Corporate Volunteerism in the Internet Age 

Internet PhilanthropyHow corporations are using technology to focus their philanthropic ventures.

By Peter Asmus

Ever since 9/11, the tsunami of late 2004, and Hurricane Katrina, volunteerism – particularly at corporations – has taken off in this country. But managing the volunteer process can be a drain on human and financial resources. In response, many corporations are turning to technology to increase their responsiveness, communicate corporate policies, and coordinate and track volunteer activities.

“Technology is transforming the landscape,” says Rayna Aylward, Executive Director of the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation. “The speed of communications enables us to quickly get information to and from our employees. We’ve developed an emergency response plan in which the company CEO and foundation director will evaluate the extent of the disaster, decide on the appropriate level of response, and then activate an employee network to discuss options for employee donations and volunteer efforts.” She noted that this process now often takes less than 24 hours.

According to Jason Willet, Communications Coordinator for VolunteerMatch.com, an organization that offers a variety of online services to support a community of nonprofit, volunteer and business leaders committed to civic engagement, traffic on his organization’s website doubled after 9/11 and has continued to accelerate with each subsequent disaster. “We set an all-time record of 55,000 matches between tasks and volunteers just after the tsunami,” said Willett. “We are a domestic service, so we couldn’t offer opportunities in Asia or Africa. But people still wanted to act locally in response to this powerful tragedy. These events have seemed to have a powerful impact on the psyche of the American people,” he continued. When Katrina hit here on the U.S. shores, another new record for volunteerism was set with 80,000 matches.

“Corporations, government and NGOs are expanding the bandwidth of volunteerism,” commented Kevin Martinez, Vice President of Home Depot, Inc. “Volunteer programs have become a platform to align these employee activities with our corporate mission. We discovered that we can hit a sweet spot and serve community and stockholders at the same time. Some call it ‘strategic philanthropy,’ but we at Home Depot called it ‘embedded philanthropy.’ We are in the building and re-building business, and so the goals of our volunteer efforts are often to literally transform communities,” said Martinez. Home Depot has been deeply involved with the Hands-On Network, launched two years ago with the goal of increasing corporate volunteerism by 10 percent.

New Challenges Breed a New Industry

The 2006 Deloitte/Points of Light Volunteer IMPACT Study found that 40 percent of volunteers now want to apply their professional work skills to the gigs they sign-up for, signaling a strategic shift in the way that employees are approaching calls to volunteer. The study also noted that 77 percent of nonprofit leaders believe that skilled volunteers from the private sector could significantly improve their business practices, yet only 12 percent of these non-profits put volunteers to work on these types of assignments.

“Instead of a broad, generic call to volunteerism, we rely on new software products so we can be more strategic and more focused on social outcomes, which then makes it easier to answer questions about when and how we as a company become engaged,” said Evan Hochberg, National Director of Community Involvement for Deloitte, the big consulting firm. “It is CEOs asking questions like these that fostered the creation of a company like AngelPoints, Inc., our software provider.”

He went on to note that Deloitte had 66 percent of its 34,000 employees respond to its annual volunteer “Impact Day” this past June. “We had over 500 projects in 100 cities. This year, our focus was to re-position our volunteer efforts to get the greatest impact and to focus on our core competency: our business knowledge about how to run a strong company. So, we did not just look for hands-on activities—a park clean-up —but projects that took advantage of our employees’ business knowledge,” said Hochberg.

Just what is the dollar value of these corporate volunteer activities? Conservative estimates put these investments at a value of more than $15 billion across the S&P 500 last year. “Aligning these investments with broader corporate strategies, whether geographic, demographic or product-related, and managing these investments more carefully will create far more bona-fide business value for companies than they currently create through their traditional and often unfocused and uncoordinated philanthropic programs,” claims Andy Mercy, CEO of AngelPoints, Inc., which provides software products to hard-to-please clients such as Deloitte, General Electric, Sun Microsystems and McKesson.

“Part of the answer to developing a strategic volunteer program lies in not instituting top-down driven policies—which aim to force responsibility through compliance—but rather, in a bottoms-up recognition program that encourages employees to invest themselves in the creation of authentic, socially responsible activities, programs and outcomes,” continued Mercy.

While some firms, such as Oracle and IBM, have developed their own homegrown computerized tracking and management systems, others are relying on software developers and non-profit organizations to help them build new systems. Companies such as AngelPoints, Inc., MicroEdge Inc., and recently VolunteerMatch.com, are developing customized programs that provide more sophisticated services to the corporate sector.

Case in Point: GE Reinvents its Volunteer Programs

General Electric (GE) is one example of how large corporations are re-organizing their volunteer programs with the use of new technology. The company is currently in the midst of an overhaul of a volunteer structure and organization that traces back to 1928. Formerly known as the Elfun Society, GE’s volunteer program was in many ways more of a fraternal organization than a pure volunteer program, according to Jean Collier, Manager of GE Volunteers and Executive Director of the GE Volunteer Foundation.

GE chose AngelPoints, Inc. to help it build a new system because “we [GE] needed a world-class system, and we knew they could handle the rigor and challenges. All of those competing for our business have something, it just really depends upon where you are as a company in terms of which of these competitors is the best fit.”

Among the internal issues that GE has grappled with is how best to maintain privacy of its employees in terms of the types of volunteering activities they engage in (for example, helping an abortion clinic) and definitions of what constitutes corporate volunteering versus personal volunteering (for example, being a member of a local volunteer fire department). Luckily, the Bay Area Corporate Volunteer Council has developed standards that address these issues, standards that are now being adopted nationwide to help facilitate benchmarking of corporate volunteerism between firms.

“GE is known for executing what we say we are going to do,” continued Collier. “We had the infrastructure to track activities in the past, but it often took us more time to deal with five different databases than in performing actual community services. We also had thousands of different projects in a thousand different areas. We are much more focused and streamlined now.”

Collier noted that while GE still encourages “arms and legs activities,” the company has “kicked-up our volunteer efforts to skill-based activities.” Rolled out in April of this past year, 18,000 GE employees have already signed up using the new focused software system. They hope to increase that number to 50,000 by the end of the year.

Peter Asmus (pthfind@earthlink.net) is a freelance writer based in California.

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