Instead of reviewing emails and my to-do list, my day began at St Kilda beach. It was 9am and the sun warmed my skin as I looked out to see four dolphins swimming close to the shore. Before starting any work, I was already happy with my decision to volunteer.
In the sixteen years of my professional life, I’ve almost always taken my annual volunteer day. I’ve counted koalas, contributed to a marketing strategy, planted hundreds of trees, taught at disadvantaged schools, worked in a number of soup kitchens, sorted Christmas presents and paved a courtyard. Today I was excited to ‘Pamper the Penguins’ by regenerating their habitat, the St Kilda breakwater.
Each volunteer day has been meaningful and memorable.
Each day has also been crucial in forging a stronger connection between myself and my employer. Why? Because it reinforces that our values align. I believe that it’s critical to give back to the community. To learn, to get outside my comfort zone, to connect with others. And my employer does too. So much so that they pay me to go and do it!
Volunteering is a very small investment for a great reward. Offering a volunteering day benefits employees and employers in three critical ways;
Connections enhance teamwork and build empathy.
Teams who volunteer together feel more connected by sharing experiences outside the office. They collaborate on new tasks on an equal footing where the lack of hierarchy and relaxed atmosphere facilitate getting to know each other better.
Today I heard stories about the homeland of my colleague and his trips to the mountains of Pakistan. I spoke to another colleague about her volunteering work rescuing lambs for an animal shelter, and how she’s driven, lambs bleeting in the back seat, for over three hours. They had to wear nappies.
Of course we spoke a lot about work; project timelines, action items and status updates were peppered throughout the day. But in between was the gold. Robust discussion about issues such as marriage, feminism and equality. It’s these things that give me a better insight into the values of my colleagues, their family histories, and what motivates them. This knowledge will serve me well, long after current projects are delivered.
Learning is important. Even if it’s not related to my job.
Today I learnt that there are 1300 Little Penguins (formerly known as Fairy Penguins) who call the St Kilda breakwater home. They’re indigenous to Australia and New Zealand and nest in between the rocks where they lay their eggs and raise chicks. Penguins love anchovies, smell a bit, and although most are monogamous for a single breeding season, about 10% cheat.
None of this information is relevant to my day job. But the opportunity to learn new things is something I value, but don’t always make time for in my busy life. For my employer to support me to learn things that broaden my awareness of the world and the community in which we operate, is valuable to me and strengthens my commitment and engagement back in the office.
Doing good feels good. And that emotion is tethered to my employer.
Although a core human desire is to help others, it’s not often facilitated by our work. Some businesses genuinely help people, while other companies sometimes retrofit an element of ‘doing good’ into their business purpose. I understand that it’s important to make employees feel like they’re contributing to a broader community need, rather than just shareholder returns, even if the latter is often the case. Volunteering can be even more valuable in offering the sometimes elusive feeling of genuinely ‘doing good’. It reinforces the value of this emotion for both employees and employers when volunteering takes place on company time.
Giving back to those in need is possibly more important now than ever before.
A global leadership vacuum requires companies to step up and fill the void left by governments, as well as responding to environmental disasters and global tragedies. If this is not incentive enough for CEOs to mandate a broader CSR program, it will be demanded from the bottom up by employees who increasingly want the blessing of their employer to give back to the community in a way that’s personally meaningful.
Volunteering cultivates positive emotions and provides an opportunity to learn and create connections. When done on company time, the business not only validates the value of volunteering and its associated benefits, it forges stronger engagement amongst staff. And that’s a win win, commercially and for the community.