Beyond Bogus Corporate Responsibility: It's Time To Get Your Hands Dirty

Companies might think throwing money at non-profits looks good, but do they really care? It's time for businesses to inspire their employees to take real action—also a simple formula for growth and retention.

In 2010, Next Jump, a 200-person e-commerce company in New York, had a problem. Every year, about 40 percent of its fleet of software developers turned over, lured away to Facebook or Google or any of a number of harebrained startups in the area.

This is not a unique problem. In fact, it's on par with a lot of technology companies of Next Jump's size. Programmers are in high demand, and the Googles of the world can and will pay twice the going salary to get them.

Eighteen months ago, however, Next Jump managed to decrease its turnover to 1 percent. Like, nobody is leaving. What's even crazier? 5,000 engineers now apply to work there every year.

The key, says Founder and CEO Charlie Kim, was in the implementation of a specific formula, a motto written on the Next Jump walls that reads:

"Better Me + Better You = Better Us"

A number of studies have shown that even in today's recovering economy, money is not the number one factor in job satisfaction, just like food and shelter are not at the pinnacle of Maslow's pyramid. And yet many companies treat hiring as if it's a salary auction. Next Jump's secret, it turns out, is in focusing on their employee's need to self-actualize—in giving them a higher purpose.

21st century companies are practically required to spout rubbish about "corporate responsibility" to offset public skepticism of big business. Many companies slap "green" stickers on a few things and call it good, but says John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, "Most corporations don't have an authentic purpose. They hire consultants to craft something that sounds good."

Earlier this year, Mackey released the book Conscious Capitalism to argue the economic merits of higher-purpose business. "Conscious businesses, paradoxically by not making profit their highest goal, win in the marketplace," he said at a recent dinner I attended. "Profits come as a result of the value you create."

This is a long-term view of business success, and has caught on to the point of buzzwords and conferences. It's the infusing of nonprofit ideals into for-profit models, or what Pencils of Promise founder Adam Braun calls "for purpose" business.

Charlie Kim believes this idea ought to be taken further, not just implemented on a corporate "let's reduce our carbon footprint" level, but injected into the bloodstream of the actual job requirements of each department, turning charitable service into a hands-on habit.

On a practical level, that means two things:

Recognizing People For Helping Others Internally

"When someone is looking after your back, it's very difficult to leave," Kim says. This truism manifests itself in a regular award at Next Jump: instead of Employee of the Month, they have the Most Helpful Employee, based on secret ballots from around the company.

This little incentive structure creates a culture of wanting to take care of each other. Like the caveman days, he says, you never leave a group or family that's taking care of you, and you run away from groups that don't take care of you.

"The few people that have left say that they're most fearful of not finding an environment like ours again, where people care so much about each other," Kim says. "That becomes a huge retention source."

Diane Osterholt of manufacturing-tech firm Barry-Wehmiller says, "When you move your focus from 'all about me' to 'all about we,' amazing things will be realized."

Getting Employees Out Of The Office To Help Others

"Millennials are giving more sporadically and less methodically than our parents," says Simon Kirk, founder of TechiesGiveBack, whose mission is to create a culture of philanthropy in the startup world. But according to research, he points out, the rising generation tends to be generous with their time and want to "leverage their knowledge, expertise, and backgrounds to help." He notes New York startups like Foursquare that make a habit of running marathons to support inner-city youth and technology. This sense of a higher purpose and habit of giving back is how many—young people especially—are choosing who to work for.

This is where "conscious capitalism" meets corporate culture, and where innovative businesses have the opportunity to really bolster loyalty: mobilizing employees to help strangers, using their expertise. At least every quarter, Kim requires employees to form teams of two or three and pick an external project of their choice, something they can use their skills to help—whether it's writing or coding or selling. Teams present their plans to the company, then go out for a week (or sometimes more) to build websites for nonprofits and provide support for causes, such as one employee's passion project: helping a yoga institute for underprivileged children. At the end of the project, teams present to the company what happened.

Advertising agency TracyLocke provides a solid example of this in action: The company has committed to have its employees participate in 100 service projects in 2013, to celebrate the company's 100th year in business. So far this includes providing feet-on-the-ground for women's shelters, Hurricane Sandy victims, a no-kill pet shelter, nursing homes, and a mentor program for at-risk teens. This is in addition to TracyLocke's ongoing pro-bono ad work for organizations its employees care about. "These clients not only are passion projects for our employees, but they give our talent opportunities to learn and try things in a different environment," CEO Beth Ann Kaminkow explains. "This is the ultimate in creating a virtuous cycle."

Fifteen years ago, Diane Osterholt (of Barry-Wehmiller) began organizing a voluntary internal group within her company to give back to the community during work hours. "We work hard and play hard at our company," she says. "And one of the ways we 'play hard' is partnering with organizations in our communities who support children, senior citizens, the medically challenged, and the United Way." Over the years, more and more employees began volunteering not just their work time, but extra time as well. "[It's] so gratifying to me," she says, "to see the transformation of our teammates who have 'dipped their toe' in the pool of volunteerism and have felt the ripple effect."

For tech companies that want volunteer opportunities in a box, initiatives like Give Camp lets local groups organize weekend hackathons for cause-based programming, sort of like a TEDx for coding for charity. And around the country, companies like Arkansas-based SpareTime help the volunteer-curious find service projects that get employees out of the office.

These programs not only give employees purpose, but often help them discover their own weak spots. "They come out hungry to grow," Kim says. "That is an amazing intrinsic motivator."

A company might simply throw money at a nonprofit cause and effect the same amount of change for the organization. But by helping employees to get their hands dirty with good causes, a company can develop a startling amount of loyalty. And for Next Jump, at least, the numbers speak for themselves.

"When you're constantly growing you're feeling happy," Kim says. "If you're helping others, you get the highest level of fulfillment and happiness and purpose in your life. When those two things happen, the rest takes care of itself."

[Image: Flickr user Francesco Rachello]

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  • Josh Thomas

    Gallup had a study that came out last year or two years ago that showed passionate employees were most likely to stay with a company - especially for companies that have a hard time retaining talent, if you give them a product or company to be passionate about, I would imagine those people might be more interested in staying. 

    Notre Dame even visualized this study and compared it to the cost of retaining that talent - it's impressive to see the correlations. (Here is the study if you're interested Infographic Employee Passion and Retention )