Young companies have rapid-fire problem-solving and organizational skills that make them naturals for community service, but entrepreneurs often have the misperception that size limits their involvement with volunteer projects-especially when they equate volunteerism with large corporations and their millions in charitable contributions and dollar-matching programs. Plus, entrepreneurial companies often lack a human resources director, making coordination a time drain when there's already too little time. In fact, the Points of Light survey concluded that companies with fewer than 500 employees often have less of a com-mitment to employee volunteer efforts. "There's a real tendency to think, 'I can't do that.' But size isn't an issue," says Jeffrey Hough, former vice president of corporate affairs for the Points of Light Foundation in Washington, DC.
Don't just think board memberships and corporate sponsorships-the typical route taken by entrepreneurs when it comes to community service. Volunteerism has to go deeper to engage employees. "Nine times out of 10, employees want volunteer opportunities but don't know how to go about it," Hough says. The Independent Sector study found that 90 percent of people join a volunteer project when asked, while only 22 percent join on their own initiative. Like a lot of other aspects of business, it's up to the CEO to lead the way.
Tying community service to your company's mission is relatively easy. A small software company's techies, for example, can take a few hours on a workday to install computers at a local senior center and then teach seniors how to conquer their fear of technology. In this way, the volunteer effort is connected to the company's business purpose, and employees get some team-building experience and time away from the daily grind. "If employees are at the office 80 hours a week, volunteer work becomes a stress-reduction issue," says Susan Ellis, president of Philadelphia-based Energize Inc., an international training, consulting and publishing firm specializing in volunteerism. "People are working too hard these days, so it's a healthy thing to do."
At Alternate Access, Kelly and Adri-enne, 47 and 43, respectively, haven't written volunteering into their mission statement, but are flexible with employees who want to take on community service projects. Their philosophy is trickling down: At least five of the Lumpkins' 12 employees-including Joan Baron-have worked individual volunteering projects into their schedules, and the whole staff got involved this past year when the Special Olympics came to town, handing out medals and making banners. Kelly sees community service as important in the development of the whole person. "Volunteering gets you out of your box so you can look inside someone else's box," he says. "You have to let employees out to learn things. You have to encourage it, not fear it."
An easy solution to a possible productivity crunch is to make one day per week your company's volunteer day, and to create flextime opportunities. Create a rotating schedule planned in advance that lets a few employees take extended lunch breaks to participate in volunteer projects. With planning, everyone knows what to expect and how to adjust.
It's important not to make community service look like a mandate from above, however. The "you better show up," boot-camp mentality isn't a good way to encourage employee service. Employees will think they have to be there instead of wanting to be there, and enthusiasm will wane. Also, some people won't want to volunteer, no matter what projects are available. Just let it go. "Some people have the gleam in their eye to volunteer. Others don't, and you can't put it there," Kelly says.
You might be fearing that volunteering would take a lot of employees' time and energy away from their work and cause a distraction that could hinder company growth. That's definitely not the case as far as Alternate Access is concerned. The Lumpkins' company has won numerous business awards, including a listing in Deloitte & Touche's 1998 Fast 50 list of fastest-growing North Carolina businesses.
Employees who participate in volunteering will see it as a company benefit, and will likely feel better about themselves and their jobs. Although volunteering has put more on her plate to push around, sometimes meaning longer hours at the office, Baron says she gets her job done and feels the Lumpkins' support has made a difference in how she sees her employer. "I feel accepted for who I am. I'm not pigeonholed," Baron says. "I really think that employers who honor volunteerism will create loyalty, devotion and motivation in their employees."
Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.