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Building Engaged Employees Through Skills-Based Volunteering

POSTED 02/09/2015
By Jessie Kwak

Getting together for community service has long been a staple team building tactic for companies. In the last few years, skills-based corporate volunteer programs are on the rise.

According to the 2014 Benchmarking Survey on International Corporate Volunteerism by PYXERA Global — an organization that connects companies with volunteer opportunities — the practice has grown significantly in five years. By the end of 2014, an estimated 9,000 individuals participated in such programs.

The 2014 Giving in Numbers Report from CECP reports a similar increase. While there was overall growth in volunteer programs in 2013 (59 percent of responding companies have one, up from 51 percent in 2010), growth has been especially impressive in the area of pro bono volunteer programs. In 2013, 50 percent of companies provided pro bono programs, up from only 34 percent in 2010.

The Insight
Skills-based volunteering is on the rise, and it can help companies build the next generation of global leaders. Corporate volunteer programs can help organizations:
• offer an MBA alternative.
• develop employee leadership skills.
• improve employee retention, recruiting and engagement.

Masters of business — the volunteer edition

Why are companies finding skills-based volunteer programs to be so useful?

For Amanda MacArthur, vice president of global pro bono and engagement at PYXERA Global, skills-based volunteering provides similar benefits to top executive programs — at a significant savings.

“I think we’re just starting to crack the surface when it comes to how these types of programs can be used to develop talent,” says MacArthur. “You’re actually getting your hands dirty and working in cross-cultural teams, as opposed to sitting in a classroom where you may be learning really great things, but not get the same shift in perspective.”

This drive for corporate skills-based volunteering programs inspired Mark Horoszowski, the co-founder of MovingWorlds, to expand his company’s original mission of connecting individual expert volunteers with organizations around the world. After he noticed how many of MovingWorlds’ volunteers viewed the program as an alternative to an MBA, he and his team began working directly with companies like Microsoft to create tailor-made corporate volunteer programs.

“Programs like this are becoming increasingly popular for a few reasons,” Horoszowski says. “Both to give people more proactive opportunities to develop leadership skills, and to very strategically develop certain types of leaders into more global leaders.”

Horoszowski and MacArthur both credit the experiential aspect of skill-based volunteering programs for their effectiveness.

Ryan Scott, CEO of Causecast — a company whose software platform allows companies to set up volunteer opportunities and giving campaigns — hasn’t just seen others learn through volunteering experience. He’s had breakthroughs himself while leading an event where he matched professionals and nonprofits to work together on fundraising campaigns.

“It’s a powerful retention tool … When you’re happy within your community, and feeling personally and professionally fulfilled, you’re more likely to stay in that organization.” – Heather Hatlo Porter

“It gave me a lot of clarity of business thought, which I was able to bring back to my company,” Scott explains. “Volunteering your skills really lets you see your own organization through another lens.”

Developing the next globally-minded leaders

Developing leadership skills is among the top priorities for companies approaching Horoszowski at MovingWorld. They often focus on high-performing mid-level managers ready to move up the ladder.

“A program like this can connect specialists and give them exposure to each other, all while working on a skills-based project in a new environment, with less resources,” says Horoszowski. “You start to see benefits in communication and collaboration, and [volunteer programs] also increase the inclusion and diversity awareness that are really important to future business leaders.”

MacArthur sees an expanded world view as a crucial part for leaders of companies with an international presence. “Working with global, multi-cultural teams is really important,” she says.

Many of PYXERA Global’s clients are companies with an eye on global growth in emerging markets, where the business culture can be quite different than what most corporate employees are used to.

“Providing them an opportunity to use their skills through supporting the social mission of these organizations in these environments really gives them an interesting perspective,” MacArthur adds. “It opens their world view a little bit, and builds some of the global leadership competencies that are so important as we continue to integrate our global economy.”


Employee engagement, retention and recruiting

While leadership and skills development plays a large part in why companies are benefiting from volunteer programs, another reason comes from the Human Resources department, where employee engagement, retention and recruiting are top priorities.

Chegg, a textbook and online course vender based in Santa Clara, CA, encourages employees to volunteer 40 hours a year on company time.

“I do know that this is extremely important for people when they’re looking to work at Chegg,” says Renee Campbell, Chegg’s employee engagement and event manager. “They want to know what kind of volunteer program we have, and they’re interested to know what we do for good.”

Chegg started using Causecast’s software in 2012 to help connect employees with volunteer programs. Heather Hatlo Porter, Chegg’s vice president of marketing, says Chegg employees work with causes they support on a regular basis — from employees on the legal team offering pro bono advice, to members of the marketing department helping nonprofits build websites.

“It’s a powerful recruiting tool and a powerful retention tool,” says Porter. “When you’re happy within your community and feeling personally and professionally fulfilled, you’re more likely to stay in that organization.”

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Horoszowski agrees, “By providing programs like this you’re providing people ways to give back to social causes that keep them interested in the company. Employees who believe in the company’s mission are more likely to stay with that company longer.”

And Scott says the benefit doesn’t come from being engaged with the corporation, so much as it comes from them being engaged with each other. “Bringing an additional purpose into people’s lives through their work really helps the employees to be engaged with the company,” he adds.

Skills-based volunteering can take many forms

To be effective, a volunteer program doesn’t need to require a yellow fever shot and a 15-hour flight. MacArthur sees lots of growth potential in virtual volunteering. In a current program, PYXERA Global is working with about 40 Dow managers a year.

“The project is primarily virtual,” MacArthur explains. “The first several months the teams worked on virtual projects with their local clients [in Ethiopia]. They just did about a week in country at the end.” Although the time required away from their day jobs is reduced, the results are still visible.

MacArthur doesn’t believe skills-based volunteering is just a trend. “The opportunity to get people going to other parts of the world and getting out of their comfort zone is just great,” she says. “What do they say — if you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not learning!”


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