Every year, about 20 university and college students receive a grant averaging $5,000 from the Co-operators Group to undertake a sustainability initiative in their community.
“Organizations traditionally give to NGOs (non-governmental organizations), charities, non-profits, but how many people give to a student who says, ‘I’ve got a program about sequestration of carbon offsets at my university’ or ‘I want to start a bee farm in my little community’?” said Barbara Turley-McIntyre, senior director, sustainability and corporate citizenship, at the Co-operators Group in Guelph, Ont.
“They do more with $5,000 than many traditional organizations can do because they don’t have that whole administrative infrastructure.”
More than $250,000 in grants have been handed out since the IMPACT! program was officially launched in 2009.
Community investments have proved to be “recession-proof” at Canadian organizations, with more than one-half reporting an upward trend in their budget over the past five years, according to a report by the Conference Board of Canada. An additional 34 per cent said their budget remained constant.
“Generosity increases with difficult times,” said Paula Speevak Sladowski, interim president and COO of Volunteer Canada in Ottawa. “Although you could talk of corporations as entities, they are made of people and people are aware of the fact that in difficult economic times, the community needs are even greater and they are even more inspired and compelled to contribute.”
The 180 companies included in the report contributed about $710 million to communities in 2011, found the Canadian Corporate Community Investment Benchmarking Report.
The most common forms of community investment are giving money to community organizations (87 per cent), sponsorship and marketing contributions (81 per cent), and in-kind resources, goods or services (68 per cent).
The most common recipients of community investment dollars are civic and community organizations (78 per cent) and health-care organizations (67 per cent).
The Co-operators, which participated in the Conference Board report, supports emerging co-operatives across the country through its co-operative development program. It also has a community economic development fund to support marginalized Canadians across the country.
“Mostly these are folks who are out of the workforce and want to get back into the mainstream but have barriers, so it could be youth, new Canadians, we have a lot of organizations we support who provide employment for folks with mental illness,” said Turley-McIntyre. “(It’s about) moving someone from not being able to participate in mainstream society to giving them the skills to transition to that.”
More than one-third (38 per cent) of survey respondents said their company has a signature community investment program. These programs tend to focus on an issue or group of issues the company feels it can align itself with, such as the Co-operators’ IMPACT! program for youth.
“Signature programs are an important way that companies are trying to move into creating change,” said Michael Bassett, senior research associate, governance and corporate responsibility, at the Conference Board of Canada in Ottawa.
“Because they’re invested in each of these issues that they choose as their signature, they get invested in trying to see progress. They don’t want to just give money and stay out of it, they want to be involved and see how they can help move this forward.”
Almost one-half of survey respondents said they had an employee-matching donation program. The most commonly used matching ratio is dollar for dollar, used by 82 per cent of companies. One-half (54 per cent) have a maximum level of employee contributions they will match, found the report.
Employee-matching donation programs contributed $63 million to communities in 2011. These programs most often support registered charities (58 per cent), and United Way Centraide is the dominant organization in employee-matching donation programs.
Forty per cent of employers make the decision around which organizations will benefit from the donation program. One-third allow employees to make the choice themselves and 25 per cent choose recipients through a blend of employee and company input.
Employee volunteering is another way employees give back to their community. More than one-half (57 per cent) of respondents have an employee volunteer program in place. Of those firms that track volunteered hours, employees volunteered more than one million hours to the community in 2011 — one-fifth of those hours were donated during regular business hours, found the report.
Three-quarters (73 per cent) of companies said they give employees paid time off to volunteer, averaging one day of salary per employee.
“We have multiple demands, family, other interests and responsibilities, and the opportunity to volunteer through your workplace relieves that pressure in terms of time, and many companies offer family volunteering opportunities so you’re able to include your family members too,” said Speevak Sladowski.
The Co-operators allows all employees to take two paid days off per year to volunteer at the organization or an activity of their choice. One of the company’s volunteer programs — called Volunteers in Action — is completely employee-driven and staff come together and develop a committee to manage the volunteer activities within their city, said Turley-McIntyre.
“It could be garden clean-ups, gathering winter clothing for people in our community who need it, so it has meaning for staff who can determine what’s important to them in the city that they’re in,” she said. “What’s important in Charlottetown might not be the same as in Calgary.”
Only 12 per cent of companies select employee volunteer opportunities without the input of employees, found the report.
“It’s always important to employees to have a choice in not only the kind of organization but their actual tasks,” said Speevak Sladowski. “We’re always more motivated to do something we’ve chosen to do.”
Culture, reputation top motivators
Corporate values/tradition is the top driver of community investment programs, followed by reputation management, found the report.
“It’s a reflection that this is more than just a feel-good piece; it’s actually part of what’s building the company’s reputation with its employees as well as with its customers and the general public,” said Bassett. “The community investment program is connected to what the company is trying to say about itself and its perceived role in the community.”
Recruiting and retaining high-quality employees ranked fifth overall on the motivators list but ranked second for respondents in the professional services sector.
“(In this sector), there is competition for workers so companies are trying to differentiate themselves by making sure that their community investment programs reflect their culture, so it’s part of their recruitment strategy,” said Bassett.
The report also found presidents and CEOs are often highly involved in the community investment programs. Two-thirds (69 per cent) of firms said their CEO was “very” or “extremely” involved.
“When the CEO is out there putting in the time, expressing support for the community investment initiative, that tells everyone within the organization that this is important,” said Bassett. “The CEO’s enthusiasm for the program can turn into enthusiasm for employees.”
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