83This post was featured in Forbes.com.

Corporate volunteerism is on the rise, yet companies still face challenges getting employees engaged.  According toThe Chronicle of Philanthropy, six out of ten companies have now implemented employee volunteer programs.  While these programs are growing, engagement is not following suit, with some studies showing that volunteer participation is holding steady at 25 percent.  

But Freudenberg-NOK is not one of the companies struggling to get its employees involved.  Freudenberg doesn’t mandate participation in any corporate volunteeringprogram, yet the company never wants for volunteers.  Indeed, Freudenberg-NOK’s Your Community Partner (YCP) plan saw 5,000 employees completing 40 community service projects in the first year of its existence. The company averages 15 volunteer hours per employee per year, putting annual volunteer time at more than 55,000 man hours. This extends to all levels of the company, which is why Cheryl Eberwein, Director of Corporate Communications was out of the office on volunteer assignment for eight hours during her first week on the job.

How is Freudenberg-NOK able to achieve such high levels of employee engagement?  First, the company hires employees who are on board with the company’s vision ofcorporate philanthropy. “If we’re hiring people who believe in the principles we value, we find we have higher rates of satisfaction and engagement,” says Sarah O’Hare, Vice President of HR, Health, Safety and Environment and Corporate Communications.  But it’s another component that really keeps employees engaged: the entire process for finding places to volunteer is largely employee driven. “Each plant has its own means to implement the program,” O’Hare explains, but the common thread is that employees play a huge role in the decision-making process.

The employee-centric quality of YCP allows not just for greater engagement, but also greater community impact. Local employees clearly have a closer view of the community than corporate headquarters. Local YCP programs include education for underprivileged Brazilian children, vaccines for some of the most impoverished parts of Mexico, refurbishing shelters for homeless dogs in Malaysia and helping get a daycare center for unemployed parents up to code in Ypsilanti, Michigan.  Every employee giving campaign approach is very different, but each recognizes and provides assistance in the areas where it is most needed in that particular region.

Without a trace of cynicism or opportunism, Freudenberg-NOK recognizes that the benefits of corporate social responsibility are complex and many.  As many as 16 young men and women who went through the Brazilian education program became Freudenberg-NOK employees later in life.  Further, O’Hare believes that such programs inspire employees in ways that are unpredictable. “We’ve had people look at cotton candy and come up with a new idea for bandages,” she says with a laugh.

You might be surprised that beyond making volunteerism a core value, the company does little to incentivize volunteering among employees. There is no matching gift program or other forms of recognition at Freudenberg-NOK as a rule, though the company does have programs for special corporate fundraisingopportunities, such as disaster relief volunteer initiatives.  “The only reward comes from the volunteers’ own intrinsic reward,” O’Hare says candidly, getting at the heart of what gets people engaged in the first place. “I doubt they do it for a free t-shirt, but we do make it easy for them. Often times they can volunteer on company time.”

Joe Grima, Director of Corporate Facilities for Freudenberg-NOK, certainly didn’t help rebuild the two Ypsilanti daycare centers for a free t-shirt.  He’s project managed two major renovations for SOS (the daycare center for unemployed parents), and persuaded Home Depot to contribute $4,500 to help.  When the project ran out of money, Freudenberg stepped up to the plate, increasing its budget.  “Freudenberg encouraged us to bring our kids and our families out to the project,” creating a greater sense of community.  Nothing, however, was more powerful than the difference he had made. “You could see changes almost immediately in the childre
n.”

Engagement comes from passion more than reward and O’Hare believes the company has a very high rate of engagement due to its corporate social responsibility.  Every two or three years, the company hands out a survey that, among others things, asks employees how well the company is fulfilling its own corporate vision. “We don’t use traditional engagement metrics, we use the survey and we also measure our performance.”

While the company certainly provides a model for other corporations looking to be more engaging to their employees, no one at Freudenberg-NOK is content to rest on laurels. “We’re at a very good place in our journey from where we’ve been. There’s continuous improvement.”

 

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