Recently, I was chatting with a close friend who holds a senior position at a Fortune 50 company. This is someone who is utterly driven, obsessed with work and defined in large part by his professional life, rarely slowing down to catch his breath. But a back injury had forced him to slow down. In fact, the injury was significant enough that he’d been compelled to take a medical leave for a couple of months.
Now my buddy was due to return to work, and I asked him how he was feeling. His answer stunned me. Having taken a step back from the day to day grind, my friend had a better picture of the big picture. And it was coming up somewhat empty.
“I wish I felt more of a sense of purpose. Like it all added up to something more meaningful.” Without that sense of larger purpose, his job now felt like something that just took him away from his kids.
What about your company’s volunteering program, I asked. Are you involved with that?
I guess there’s a corporate volunteering program, he said vaguely. Maybe I’ve overlooked a few emails about it here and there. But I really don’t hear much about it. So, no.
This is a high-level executive who only has a dim understanding of how he can engage in his company’s attempts at giving back. And if someone at his level is in the dark, you can assume that much of the rest of the company is as well.
My friend is, in fact, rather philanthropic and active in his community. But his charitable involvement all takes place on his own time. Work is work. Community work is up to him.
At least that’s how he sees it. And that’s a terrible shame.
From my own conversations with the CSR leaders at my buddy’s company, I know exactly what’s going on behind the scenes. I’m well aware of how much this global corporation is trying to create a meaningful employee volunteer program. But clearly they’re failing.
So let’s recap:
Here you have someone high up a corporate food chain who is volunteering on his own and feeling disconnected at work.
You have CSR and HR leaders who are trying to get employees involved in the company’s volunteering program and engaged overall.
And somehow there’s a giant gap between these two points.
What a waste!
These sorts of stories are, unfortunately, happening millions of times a day, every day.
Employees are desperately looking for ways to create meaning at their jobs and feel good about their work. CSR leaders are desperately looking for ways to engage their employees. And they’re all tragically coming up short.
The price paid for this gap is not just a missed connection that deprives employees and companies of engagement. Here are the other casualties:
Nonprofits that are looking for help and resources to fulfill their important missions.
The needy who rely on charities.
The environment that needs responsible stewards.
The victims of disasters.
The communities desperate for attention.
And so on.
So how can we avoid this tragedy?
As my friend put it, the answer lies in creating a culture that prioritizes employee-led corporate philanthropy. It all comes from the top. If the CEO and other folks at the apex of leadership recognize and act upon the critical importance of corporate volunteering and giving, those values will trickle throughout the organization. You’ll have a program that will be impossible to ignore, one that commands attention and attracts widespread involvement.
The next step, after the tone is set from the top, is to let employees build the program from the bottom. Corporate volunteerism is a two-way street. The stage is set by leadership, but the actors who breathe life into conceptual ideas are the employees. Their participation must be authentic to be effective, and that passionate, true involvement comes from a sense of shaping the direction of the program. That's why the most successful volunteer programs feel like a dance that flow seamlessly between administrators and participants.
Which leads to an environment where it would be downright odd and uncool, if not professionally risky, to notbe involved in the company’s philanthropy. And this leads to top talent being drawn to your company in part, if not wholly, because your company is one that gets it. Your organization clearly understands that you need to give back to get back. And that’s the kind of company which breeds kinetic enthusiasm and loyalty. The kind of attributes that make going to work fun. And important.
This engagement bonanza comes from investing in the right people to manage your program and the right resources to execute it so that your volunteer program is more than just faint window dressing. If leadership cares, everyone else will, too.
And that breeds a different kind of culture where no one - especially a senior executive - ever wonders whether his job matters.
Or wishes he didn’t have to go back to work.