I don’t trust trends. Trends start from good ideas, but too often when they hit the mainstream the original idea has gotten lost or transmogrified in a blizzard of buzzwords and bullet points. This is bound to happen in a world managed by sound bytes and elevator speeches. And if you’re not careful, you could follow a hot trend that actually leads nowhere, or in circles.
A few years ago, for example, the big idea was to align a company’s corporate philanthropy with its business goals. This is actually a great idea that’s not terribly new. (Harvard Business Review wrote about this in 1994, the year Netscape was founded.) And these days, you can’t walk through a CSR conference without hearing the phrase “creating shared value” every ten feet. Again, another great idea which is not terribly new. Remember the phrase “enlightened self-interest”?
Don’t get me wrong; I think these are both great ideas that help define a healthy relationship between corporations and the community. But when managers cling to these trends, they forget one critical business goal: employee engagement.
Ask any top manager what their company’s most important asset is. My guess is nine times out of ten they’ll answer, “Our employees.” Then ask them how their corporate philanthropy aligns with their business goals, and I bet that zero times out of ten you’ll hear “engaging our employees” as a key business goal.
And yet these managers sincerely care about their employees; they know that high engagement levels result in gains in recruitment, retention, productivity, and, ultimately, a more effective and profitable company. The problem is that when they think of community involvement, they think of their workforce as a resource to be leveraged. But properly designed and executed programs can achieve community and business objectives, create shared value, and drive up employee engagement.
Why is this important? Some of the things we’ve learned in our research and I’ve blogged about in the past answer that question:
- Employees who volunteer are more engaged than employees who don’t.
- It doesn’t matter how many hours the employee volunteers; the act of being involved is what raises engagement scores.
- Employees who donate are more engaged than employees who don’t.
- Employees love “the ability to choose any nonprofit” in workplace giving campaigns.
- The amount donated and method of donation don’t matter; the act of donating is what raises engagement scores.
If engaging employees is a critical business goal (and it should be), then these and other factors point to creating a culture that encourages employees to be involved in whatever way is best for them. We should be making it easy for them to get involved through a broad range of activities and donation opportunities. Unlimited choice, served just the way employees want it.
And that’s another good idea that has threatened to become a trend of its own. I read a blog post the other day that listed five ways to engage Millennials. The core message was solid, but I could feel the over-exuberance of a nascent trend. I expect to see many other blog posts and articles breathlessly proclaiming these new approaches (which really aren’t all that new).
So, beware the trends. Such unlimited choice can also miss the mark because our research has also shown a few other things:
- Employees who volunteer in a company-sponsored event are more engaged than employees who just volunteer on their own time.
- Company-sponsored volunteer events yield the greatest engagement bumps in questions related to feeling connected with coworkers and feeling that one’s job is meaningful.
So it’s important that we offer a broad range of choices to employees to keep them engaged, but does doing so conflict with the idea of focusing on business goals and creating shared value?
First, ask employees to get involved in whatever cause moves them, then recognize all their good work, whether it aligns with business objectives or not. Encourage them to be proud of their involvement because it really does matter.
Second, give employees opportunities to sign up for volunteer events that align with the company’s work or which can create the shared value the company is aiming for. Invite employees to donate to the nonprofits, causes, and programs the company supports, but don’t limit their options to only those.
It’s a balancing act, like many aspects of running a business today. Emphasize choice too much, and you miss an opportunity to leverage your employees in creating shared value. Limit choice too much, and you miss an opportunity to leverage your philanthropic activities in boosting employee engagement.
I hope you’ll join me and other CSR professionals for the Charities @Work conference in April in New York to discuss how we can continue to create shared value while engaging employees and aligning with our business goals. And how to engage those darned Millennials, too.