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How to create a company culture of charitable giving

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Companies that encourage employees to find on-the-job charitable fulfillment can benefit in both material and in deeper, intangible ways, whether it’s by boosting employee morale, making an impact in their local communities or attracting job candidates that share their charitable values.

Still, it takes more than writing a big check or sponsoring an annual event to create a lasting culture of charitable building. How can your company get there?

Lead by example

As with any cultural shift, initiating a charitable culture begins at the top. According to a 2015 study by Alignable, a social network for small businesses, 95 percent of small business owners planned to make charitable donations in the coming year in the form of cash, goods or services, or time. And there’s no way to set a better example for your employees.

Cultural anthropologist Susan Smith Kuczmarski, an instructor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, focuses on value-based leadership. Culture reflects a company’s core values, and that starts with how executives treat staff, she says.

“If your people don’t see their leaders practicing generosity, it’s less likely to be extended by them,” says Kuczmarski, who co-authored “Apples Are Square: Thinking Differently About Leadership” with her husband, Thomas.

In other words, your people follow your example.

Kuczmarski suggest leaders practice compassion with employees, starting with what she calls “descriptive praise.”

“Don’t say, ‘You did a terrific job on your presentation,’” she says. “Instead, say ‘You did a terrific job. You were creative; you made the material understandable and used great audio visuals.’”

This type of praise sounds more sincere, thought out and heartfelt.

When employees see generosity in practice internally, they’ll be much more receptive to your message when you make civic-mindedness a core value.

Get specific

Many employees don’t get involved in helping others simply because they don’t know how, says James Wright, co-founder of IT staffing firm Bridge Technical Talent, headquartered in Rhode Island.

“Early on, I came on too strong, and it wasn’t productive,” he says of his first efforts to shape his company’s culture.

He started by encouraging his people to make paycheck donations, with a company match, but that didn’t trigger much activity. Wright and his business partner also instituted one charitable time-off (CTO) day per month, but that didn’t garner results, either.

“Nobody has used all 12 days, and in fact, I was thinking about knocking it back to six days a year,” he says.

That’s when he realized he’d been pushing too hard and was not providing enough specific direction.

“I had to lower the temperature on it,” says Wright, who quickly saw the benefit of providing more specifics and educating employees about how they could give back, instead of being overbearing.

Make giving fun

If altruism doesn’t come naturally to employees, creatively raise the stakes. A charity bowl-a-than was one of Wright’s most successful calls to action for giving back, with about 80 percent participation, he says.

People crave competition and the ability to work toward a shared goal while benefitting others.

“We’ve found that you can structure employee challenges in ways that increase mindfulness of social causes,” says Bryan Van Noy, co-founder and president of Sonic Boom Wellness, which organizes customized wellness programs for companies.

In one challenge, competing teams of employees wear activity-tracking devices that record calories burned by running, biking, swimming and other activities. Through the months-long challenge, winning teams are rewarded with prizes.

“We found we could increase participation levels, team cohesiveness and morale when the company made charitable donations on behalf of winning teams, in addition to personal prizes,” says Van Noy.

One Fortune 500 bank garnered a 60 percent participation rate among eligible employees using this giving model. And Van Noy hopes to increase those numbers.

“For our next challenge, rather than giving tangible prizes to winning teams, we’re going to let them choose their own charity and donate to it in their names,” Van Noy says.

Understand resistance

All people are not all equally altruistic.

“I was fortunate in that my parents educated me to give back, but a lot of people don’t even know what to do,” says Wright.

That’s why he was surprised at how difficult it was to instill that same spirit among his staff. But he came to realize that his business model contributed to the resistance. The bulk of employees at Bridge Technical Talent are commissioned recruiters, so when they take time off work, they’re not making much money. That made donating time understandably challenging.

The realization helped Wright better understand that it was actually something of a victory when he got one to three members of his 10-member local team to participate in a food or coat drive. With a better understanding of the situation of his staff, he’s scaled back his expectations and found satisfaction in smaller victories.

If you feel your employees are disconnected from your giving initiatives, try thinking locally. Look for opportunities to give back in the cities and communities where you do business, which can make people feel more connected to the cause.

For example, through its Culture of Good program, TCC, the nation’s largest Verizon Premium wireless retailer, gives back to each of the 800 communities it serves. It has donated school supplies to 3,500 teachers and given more than a quarter-million backpacks of supplies to kids in need.

In response to that and other charitable endeavors, TCC garnered the following feedback from an employee survey.

  • 92 percent said the company’s Culture of Good gave them a sense of fulfillment at work.
  • 91 percent felt that TCC’s parent company shared their values for social responsibility.
  • 84 percent thought the program helped build better communication skills among employees and stronger team bonds in the workplace.
  • 67 percent said their retail stores had gained new customers as a result of charitable outreach.

To create a charitable culture in your workplace, figure out what your employees care about most. Ask them for suggestions about how they would like to give back personally or through the company, which will help you customize events, activities and opportunities to suit their interests and overcome obstacles.

Let the culture grow gradually and organically

A culture of giving won’t happen all at once; it can’t and shouldn’t be forced. Instead, continue to show generosity while gently encouraging charitable giving in others. Provide ample opportunity to contribute, understand and accept non-involvement, make civic-mindedness fun when possible and celebrate every small gain.

As Wright says, “When they do participate, they’ll see how rewarding it can be. Involvement introduces your employees to new people and gets them out of their comfort zone.”