Give and you shall receive

Published 20 June 2012 21:58, Updated 20 June 2012 22:16

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Give and you shall receive

Foodbank’s John Webster relies on volunteers while offering companies a chance to get involved Jim Rice

When the chief executive of hunger relief charity Foodbank Australia, John Webster, sets out to find new donors, he knows it won’t be a matter of just take, take, take. Webster is handing companies an opportunity to help their employees feel good about their jobs.

At a time when employee engagement is often considered key to a business functioning optimally and companies seek to present themselves as good corporate citizens, a charity program can help attract talented people, keep them in the business, help them bond with their peers and perhaps put up with some of the less palatable elements of working life. Smart charities know this and work to make it easy for their corporate donors to give.

“Working with a charity … having the opportunity to give back to society is actually worth quite a bit to the companies these days,” Webster says. “We do highlight the fact that there are advantages to them and they are around the issues of staff engagement but equally the other advantage is we provide them with the opportunity to help.”

Among the employers featured on this year’s Best Places to Work list, biotechnology company Amgen says its two days a year of paid charity leave – part of a broader corporate philanthropy program – is fundamental to employee engagement.

“Our people often talk about the inspiration and connectedness that these volunteering events bring to them,” Amgen Australian managing director Ian Thompson says.

“The volunteer program is repeatedly cited as one of the key features of Amgen that makes our people proud … We know it makes a difference to our people because they keep telling us it does and, most importantly, they keep volunteering.”

In the past two years, every eligible member of Amgen’s staff has taken their two-day charity leave, underscoring how important they consider it, Thompson says.

Other businesses are finding the same thing. Last year, professional services outfit PwC asked its staff in Australia if the company’s foundation – which aims to help communities where employees live and work – and its corporate responsibility activities were a factor in their decision to stay with the firm. Of those that responded, 66 per cent said it was a consideration, with almost 20 per cent saying it was either the predominant factor or a significant one.

“That was the first time we’ve seen any real evidence in a quantitative fashion … that our corporate responsibility commitments and behaviour actually makes a difference around retention, not just attraction and engagement generally,” PwC partner Mark Reading says.

PwC’s findings chime with those of research consultancy Buyology Lab principal Carolyn Reid, who has worked on behalf of The Australian Charities Fund researching workplace giving. In her research, more than 60 per cent of employees polled agreed that “my organisation’s program enhances employee motivation”, with only 10 per cent disagreeing. Both through interviews and quantitative research she found people who volunteer or give through their workplace “had greater pride in their organisation”.

It makes sense for companies to capitalise on this connection. “Some large employers, likely spending six or seven figures on employee recruitment, see corporate and employee community engagement as an opportunity to attract and retain talent,” Reid says. “A potential benefit is reduced employment costs.”

A charity program also helps set the tone for a company’s relationship with its staff, University of Sydney Business School Workplace Research Centre research fellow Mike Rafferty says. This may be particularly relevant during times of economic uncertainty and amid an ongoing trend of jobs becoming less secure and work looming larger in peoples’ personal lives.

“Human resource management is not just about process and procedures, it’s … about the narrative you want to establish with staff,” Rafferty says. “These [charity] activities are a company’s way of telling staff they care about communities and want to help soften the stories of precariousness, the greater intensity of work and the growing amount of unpaid hours we do.

“We know that the boundaries between work and home life are blurring and this is a way of companies providing one way of making that seem natural.”

Reid also found that some employees worried that volunteering was replacing training and development.

But with many companies keen to emphasise the positive experiences their staff get out of volunteering and giving, charities are reaping the benefits.

Foodbank works by taking food surplus to companies’ requirements and providing it to more than 2500 groups and charities which give it to those in need. The charity also works with industry to provide staple foods such as breakfast cereals, pasta and milk.

It couldn’t function without volunteers. As well as giving many of the 30,000 days of volunteering a year Foodbank needs, its more than 700 corporate donors, a who’s who of the food industry and beyond, provide food with a retail value of $170 million a year.

“The benefit in Foodbank is that every day we have a set of activities that we know we need staff for, so we don’t have to invent jobs and we know food’s going to be coming in and we know it needs to be handled, we know it needs to be picked and packed into orders for welfare agencies,” Webster says

Global food giant Kraft Foods, a Foodbank donor, says its work with the charity is doubly beneficial. “While our primary objective is to make a difference in the community, there is no doubt that ‘doing good’ is also good for business,” Kraft Foods Australia/New Zealand head of corporate social responsibility, Melissa Le Mesurier, says.

“Our wide range of community activities increases employee engagement and this not only helps retain valued employees but also attract top talent.”

Kraft also uses volunteering to help foster staff relationships. Staff that volunteer together “get the opportunity to get to know each other better and build team relationships outside the workplace environment,” Le Mesurier says.

Foodbank makes it easy for companies to give, providing them with its Partnership Cookbook – an implementation manual that shows how a company can contribute, for instance by showing them how to create a staff giving program.

“It’s about all the different ways any company, whether a food donor or not, can support Foodbank,” Webster says.

And in turn, it appears, it’s also all about the ways in which charity can help businesses become better places to work.

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