Nowadays, corporate volunteer programs are de regueur at most companies, at least those that take employee engagement seriously. But while so many businesses are skillfully leading their employees along admirable mission of corporate philanthropy, some companies are putting their own stamps on these efforts in particularly memorable ways.
For example, here are five innovative programs that have stayed with me (and which undoubtedly stay with the employees involved in them, too):
An avid fisherman, Patagonia employee Ari Zolonz jumped at the chance to volunteer with the Native Fish Society through Patagonia’s environmental internship program. In this program, employee salaries and benefits are paid for one month while 20 employees are sent into the field to volunteer with nonprofit environmental groups around the world. The Native Fish Society is devoted to the conservation of wild native fish in the Pacific Northwest, so Ari’s work ranged from helping scientists with a study on the Molalla River, to chucking hundreds of salmon carcasses in order to feed the ecosystem, to speaking to visiting groups about river entomology and the lifecycles of salmon and steelhead. Proud of working for a business that supports environmentalism, Ari acted as a company spokesperson and talked about Patagonia’s environmental work and how it aligns with the company’s values, ultimately helping to promote its brand.
Fuse Corps is dedicated to helping entrepreneurial professionals spend a year supporting governors, mayors and community leaders across the country to drive meaningful social change. The company identifies local projects that serve a national need (such as education, economic development or health care), then recruits and deploys highly-skilled professionals and entrepreneurs to help develop and implement innovative solutions. Fuse Corps sponsors this change to the tune of $90,000 per annual stipend, allowing selected “fellows” to make a difference at the state and local level in a high impact/high profile project. These funds are sufficient to allow Fuse Corps to attract top talent, giving its fellows a year to do nothing but improve their communities.
For her first time out of the U.S., 22-year-old Dow Corning employee Ashley Crandall flew to Bangalore, India to participate in Citizen Service Corps, Dow’s international corporate volunteer program. This skills-based volunteer program sends Dow employees to do pro bono work with NGOs and social entrepreneurs in emerging countries. Ashley, an electrical apprentice, worked for four weeks with the local community and a team of fellow Dow employee volunteers on improving the manufacturing process of Sustaintech, a local clean cookstove producer. Despite the cultural shock and language barriers, this project taught Ashley and her co-workers important skills that sometimes takes years to develop, including leadership, problem solving and out-of-the-box thinking. Ashley returned home to East Michigan energized about her future with Dow, hoping to one day become a senior manager with the company.
Warner Bros.’ giving program, called Impact, addresses four areas that present some of the most fundamental challenges confronting humanity today: youth enrichment, global outreach, environmental stewardship and community engagement. Whereas at most companies, different areas of community impact are divided up (for example, mentoring, general philanthropy, community service, and employee matching funds), Warner Bros. manages all community involvement under the employee-driven Impact program. Employee contributions to the dialogue aren’t without management oversight; however, employees are the driving force behind where and how Warner Bros. chooses to give back to the community as a company.
At VeryNice, pro bono work isn’t something that employees do off the clock, with or without incentives. Rather, it’s just business as usual. In fact, the company contributes half of its time to pro bono design work for nonprofits. When CEO Matthew Manos started the company at the tender age of 19, while still in college, it existed only to provide pro bono design work. While the realities of paying bills in the world caused Manos to rethink his business model, he did not let go of his desire to provide services at no cost. Armed with his desire to do good, Manos sought out the ultimate in fundraising ideas: a way to make volunteering and service the cornerstone of his business. He eventually came up with an algorithm that showed him the path to realizing his goal. He figured out that he could give away half of his efforts and still make the same profits as a standard design firm, provided that he was able to get twice as much work.” While this is a challenge, it’s one that VeryNice has been able to rise to thus far.
It’s inspiring to look at the diverse ways that companies are applying their unique DNA to the unique social and environmental challenges facing us. And if an outsider to these companies finds their programs inspiring, I can only imagine how they must be received by the employees inside these companies.