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Volunteer Time Off Is the Perk Your Company Needs Now

volunteers picking up trash
Less than 30% of companies provide a volunteer time off benefit, despite the fact that companies with a culture of volunteerism have better morale, retention, and engagement. [Maskot / Getty Images]

Volunteer time off (VTO) boosts morale, retention, and employee engagement. Here we share best practices for establishing your own program.

Employees have made it loud and clear they want more than a paycheck from their jobs. Among the biggest contributors to a great employee experience, according to new Salesforce research, is a sense of purpose. Many businesses have responded by focusing more on purpose and impact on society. But there’s an often overlooked element of that new focus: paid volunteering, or volunteer time off programs. 

Less than 30% of companies surveyed by the Society of Human Resource Management provide a volunteer time off (VTO) benefit, despite the fact that companies with a culture of volunteerism have better morale, retention, employee engagement, and brand perception. 

Many companies offer employees some kind of volunteer opportunity, but it’s often a single day of volunteering or raising money for charities. 

Writing in Harvard Business Review, Beth Bengtson, CEO and founder of Working for Women, which connects businesses with nonprofits that support marginalized women, said these one-and-done efforts can deliver short-term benefits that everyone can feel good about, but “are not always in alignment with the company’s purpose and goals, and don’t deliver lasting impact for the companies, their employees, or the nonprofits.” 

Make volunteer time off a core part of employee engagement

Salesforce was founded on the principle that businesses can have great social impact. The company offers employees an above-average VTO benefit of 56 hours, or 7 business days, each year. They can use that time to volunteer for one of the nonprofits Salesforce formally supports — the company has pledged millions of dollars to support education, workforce development, and climate justice initiatives — or one of their own choosing. 

We’ve learned a lot over the years about how VTO impacts our workforce and the community. We’re happy to share our expertise and best practices here. 

Team Earth has landed

Businesses on Team Earth live their values by fixing what’s broken. Equal access, opportunities, and rights for everyone. When we all strive to be active allies, we work toward a more equal, just, and inclusive world. 

According to Jamie Olsen, senior director of Citizen Philanthropy at Salesforce, about 75% of the company’s 73,000-person global workforce participates in the VTO program, with about 25% using the whole 56-hour allotment. 

“These are the types of programs that people want and that are attracting them to companies right now,” she said. “They better the community. They improve people’s happiness. They make them feel more engaged when they are sitting at their desk.” 

New research by Gallup found that the number of workers who say they are unhappy about their work, and resentful that their needs aren’t being met, is rising. One reason: they don’t feel connected to the company’s mission or purpose. 

Conversely, companies that create aspirational workplaces foster a culture of inclusion, purpose, listening, caring and empathy. 

How to establish your own VTO program

Salesforce has donated more than $530 million and 7.3 million hours since our founding. The company might be an outlier in the resources it devotes to VTO programs — Olsen’s team, for example, has 25 people dedicated to it — but there are steps that you can take to establish your own VTO initiatives. Some tips:

Align your VTO with strategic focus areas

Build volunteer engagement programs that align with your strategic focus areas or what your business focuses on. While employees should be free to volunteer however they choose, try to steer them toward opportunities where you’re already making a financial commitment. Try to pair employees with organizations that support them. 

Focus

Think about your specific goals rather than throwing time or money at any random problem. What change do you want to affect, and where can you have the biggest impact? Formalize your goals in writing, and make sure all employees are aware of them and how they can participate. Doing so will give everyone something to rally around. 

Plan with scale in mind, but within the budget you have

Think several steps ahead, considering all the different factors that might come into play. For example, Salesforce used to award employees who hit certain VTO milestones with donations to their cause, with no cap. When that became unsustainable, we reworked the programs while still recognizing the employee’s efforts.  

Track activity

Use tools that help employees find opportunities that align with organizational initiatives. Salesforce built its own digital tool, Volunteerforce, that lets employees log their VTO hours, organize team volunteer activities, and search for opportunities by skill, project type, duration, and location. “I think a lot of companies start managing this with Excel spreadsheets, or with someone in HR managing this off to the side, but that quickly becomes unscalable and unsustainable,” said Olsen. There are several companies, including VolunteerHub and Track it Forward, that provide volunteer tracking apps. 

Incentivize employees by creating impact milestones

At Salesforce, employees who hit at least 7 milestones — repeat volunteer engagements, donating skills, joining a board, organizing a team event, etc. — are entered into a lottery for a grant to an eligible organization of their choice. That’s in addition to standard company matches to eligible organizations. 

Consider local markets

Consider how your focus areas come to life globally. For example, in the U.S., Salesforce’s workforce development initiatives target 18-to-24-year-olds. But in Japan, their target demographic skews older. “It’s important to allow your local teams to respond to local needs while still laddering up to the broader corporate story,” said Olsen.

Volunteer time off is the evolution of employee engagement

It’s easier to measure the impact of corporate giving for the recipients than it is to measure the impact of VTO on employee engagement and morale. How does Salesforce measure employee impact? Olsen’s team collects survey data to better understand how employees are inspired to connect with the community in meaningful and sustainable ways. 

“We also look at participation in our programs, and how many people are hitting each of the impact milestones,” Olsen said. “Once per quarter, employees who hit certain thresholds are entered into a lottery for a grant. This keeps them incentivized, and makes them feel recognized and valued for the different ways they’re giving.”

She said 13,500 employees have hit at least seven impact milestones. 

Over the last few years, much has been made about the importance of purpose-driven employment. Lately, quiet quitting, where workers collect a paycheck by doing the minimum and no more, has made headlines. But here’s the thing — is quiet quitting really about slacking off at work, or about employers giving employees the freedom to lead a more purposeful, fuller life outside their jobs?  

In an age when businesses are expected to engage in social issues in bigger and more visible ways, the next step is giving employees the tools, support, and time they need to do just that.  

You can build a better future

You and your business have the power to enact real change for your employees, the community, and the world. Business really is the greatest platform for change.

Lisa Lee Contributing Editor

Lisa Lee is a contributing editor at Salesforce. She has written about technology and its impact on business for more than 25 years. Prior to Salesforce, she was an award-winning journalist with Forbes.com and other publications.

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