insight magazine

Why a Volunteer Culture Matters

There’s much to gain for businesses that decide to be upstanding corporate citizens. By ERIC SCOTT | Winter 2018

Give-800

In the same way Hollywood “feel-good” movies cheer us up, and how supporting socially conscious companies makes us feel like we’re making a difference, more accounting firms and corporations are stepping up their “good neighbor” efforts to perk up the people they employ and communities they serve. Don’t believe it? Consider the Illinois CPA Society’s annual CPA Day of Service, which was held on Sept. 28, saw a record number of nearly 1,500 accounting and financial professionals across the state step away from their keyboards for a day to give back in some way.

Indeed, there’s no shortage of positive vibes when businesses support work-related volunteerism and encourage their employees to contribute time — and maybe a little elbow grease — to give back to the communities they serve. But is there more of a bottom-line focused component when considering company-backed volunteer programs? Are more businesses realizing they stand to gain more in terms of staff morale and reputation enhancement, and maybe even a competitive edge, by being upstanding corporate citizens?

“It has brought us together,” says Amanda Ehret, marketer and volunteer coordinator at CPA firm Mowery & Schoenfeld LLC (M&S) in Lincolnshire, Ill., noting the firm’s launch of a formal volunteer program has produced a noticeable change among staff.

“Those in our tax and audit departments sit in their cubbies and don’t always get a great chance to talk; we saw people who usually don’t work together get together on projects, talk in hallways, go to lunch. It brought us together as a group and it’s been bringing the firm together,” Ehret says encouragingly.

Marcy Steindler, CPA, principal at Mann Weitz & Associates (MW&A), a mid-sized firm of about 30 staffers in Deerfield, Ill., echoes Ehret, noting that her firm’s volunteerism efforts not only bring staff together to support good causes but also goes a step further in encouraging shy-types to become more engaged.

“It brings out people who are usually quiet but have a passion for this,” Steindler says. “It’s nice to see a different group of people come up to the plate. It also makes all our departments act as one firm.”

For the Illinois CPA Society’s CPA Day of Service, MW&A’s office manager and volunteer activity coordinator Heather O’Brien led a team of colleagues at Habitat for Humanity’s Lake County ReStore in organizing tiles and other building materials which will be used for home building and improvement projects.

WHAT’S RIGHT FOR RECRUITMENT


Organizations that have fully embraced staff volunteerism are finding that giving back isn’t only appealing to current employees — it’s also attractive to potential recruits who, in a robust labor market, are increasingly critical of the companies they go to work for.

“We use photos from our volunteer efforts at our campus recruitment events — it’s one of the first things that we get asked by recruits and students on campus,” Ehret says. “You can tell it’s really important to them.”

M&S goes a step further in linking volunteerism with its recruitment efforts: “Anyone who has accepted an offer gets invited to our volunteer events before they officially start at the firm. It’s awesome because they know their colleagues before they even walk in for their first day,” Ehret says.

And while an organization’s volunteerism efforts might be attractive to prospective employees, it turns out they’re also attractive to prospective clients. “We often go on proposals to get business and make sure potential clients know what we do,” Steindler explains, pointing out that MW&A has many not-for-profits in its client portfolio, so making it known the firm values volunteering in surrounding communities is an important step during new business meetings.

WHAT’S RIGHT FOR BUSINESS


Some questions are bound to come up when businesses decide to adopt a culture of volunteerism: Which organizations should we support? How much time should we devote to volunteering? Who decides what we do? At many organizations, those questions fall on a volunteer committee.

“It does take time to schedule and sign up for events, track down sponsorships, organize drives, and budget for everything. Having our M&S Cares committee really helps. One person plans drives, one person plans sponsorships, and one person handles scheduling. We meet once a month and make sure our efforts are on track,” Ehret explains.

As will need to be the case for most accounting firms, M&S balances time devoted to volunteering with busy season and filing deadline demands.

“We’re aggressive in the summer. We go in groups of four, twice a week, every week in the summer,” Ehret says of the volunteer schedule at M&S. “We really experimented with spreading out activities with an overall staff goal of 400 volunteer hours.” For this year’s CPA Day of Service, Ehret coordinated a volunteer team at Twice as Nice Mother and Child, an organization in Lake County that serves as a diaper bank and provides other basic children’s needs to families in crisis. “We pick a theme, so we won’t be spread too thin,” Ehret explains.

In similar fashion, MW&A also schedules volunteer efforts in advance and gets ideas on organizations to support from its staff. “We poll our partners about which of our clients need a personal touch — who we could support by showing some love and giving our time. Then I start contacting them to see what we can do to help in our window of time,” O’Brien says.

WHAT’S RIGHT FOR EVERYONE


The noble aspects of volunteerism haven’t changed. The fulfillment of knowing that a few hours of volunteer service really make a positive impact on the future of an individual, a family, a community, or the planet, is a huge reward. What has changed — or at least what has become more obvious — is that the positive aspects volunteerism brings to individuals and communities can be realized by businesses as well. Improved morale among staff, an enhanced reputation among customers and clients, a meaningful tool for recruiting and onboarding talent and clients. These are just a few of the business benefits that stem from embracing a culture of giving back. With all those positive factors in play, more businesses should be climbing on the volunteer bandwagon to do more in their communities.

It doesn’t matter if a large company has hundreds of willing volunteers or if a small firm has just a few dedicated staffers — the numbers of people and hours involved don’t equate to the thoughts and efforts being any more or less meaningful. Business leaders who don’t take volunteering seriously or believe staff time should only be spent on things that matter directly to the bottom line should take a deep look at the cultures they’re fostering, the sustainability of their organizations, and the legacies they want to leave behind. There’s no doubt that embracing a volunteer culture can be profitable — in more ways than one. Just ask the 1,500 Illinois CPA Society members who took the time to give back during the CPA Day of Service.