Courtesy of Zumasys
By Ed Frauenheim and Sarah Lewis-Kulin
April 26, 2016

Evidence of corporate giving is hard to miss, whether it’s a billboard nailed to a Little League dugout, a foundation’s logo on a ballet program or a sponsor shout-out in the credits of a public broadcast. Yet few businesses make full use of their community connections as a way inspire employees. Research into the newly released 50 Best Workplaces for Giving Back—a list produced by our organization Great Place to Work and published by Fortune—reveals that employee empowerment is key to getting a full “return” on community involvement. By letting employees guide charitable efforts, the winning companies create high levels of commitment and pride among their teams.

“When employees are actively involved in giving back it can lead to a deeper commitment and connection to the work,” says Elizabeth Stocker, a consultant here at Great Place to Work. “It doesn’t surprise me that the sentiment was much higher when people are actually involved in the work, rather than a corporate donation being made.”

Our examination of thousands of employee surveys found that people at the best workplaces were more than four times more likely to talk about their businesses’ charitable endeavors, compared to employees at peer companies certified by Great Place to Work. At the same time, analysis of co-workers’ anonymous feedback also shows that the ways a company gives back can have as much of an impact in the workplace as the amount donated. In fact, many of the 500-plus organizations considered for the list give generously on a per-employee basis. Yet when people are asked about the traits of their workplace they value most, charitable efforts stand out at only a fraction of these companies.

Cloud computer services firm Zumasys illustrates the importance of employee involvement in community involvement. With only 63 employees, this provider of cloud computing services might not seem like a powerhouse of corporate giving. But it shines in the eyes of its workforce for donating one percent of its revenue annually to a diverse range of charities nominated by colleagues. Some of that money even benefits employees’ personal friends and family members facing financial crises, making the program all the more personal.

Zumasys also matches team-member donations and supports those who volunteer at organizations receiving company funds. These types of practices are common across the 50 Best Workplaces for Giving Back: Compared to their peers, they were more than twice as likely to offer paid time off for volunteering, while they donate three times more on a per-employee basis to programs that match individual giving.

One intriguing finding from our research into the 50 Best Workplaces for Giving Back is that they give to employees as well. Compared to peer companies, a greater percentage of their employees state they receive a fair share of profits, are paid fairly, and have special benefits.

That feature may help explain why the 50 Best Workplaces for Giving Back get something back from their employees in terms of commitment. Co-workers at organizations on the list say they’re more likely to stay with their employer for a long time and give extra when it’s needed to get the job done, compared to those surveyed at peer companies. In addition, more than nine in ten colleagues at the leading companies say they’re proud to tell others where they work, further enhancing their organizations’ status in the community. “These kinds of programs are cocktail party fodder,” says Great Place to Work partner Jonathan Becker. “It’s the kind of thing you can brag about.”

Becker adds that volunteer programs that take advantage of team members’ professional skills are particularly effective. Pro bono work can prove personally rewarding for employees, while at the same time it offers leadership opportunities and the chance to form connections with colleagues from different parts of the organization.

Such efforts to match charitable work with employee skills are yet another way wise organizations involve their people in community service efforts.

“Employees in general want to be empowered, and this is a great area to give them that empowerment,” Becker says.

Ed Frauenheim and Sarah Lewis-Kulin are director of research and content, and vice president of the Recognition Program, respectively, at Great Place to Work, the longtime research partner for Fortune’s annual list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For and other best workplaces lists, including the 50 Best Workplaces for Giving Back.

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