Debbie Feit had always wanted to give back, but with two children and a career, finding time was a problem. Then her employer offered a solution: to celebrate its 40th anniversary, employees were given an opportunity to take a month-long sabbatical at the charitable organization of their choice. She jumped at the chance.
"It was a rare chance to marry what I do for a living with the life I’m living," says Feit, whose son struggled with mental health issues in the past. "He’s in a healthy place, and I welcomed the opportunity to help other families."
For 30 days, the senior copywriter at MARS, a Southfield, Michigan-based marketing agency, donated her time to the Association for Children’s Mental Health and the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, writing and editing marketing materials and creating social media calendars. She also helped the Association for Children’s Mental Health complete a grant application, which earned the organization $20,000 for a new website.
When the month was over, Feit felt refreshed and eager to share her experience with her coworkers. "MARS could have just sent money to the organization, but instead they also devoted my time to something I felt passionate about," says Feit. "I was very touched by the experience."
Volunteer sabbaticals are part of MARS’s Start Small program, a company-wide initiative to donate $1 million of agency time and funds to various charitable organizations through a variety of programs.
"We’ve always had a nice, steady drumbeat of participation in our community," says Rob Rivenburgh, MARS's COO. "The sabbaticals take it one step further and give the whole organization a chance to live vicariously through the work of our employees."
Kasia Koziatek, an account manager for MARS, spent a month in Peru, working for a governmental program aimed at providing basic services to the poorest sectors. Rivenburgh says Feit’s and Koziatek’s experiences have boosted morale, teamwork, and camaraderie. "It’s created a tighter organization," he says.
While extraordinary, MARS’s program isn’t unusual. The CECP is a coalition of CEOs that believe societal improvement is an essential measure of business performance. Each year the organization releases its Giving in Numbers report, surveying 240 Fortune 500 companies on their philanthropic activities. In 2012, 70% of the companies surveyed offered paid-release-time volunteer programs.
While the programs offer feel-good experiences for employees and employers, benefits go deeper than that.
"A highly engaged workforce is more likely to exert extra effort and have lower turnover rates, which can be linked to increased output, sales, and profitability," says Michael Stroik, manager of research and analytics for CECP.
Volunteerism also positively impacts employees’ health. According to Doing Good is Good for You: 2013 Health and Volunteering Study from UnitedHealth Group, 78% of people who volunteered in the last year reported lower stress levels, and 76% say that volunteering has made them feel healthier.
Community volunteering is very important for employees who seek a higher purpose in life and look for meaning, says Khadija Al Arkoubi, an assistant professor of management at the University of New Haven: "Companies that allow it improve their employees' engagement and well-being," he says. "They also develop their soft skills including their leadership capabilities."
The UnitedHealth Group study found that 87% of people who volunteered in the last year said that volunteering had developed teamwork and people skills, and 81% agreed that volunteering together strengthens relationships among colleagues. What’s more, four out of five employed people who volunteered in the past year say that they feel better about their employer because of the employer’s involvement in volunteer activities.
In fact, an important motivation for companies to take on these programs is millennials who are demanding these volunteer opportunities as they look for jobs, says Stroik. "They want to know the companies they work for will let them express their values while on the job," he says. "Companies know that they have to build these programs into their workplace if they are to recruit and retain the best talent available."
Rivenburgh agrees. "Our program helps us recruit the best of class," he says. "Every company should have a formalized social responsibility program; the return on investment is profound."