Life at Work

It's All in a Day's Volunteer Effort

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 19, 2006

Along with a matching 401(k), piano lessons on Fridays and health benefits, new employees at Forrester Research can get one paid workday a year to volunteer.

Employees at PricewaterhouseCoopers this year joined in the first company-wide day of volunteerism.

Marriott employees have geared up for a day of volunteering every May since 1999.

And International Business Machines Corp. has a new Web site for its employees to track their volunteering hours and highlight new opportunities to help.

Gone are the days of every company being run by Ebenezer Scrooge. Today many employees are surprised if their companies don't offer time off to volunteer or have a community day on which workers don company T-shirts and go out to build houses, clean parks or paint schools. Not only do companies realize that large volunteer efforts make the organization look good in the community, but the snappy term "corporate citizenship" also boosts recruiting of top employees in a tight market.

Volunteerism is growing in importance to Americans. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the 2004 tsunami in South Asia, and Hurricane Katrina created new waves of people who wanted to help make the world better.

A report called "Volunteering in America," by the Corporation for National and Community Service, shows that 65.4 million Americans, or 28.8 percent, volunteered in 2005, an increase from 2002 of close to 6 million volunteers. Women who work volunteer at a higher rate (36.1 percent) than women who do not work (27.2 percent). People ages 35 to 44 were the most likely to volunteer, and women were more likely than men.

The number of college volunteers has grown 20 percent over the last two to three years, according to Siobhan Dugan, public affairs specialist at the nonprofit, federally chartered corporation.

"The corporate world may be starting to put greater emphasis on volunteering among employees because of the service movement for young people," Dugan said. "Through school and throughout college, volunteer rates are increasing. So as they graduate and get into the business world, corporations are looking at that as a quality-of-work issue."

Forrester Research Inc., an 800-person technology and market research company based in Cambridge, Mass., started to offer a day off to volunteer in 1999. There was a sense that Forrester's employees were volunteering more and wanted company support.

"We didn't really start it for recruiting reasons. But I think employees are looking for organizations that reflect their values," said Tim Riley, chief people officer. "This is one way we can at least signal to prospective employees the culture here."

Employees are often an impetus for companies to start large volunteer programs. Many firms say they want to give back to their community. And if enough employees show an interest in helping local schools or doing other work that needs to be done during a regular workday, a company may consider a program that benefits all employees.

The 2004 tsunami spurred action from employees at PricewaterhouseCoopers, where employees were given $500 bonuses at the end of the year. A large number of employees wrote to the chairman and said they wanted the funds to go to tsunami relief instead. When Katrina hit, the same thing happened, said Tammy Morreale, a PricewaterhouseCoopers director of human resources and the leader of recent volunteer efforts. "The senior partner was getting so many more communications about what we as a firm could do, we just started to think about what we could do on a firmwide level."

This year, PricewaterhouseCoopers had its first Month of Community, in June, allowing its employees to join in volunteer efforts near their offices.

About half of the 29,000 employees took part, with 500 PWC staff in the Washington area exchanging suits for T-shirts as they cleaned Anacostia Park and its riverfront during a paid workday.

"We believe very strongly as a firm in giving back to the community," said Fernando Murias, managing partner for the Washington region. "And we heard loud and clear from our employees that they want an avenue to do this."

The volunteer effort is all, well, voluntary. And although there may have been some skeptics in the crowd, many have been won over.

PricewaterhouseCoopers decided on a coordinated effort because it would have more impact and cause less disruption to clients if the company planned ahead and knew when everyone would volunteer. And volunteering can create camaraderie, boost pride in the company and help with team-building and leadership.

IBM found it had so many volunteers that it created a Web site to provide employees with information on opportunities to donate their time. More than 1,200 of the 6,000 Washington-area IBM employees registered last year on the site, where they can track volunteer hours. Employees logged more than 37,000 hours altogether.

If employees put in at least 40 hours a year at an organization, they can apply for a grant on its behalf, using information they can find on the volunteer Web site. So far in 2006, IBM has awarded 35 Community Grants valued at $65,000 in the Washington area.

Nicole Hargrove started volunteering with other IBM employees almost as soon as she started work there in 1997. She has created Thanksgiving baskets, read to kindergartners, tutored junior high school students and most recently joined the IBM Speakers Bureau, through which she talks to students of various ages throughout Maryland about the importance of staying in school.

When Hargrove, now a senior IT specialist in IBM's software group, was in high school, a volunteer talked to her about taking business classes and accounting and "just inspired me to go for that when I went to college," she said. "That made a difference to me and shaped some of the ways I think now."

Hargrove, who works full time from her District Heights home, can take time in the middle of the day to volunteer. She usually makes up the hours later in the evening or during the week. And for her, it's worth it:

"We're all out here in this world trying to make our small little difference, hoping it will have a massive impact on the next generation."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company