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Volunteer programs aid work, community

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by Peta G. Penson

for the Business Journal

It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to perk up your employees is to give them more work to do and ask them to do it on their own time to boot!

With the modern focus on extracting meaning out of our work lives, companies are learning that employees who participate in community volunteer programs benefit as much as the neighborhood projects and nonprofit agencies they help.

They return to the workplace full of new energy and ideas, and have a better sense of balance in their lives. Productivity at work can spike after a weekend spent clearing a trail, tutoring a child, painting a homeless shelter or hammering a new roof on a senior center.

We can all take a lesson from big, successful companies.

"It's a great way for people to get to know one another," said Michelle Mann, public affairs manager for Intel in Santa Clara, Calif. "We're a big company and very busy, and we have a lot of people joining Intel or relocating from other sites every month. Community volunteer projects give us the opportunity to connect on a personal level while enhancing Intel as a community asset."

In fact, Intel now suggests that departments take on a community project for one or more of their quarterly meetings, which are half-days every three months where a team spends time together off-site.

A community volunteer program offers many benefits to the company:

?Employees develop new professional skills everything from event management, meeting leadership and budgeting to public speaking, desktop publishing and improved writing.

Employees take risks like trying new tasks in a comfortable, volunteer setting where they are praised and appreciated as much for their effort as for the result.

?Employees feel proud to be affiliated with an organization that shows concern and commitment for the community. In an era when companies fiercely compete for the best and brightest employees, an employee volunteer program demonstrates corporate values more clearly than pretty words on paper.

?Employees experience a deeper camaraderie that improves their interpersonal communication and teamwork effectiveness.

Community volunteer programs do not have to be time intensive, nor do they have to infringe on workplace hours. There are dozens of ways for a manager to start a program without a big investment of time or dollars.

1. Contact the United Way or other local volunteer agencies for a list of specific volunteer needs from nearby nonprofits. Post these in the break room and put them online where employees will have easy access to them.

2. Organize a volunteer team and challenge another organization to a contest who can collect the most food donations, repair the most bicycles or pull the most weeds.

3. Schedule time away from the office for team building and use it for a volunteer project. It can be fun to spend an afternoon at a baseball game or racing go-carts, but employees can have just as much enjoyment replanting a community garden or wiring a school for Internet access, with the extra benefit of feeling good about themselves and the company.

4. Recognize employees who give of their time and talents to the community. Intel, for example, has a volunteer matching grant program that donates cash to schools based on the number of volunteer hours donated by employees.

If cash flow is a problem, certificates of appreciation and a simple awards ceremony also are effective in acknowledging the contribution of employees to the quality of life of the community where they live and work.

5. Keep track of the volunteer hours donated by employees and be proud about announcing this asset along with revenues and profits. Intel calculates that its employees in the United States donate the equivalent of 13,756 days to community betterment and it is not shy about publicizing this accomplishment inside and outside the organization.

6. Remember that employee volunteer activities can be implemented all year long, not just during the holiday season when everyone is feeling overwhelmed with personal obligations on top of busy work schedules. Take advantage of more daylight hours in the summer, people's natural longing to turn over a new leaf in the fall, or get a fresh start in the spring.

Conversations about integrating work and life into a more satisfying existence are becoming more commonplace in every size company, in every industry, in every part of the country.

Employee volunteer programs unite the desire to be more involved with the community with personal satisfaction in the workplace.

It's win-win-win for the individual, the employer and the community.

(Peta G. Penson is a senior consultant with Teams International Inc.)

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