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Engaging Employees at the Intersection of Purpose and Philanthropy

By: Carol Cone

Can companies with mature purpose-centered businesses leverage corporate foundations and philanthropy as part of that purpose-oriented mentality? If so, how does that philanthropic element translate to recruitment, retention, employee satisfaction and productivity? The short answer is yes. The longer answer is layered.

Often, companies first want to ensure that purpose isn't confused with philanthropy, old-school CSR or more modern thinking around corporate responsibility and ESG. At the same time, more forward-looking companies align philanthropy with issues relevant to the business and build employee engagement programs that are more robust and impactful than volunteers in t-shirts 1x / year (although that can have a place).

Whether philanthropy boosts recruitment can depend on the program and how it's leveraged. Cisco Networking Academy and Amex's Travel and Tourism Academies not only bolsters the competitive context, but brand affinity. That's likely most analogous to what we're discussing. Salesforce absolutely uses its 1-1-1 model as an advantage in recruiting, in part because it exemplifies the company's ohana culture. A far smaller cohort of attention-grabbing companies like Warby Parker rely on philanthropy to advance their purpose, which they effectively use to attract talent.

The degree to which philanthropy translates to employee engagement outcomes can depend on what we mean by philanthropy and how it is implemented. Critcally, philanthropy can't come across as a "bolt on" or attempt to provide PR cover for a problematic culture or business practices. Authentic efforts can pay off: a meta-analysis from a team formerly with the US Chamber of Commerce found that aligned programs can boost employee engagement 13% and reduce churn up to 50%. Programs delivering those results have set a high bar.

The most successful companies deeply integrate philanthropy with all aspects of the employee experience. Campbell has mapped the employee journey, including giving (writ large) as one of the "moments that matter." Others incorporate giving into their EVP, which may be most effective with stand-out benefits like gameified giving (Kellogg had a fun "final 4" style competition during the pandemic), strong matching gift programs (Soros Fund Management matches up to $100,000 annually per employee, offering 3:1 matching for employees), donations for do-ers programs (Apple matches $50 per hour volunteered with a one-hour minimum). For each hour after the initial 20, Intel donates $10 to the nonprofit, with a cap of $15,000 for schools and $10,000 for other nonprofits, and above the median of 8 hours paid time off to volunteer. For example, Novo Nordisk offers 80 hours paid volunteer time. Other companies spotlight their volunteer sabbaticals or travel, such as J&J, which offers 2 weeks volunteer leave, with one week fully paid and Patagonia's conservation trips to (yes) Patagonia.

Some companies like PwC leverage volunteering as part of their leadership development programs, for example assembling teams with diverse management and financial skills to consult to nonprofits (and, sometimes vet NGOs for their corporate giving efforts) or tapping hi-po talent to lead volunteer programs. IBM Service Corps participants have served on 275 teams in nearly 40 countries, delivering $70M in market value on 1K projects since 2008. Accenture Development Partnerships embed employees with NGOs for up to six months. The Toyota Production Systems Support Center (TSSC) has partnered with Children’s Health to improve patient safety and care, reducing rates of central line-associated bloodstream infections by 75%.

Increasingly, we're seeing companies also link philanthropy and employee engagement to their DEI commitments, engaging ERNs in program activation (and, to a lesser degree, program design). Comcast NBCUniversal, for example, links its ERGs and volunteer portal. They communicate the link to their values and culture, and sustain engagement via internal communications, people manager awareness and alignment. Often, companies integrate team-building elements. One example I love, while not limited to volunteerism, comes from consulting firm Solstice, which has an extra PTO day dubbed Ferris Bueller's Day Off (FBDO) The only rule? Employees must do something epic.

PNC Financial Services is very deliberate about offering both individual and team-based volunteer opportunities as part of its nearly 20-year commitment to the cause of early childhood education through its Grow Up Great signature program. It found that employees involved with their (extremely robust) initiative were around 7x more engaged at work. These results have been echoed in other research.

A Deloitte survey found that 89% of employees think companies that sponsor volunteer activities offer a better overall working environment, 70% believe volunteer activities are more likely to boost staff morale than company-sponsored happy hours, and more than three-quarters saying volunteering is essential to employee well-being. The Macquarie Graduate School of Management (MGSM) found that 93% of employees who volunteer through their company report being happy with their employer.

Part of the impact comes through the alignment with corporate purpose and strategy. Humana's vision is to help people achieve lifelong wellbeing, which goes beyond physical health to living happily with a balanced sense of purpose. This is brought to life via Humana’s Bold Goal which was to improve the health of the communities they serve 20% by 2020 (since updated) and which includes their employee volunteer strategy -- clearly linked to a broader purpose. Companies like Biogen even link a portion of executive compensation to ESG, with employee engagement part of their KPIs.

While the above examples can drive powerful results, it does take time and real commitment.

Carol Cone, CEO of Carol Cone ON PURPOSE, pioneered the field of social purpose in the 1980s, and today is widely recognized as one of the world’s foremost social impact experts. Her work has surpassed organizational goals, garnered hundreds of awards, and raised billions of dollars for a variety of outstanding causes. Learn more at


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