Getting back from giving back

Benefits of volunteering numerous for Amex Canada and its employees (Guest Commentary)
By David Barnes
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/22/2011

Canadians are known the world over for their generosity. So it should come as no surprise we prefer to give back rather than hold back.

The numbers are incredible: Nearly one-half (46 per cent) of Canadians aged 15 and older volunteered for a charitable or non-profit organization in 2007, according to Statistics Canada. Together, they contributed 2.1 billion hours of work, which represented the equivalent of 1.1 million full-time jobs.

The most common reason Canadians volunteer is a desire to make a difference in their community (93 per cent), followed by wanting to make use of skills and experience, and pitching in because they have been personally affected by the cause.

It’s a pattern taking hold in more workplaces as companies recognize the benefits of formalized volunteering programs.

Almost one-half of workers in the United Kingdom said they were more likely to stay with an employer that allows its workforce to volunteer during work hours, according to a study of 1,007 employees conducted earlier this year by LeapCR.

In Germany, researchers from the University of Konstanz, who followed the habits of 105 people, noted volunteer work offers mental health benefits and may even help people perform better at work.

And in the United States, workplace volunteering was shown to be a strong way to recruit the best and brightest minds from generation Y, according to the 2011 Deloitte Volunteer Impact Survey of 1,500 workers between the ages of 21 and 35.

On this side of the border, Volunteer Canada found employee volunteer programs are a measure of social responsibility that have a positive impact on morale, skill development, productivity, job satisfaction and employee retention in its 2010 report Bridging the Gap.

Volunteering reminds people they are a part of something bigger — a feeling amplified when backed by their companies and colleagues. Giving back is also good for business.

“Companies that connect the dots between talent and volunteerism have an opportunity to strengthen relationships with young employees and will likely be rewarded with happier workers,” says the Deloitte survey. “The more satisfied employees are, the more likely they will remain loyal.”

The American Express Canada team learned just that when we tapped into our employees’ passion for volunteerism and created formalized programs that make community involvement an integral part of corporate culture.

Community involvement has always been very important to us. After all, we’re in the service business — why shouldn’t that apply to civic service as well?

Throughout the years we’ve had thousands of employees go out into their local communities and make a difference. But this year, we want to do even better by bringing community involvement to the forefront of our company.

At a very basic level, business can give back in two ways — with time or money. With that in mind, American Express Canada is focusing on two key programs this year: Serve2-Gether and Give2Gether.

Whether it was sorting food at a food bank or helping weed and mulch soil for more than 300 newly planted trees at a conservation area in Markham, Ont., Amex employees supported more than 100 charities in 2010 through the Serve2Gether program.

And now, in our third year of participation, Amex saw more than 100 employees come out for the Weekend to End Women’s Cancers walk in Toronto, raising nearly $102,000.

“Being involved in the walk is a great opportunity for everyone to network,” says Sue Symington, captain of the Markham Amex team, who participated in the two-day event in early September.

“I really appreciate the chance to meet new people at Amex who I may never have met before if I hadn’t gotten involved in this event.”

But the biggest barrier to volunteering is a lack of time, according to Statistics Canada.

That’s why the Give2Gether program is equally important, as Amex matches donations from employees to help local charities, such as United Way, or to provide disaster relief around the world.

In 2010, Amex raised $720,277 through the Give2-Gether program.

These feel-good initiatives not only benefit the greater public but are proving to boost employee morale. In fact, 85 per cent of American Express Canada employees feel the company is a socially and environmentally responsible organization, according to a recent best employer study by Aon Hewitt.

Another 79 per cent said Amex’s reputation “helps us attract the best employees.”

Workplace volunteering is also a way to engage: For leaders to engage with their staff, for colleagues to engage with each other and for businesses to engage with the broader community — one they often serve — in a meaningful way.

And capitalizing on the benefits of employee volunteer programs is certain to spell success down the road, as it builds the company’s brand as an organization that cares, strengthens the company’s position with jobseekers and fosters employee loyalty. In short, it’s about sustainability — making a difference that lasts both inside and outside of workplace walls.

Any company looking to start a volunteer program needs to consider the three ‘Ps’ to make the most of it: publicize (using internal newsletters and emails); partner (with reputable and well-known organizations in the community); and promote (by letting your customers know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it).

David Barnes, based in Markham, Ont., manages American Express Canada’s employee communications and philanthropic and community involvement programs.

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