Help Others, Help Yourself: How Employee Volunteerism Can Build a Better Workforce

This month, a group of eight Twitter, Salesforce and Adobe employees will trek to Malawi—where nearly 10 million people live on less than $1 a day—to support CARE learning centers for adolescent girls. I’m excited for them, as many of the volunteers are about to have a life—changing experience.

Professionals in the tech industry are eager to do work that makes a difference. And that’s particularly true of millennials, who are set to become the majority of the U.S. workforce by 2020. Surveys show that millennials care about their companies’ social responsibility programs and want to play a part in effecting positive social change. Beyond contributing money, they want to utilize their skills, team with their colleagues,and work globally to make a difference.

Companies are striving to respond to these employees by implementing pro bono programs and other corporate social responsibility efforts that engage employees directly. Not only can such efforts help attract and retain employees, but studies show that they are also in their economic interest, as these programs boost employee engagement and ultimately contribute to the bottom line. (Indeed, an SAP study found that each percentage point increase in employee engagement contributed $40 million per year to operating income.)

[To learn about other ways in which businesses are doing well by doing good, see Fortune’s 2018 Change the World list.]

But how to engage employees in a way that utilizes their skills to make a significant impact is not a straightforward question. How can pro bono projects best be structured so employees deliver the capacity-building that social impact clients need, at the right time and in the right way? Just connecting the two sides can be challenging enough, let alone providing a rewarding experience for both parties.

Energized by volunteerism

This was the challenge we set out to address with Team4Tech, the nonprofit I co-founded five years ago to engage technology professionals in productive pro bono projects focused on improving the quality of education for underserved students around the world. Our approach has earned partnerships with technology companies including Adobe, Autodesk, Box, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and VMware, and collaborations with respected nonprofits like CARE, the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), and the LEAP Science and Math Schools in South Africa.

A Team4Tech volunteer from Pure Storage teaching students at Orphan Impact, a computer-based education program for children in state-run orphanages in Vietnam.Courtesy of Team4Tech
Courtesy of Team4Tech

We partner primarily with growing technology companies that want to provide rewarding engagement opportunities for their employees but need help finding the right projects and structuring the work to make it a win-win proposition. For example, we started working in 2017 with Pure Storage, one of the fastest-growing enterprise IT companies, to help its Pure Good foundation identify pro bono projects that are aligned with its focus on education and where employees can contribute their varied skillsets to make a positive contribution.

Pure Storage was also excited about the leadership development benefits that come out of immersing employees in complex team projects where they need to stretch their abilities, collaborate with a diverse set of colleagues and learn how to adapt quickly. After implementing five projects in South Africa, Vietnam and rural Alaska, Nicole Johnson, executive director of the foundation, said, “We’ve seen employees really flourish upon their return and explore new ways to give back to their communities, join employee resource groups and even expand their current roles at Pure. They come back inspired and with a sense of pride about what they accomplished.”

[Read “Why Companies That Give Back Also Receive,” on]

The key to achieving a win-win outcome is to build empathy and understanding across both sides of the engagement. Using a human-centered design methodology, we spend about 30 hours over eight weeks preparing employee volunteers (on top of their “day job”) to deliver capacity-building programs to nonprofit clients.

Long-term relationships

Volunteers spend the first several weeks getting to know the client and their challenges and opportunities. They make sure that they understand the problem statement—a concise description of the issue or problem that needs to be addressed, exactly the kind of tool many of them rely on in their day-to-day jobs. The team brainstorms possible approaches for delivering necessary skills and solutions, and they then prototype, test and iterate in collaboration with the non-profit client. This approach proves valuable during the immersive portion of the projects when volunteers must continually adapt to changing environmental factors.

By engaging in three to five-year projects with our non-profit partners, we are able to build the trust and understanding necessary to become real collaborators in their work. Our projects range from strengthening teachers’ digital literacy in South Africa to improving network access for the Yukon-Koyukuk School District in Alaska. So far, more than 40,000 students and teachers have benefitted through 45 projects in 14 countries, with over 400 employee volunteers from 28 technology company partners. Team4Tech’s goal is to reach 100,000 teachers and students by 2022.

The best part of our job is when we get to report back to our corporate partners and their volunteers about the long-term impact of their work. For example, one of our non-profit partners, Orphan Impact, is an after-school, computer-based education program for children in state-run orphanages in Vietnam. The goal is to help the children develop skills that will allow them to get good jobs when they age out of the system.

One of the program’s graduates recently applied for a factory job at a large shoe manufacturer. When he showed them his portfolio from the course, they hired him as a designer at triple the assembly-line wage.

Impact like this takes time and dedication, but it’s so rewarding when it all comes together in the right way.

Julie Clugage is the co-founder and executive director of Team4Tech.

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