement Study conducted by the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship.
  • Corporate volunteer programs contribute to corporate reputation, recruitment, and retention, and help develop leadership skills and team-building, according to Value Volunteering, a 2021 report by Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose.
  • Volunteering even increases employee performance, according to research conducted by Jessica Beth Rodell, Chair of the Department of Management at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business.

Promoting the Impact of Volunteering

For Jennifer Weber, director of sales for our health plan affiliate in Maine, the desire to volunteer stemmed from her daughter, Kate. Born with a hearing disability and special needs, Kate benefitted from a nonprofit called Best Buddies International, which pairs people who have intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDD) with abled peers.

“It’s very near and dear to my heart, to be an advocate for inclusion,” Weber said. “Best Buddies creates these inclusive events and activities. You can see it in Kate’s eyes: That’s what really makes her happy.”

Jennifer became a “Champion” fundraiser, ultimately bringing in over $21,000 for the Best Buddies gala. She is grateful that her employer encouraged her and gave her time to volunteer, sponsored a team at the walk, and has a culture where company leaders spread the word.

Weber was nominated for and won a Volunteer Recognition Award for the second quarter of 2022. Not even aware she had been nominated, she was selected as one of three finalists, and associates voted her the winner. Weber and her work were featured in company communications and shared by leaders, reaching thousands of employees across the country.

“I am still going to meetings and people say congratulations or share that their child has participated in Best Buddies,” Weber said. “It really builds up that camaraderie.”

Creating A Focus on Action, Empowerment, and Community Health

Elevance Health has taken a multi-pronged approach to its efforts to encourage volunteer participation, said Sowders, who volunteers her time at a local garden. “Giving back to the community ladders up to community health, and it’s tied back to the business.” That kind of connection to meaningful and measurable impacts is one of the best practices that are recommended for volunteer programs.

Reflecting the desires and interests of employees is a vital element of a thoughtful volunteer program, Sowders said. In addition to Volunteer Days, Elevance Health offers programs that empower individuals to contribute as they see fit:

  • Paid volunteer time off to make it easy for employees to offer their services to a cause.
  • Employee-directed contributions, which Elevance Health achieves through a program called Dollars for Doers. Employees earn $10 for each hour of volunteering, which they can then direct to a worthy organization. In 2021, associates earned and distributed $720,000.
  • Associates can also give through the Dollars For Dollars program, which allows them to support nonprofit organizations with monetary contributions. The Elevance Health Foundation matches their contributions to a set of signature charities dollar for dollar up to a maximum match of $5,000 annually.
  • A digital platform that allows employees to set up volunteering groups, recruit volunteers, or solicit donations.

Measuring Impact in Numbers and in Attitudes

Nationally, the organization-based volunteering rate remained stable for the two decades leading up to 2019, when an estimated 30% of people in the U.S. (77.9 million) said they volunteered for an organization or association. The pandemic has had a dampening impact on volunteer hours, Sowders said, though she notes that it is rebounding.

In addition to the numbers, personal outcomes are among the most important benefits of volunteering. “I instantly felt the difference and [the] appreciation received was great,” said one participant after Elevance Health’s latest Volunteer Day. “It was humbling, educational, and impactful.”

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