Not-for-profit organizations given boost by hands-on, skills-based volunteering

Companies donating time, specialized skills — not just writing cheques
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/16/2013

It was well past quitting time on a Friday night, but Brenda Higuchi was still hard at work overseeing a team of data scientists who were analyzing data from a call centre.

It wasn’t a tough deadline or demanding schedule that kept Higuchi and her team working through most of that weekend — it was the Data for Good initiative at Aimia, a loyalty management company with 3,400 employees worldwide.

About 50 employees from offices across Canada signed up to participate in the volunteer initiative. The employees helped four different not-for-profit organizations by donating their time — and their highly specialized skills.

“The goal was to help them analyze trends and patterns in their data and make recommendations to help meaningfully improve their program,” said Higuchi, who is vice-president of analytics and CRM at Aimia in Mississauga.

“It really is an event that lets us use our skills in analytics and our expertise and knowledge about leveraging data to further strengthen our ability to affect change in the communities we operate in.”

Higuchi was project manager for the initiative at United Way Toronto’s 211 phone service, with an objective of examining peak call times and types of inquiries to find ways to optimize service.

The hands-on, skills-based nature of the volunteer experience was a rewarding addition to Aimia’s other community investment initiatives, said Higuchi.

“We give donations as an organization, we provide volunteer support, but this was just another way that we can provide knowledge and expertise to these organizations that support our communities,” she said.

And the benefits — both for the participating non-profits and for Aimia’s own corporate values and culture — went far beyond anyone’s expectations.

“It was just a fantastic experience for everybody,” said Higuchi.

“I would highly recommend it for any organization, particularly if they have a unique skill set to offer. I know the organizations (Aimia worked with) were very grateful.”

New ways to engage employees

Skills-based volunteering is one of the many ways organizations are directly engaging employees in corporate community investment strategies.

Employers are looking toward innovative and diverse ways to give back to communities, according to the Conference Board of Canada’s 2013 Canadian Corporate Community Investment Benchmarking Report, based on a survey of 180 companies.

“Money is certainly the number one most common way that companies are contributing, but a lot of them are giving in a number of other ways, whether that’s through in-kind resources, so donations of services or goods… as well as through engaging their employees,” said Michael Bassett, senior research associate at the Conference Board in Ottawa.

“Over half the companies we looked at that responded to our survey said they had an employee volunteering program. Also, they’re engaging their employees through efforts to match employee donations,” he said.

“Anecdotally, we’re hearing that companies are becoming more sophisticated in these programs, because they’re seeing broader benefits.”

In fact, very few companies reduced their community investment budgets, despite still-uncertain economic conditions, found the survey.

“We thought we’d see more companies reducing their budgets but what we found was that most of them kept them — and some of them even grew,” said Bassett.

“Companies are looking for ways to engage and have engaged employees, and volunteering and contributions towards the community is one of the ways companies are using to have engaged employees.”

Moving beyond ‘chequebook philanthropy’

Engaging employees in corporate volunteer initiatives goes far beyond “chequebook philanthropy,” according to Janelle St. Omer, director of corporate community partnerships at Volunteer Canada in Ottawa.

The national, not-for-profit organization engages in research, training and leadership on volunteerism, and Volunteer Canada is seeing an increase in skills-based volunteering, said St. Omer.

“There’s a lot of skills-based volunteerism taking place now, where companies are using their expertise to go out and really impact communities,” she said.

“It’s a growing trend and I think what’s so amazing about that is it’s a different way of volunteering.”

It’s about responding to evolving needs within non-profits and communities, and it’s also changing the ways volunteers want to be engaged, said St. Omer.

For example, a women’s shelter without an in-house marketing team could spend a day partnering with a company that has a very strong, robust marketing team to go over marketing materials and planning, she said.

“A non-profit would never be able to pay for that kind of day or those kinds of resources, and what we’re seeing coming out of those kinds of volunteer opportunities are just truly amazing.”

One of the effects of skills volunteering is an immediate, positive boost to the corporate culture.

“Employees leave feeling such a sense of pride and such a sense of accomplishment because they’re able to see the impact right away,” said St. Omer.

“It helps to lend purpose to (the) employees’ work. It provides them with a strong platform for their leadership and skills development.”

The volunteering also helps promote an organization’s corporate values and makes employees feel personally connected to them.

“Employees who are engaged in volunteerism generally feel very good about the company that they work for,” she said.

“It also helps employees connect with the company by living and seeing and breathing the company values at work — it helps to sort of strengthen those values and have them be cultural drivers, because employees actually feel a part of what the company stands for.”

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