How Employer-Sponsored Volunteer Programs Help Build Social Capital

How Employer-Sponsored Volunteer Programs Help Build Social Capital

| By Jennifer Kuklenski |

“There’s nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer.”

While it may have originated in Hollywood, this quote from Lt. Col. James Doolittle in Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor has become a rallying cry used by many organizations to boost morale and it’s easy to understand why. Seventy-nine years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, this quote offers a powerful reminder about the importance of volunteer service. Volunteer programs can empower people and build social capital within their organizations and communities.

What is social capital?

The concept of social capital has gained popularity in recent years, but the term has been around for more than a century. Lyda Hanifan’s 1916 article published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science used the term to discuss how neighbors could work together to manage schools. He defined social capital as things that make tangible assets count for people in their daily lives, namely “goodwill, fellowship, sympathy, and social intercourse” among individuals that comprise a social unit. For the sake of simplicity, OECD Insights explains social capital as the “links, shared values and understanding in society that enable individuals and groups to trust each other and so work together.”

The term social capital was popularized more recently by Robert Putnam in his 2000 bestseller, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. According to Putnam, standards of living have improved for Americans in terms of wealth, however their sense of community has withered. As people spend more time working or commuting to work, they have less time to build relationships outside of work. There’s simply less time for joining community groups or socializing with neighbors, friends, and family (this has become even more pronounced during the global pandemic with the mass transition to remote work). To Putnam, the decline of community networks can be symbolized by the decline in league bowling. Although people still bowl, membership in once-popular bowling leagues has dwindled. Americans are figuratively and literally bowling alone.

So, what’s Bowling Alone got to do with employer-sponsored volunteer programs?

In their book Sustainability Marketing: A Global Perspective, Frank-Martin Belz and Ken Peattie argue that employee volunteer programs can help organizations build social capital within their workplaces as well as trust from the community members they serve. The authors further point out that in addition to improved brand reputation, corporate volunteer programs have been shown to contribute to employee development internally. According to Forbes Human Resources Council, giving employees an opportunity to volunteer helps organizations not only give back to the community, but increases employee engagement, encourages teamwork, and ultimately increases employee retention and loyalty. I certainly have found this to be the case for myself.

When I worked for a large defense contractor, employees were allotted twenty paid volunteer hours per year. The company went further, organizing several volunteer opportunities for my colleagues and I, making it more convenient to find volunteer work (this was especially important for those of us who were transplants and new to the area because we did not have many connections to help us find volunteer work on our own). Most of my coworkers volunteered as a group (e.g. Habitat for Humanity, National Public Lands Day cleanup, and Relay for Life events), and I noticed that this volunteer work enhanced group cohesion and cooperation in the office. Moreover, this company-sponsored volunteer time served as “seed capital” because many of us continued to volunteer beyond the twenty paid hours once we became involved with community organizations. For example, I ended up serving on the board for our local Relay for Life organization – an opportunity I may never have had if not introduced to the board members through my employer-sponsored volunteer work.

Incorporating volunteerism into the workday

A 2017 Volunteerism Survey conducted by Deloitte found that employees like when their employers incorporate community volunteerism into their workday. Of the 1,000 people surveyed, the report concluded that 70% of respondents believed that volunteer opportunities boosted morale more than company socials or mixers and an even greater number of respondents – 77% – believed that volunteerism was essential to employee well-being. The vast majority of respondents – 89% – believed that employer-sponsored volunteer activities, like food drives or 10k runs, created a better working environment.

According to David Chandler, author of Strategic Corporate Social Responsibility, a key element of employee engagement is the belief in something that is larger than one’s self. Indeed, employees are proud to work for an organization that they believe is making a difference and are willing to go the extra mile for purpose-driven business. Employer-sponsored volunteer programs can provide staff with a sense of shared purpose, increase happiness and morale, and build strong social capital that positively impacts day to day operations and productivity.

3P INSIGHTS is a consulting firm that offers training, speaking and support services to help organizations attract and retain diverse talent, create inclusive workplaces, become better environmental stewards, and improve their overall social, environmental, and economic impact.

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