How volunteering can benefit company strategy

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Yoann Kassi-Viver

“Without social justice there will be no economy.” These were the recent words of wisdom from Danone’s Chairman and CEO to the graduating students of HEC, a top French business school. His comments, which quickly went viral, are backed up by the numbers: corporate philanthropy has seen a record 25% increase in France in the last two years (Admical/CSA 2016 survey). Yoann Kassi-Viver, co-founder of Pro Bono Lab, takes a look at what companies can gain from volunteer programmes.

An answer to the quest for corporate meaning

Yoann says that employee engagement is on the rise, and he should know as co-founder of Pro Bono Lab, an organisation that gets people involved in community projects supported by their employers and aligned with business goals. “’Pro bono’”, he explains, “comes from the Latin ‘pro bono publico’, or ‘for the public good’. It means volunteering your professional skills for the public good, either during or outside work time”. The trend towards greater engagement is in evidence at every corporate level; Pro Bono Lab works closely with managers and rising stars in groups such as Renault, Allianz and Eurogroup.

Says Yoann: “Just a few years ago, corporate philanthropy programmes essentially boiled down to providing money. Businesses have learned that they stand to gain by working differently with non-profits to give purpose to their own activities. At the same time, they are opening up these new partnership approaches to as many stakeholders as possible”.

Prime “stakeholders” include the newest arrivals on the labour force, who are hungry for these types of programmes. “A recent graduate from an elite school who has had volunteering experiences during his studies is going to feel frustrated if he enters the world of work and finds he no longer has any time to volunteer. Faced with a choice between a company that offers him opportunities to do his bit, find meaning in his work and showcase his skills, versus one that doesn’t, he’ll probably choose the first one”, says Yoann.

But newcomers do not have the monopoly on making a difference. Yoann points out that companies are paying close attention to employees transitioning to new positions or nearing the end of their careers. “Giving employees the chance to support worthy projects during a quiet work spell is a clever and constructive way to fire them up again and harness their abilities. For people at the end of their working life, it is a good way to ease into retirement, and of course employees are free to go on volunteering once they have left their job.”

Management, strong local presence and innovation: a win-win combo

When asked about what companies gain from their dealings with non-profits, Yoann zeroes in on the managerial aspect first of all. “Bringing staff together around CSR initiatives builds company pride and sharpens skills. It forges ties between employees and gets them excited. In mid-sized and larger outfits, these initiatives allow employees who have never met to connect and discover the array of talent within their firm. It’s very inspiring,” he says.

These kinds of initiatives also support economic and social development in the surrounding area and highlight what the firm can offer the local community. “In some cases, if the local economic and social situation involves risk for the company, engaging in community projects can be a way to mitigate that risk, enabling the company to build a ‘license to operate’”, explains Yoann.

Innovation is the third ingredient in the mix. Yoann claims that the non-profit sector is a source of innovation for businesses: “Non-profits face the same challenges as businesses and have to find answers with far fewer human and financial resources”. Non-profit organisations are also adept at identifying new markets: “They are always spotting unmet social needs that need to be addressed”, says Yoann.

Redefining performance

Volunteering programmes are more subversive than first meets the eye, calling into question the very meaning of performance. Yoann firmly believes that they need to be integrated within companies’ overall strategies.

Citing “Demonstrating the Business Value of Pro Bono Service”, a study conducted in 2011 with the Taproot Foundation in the USA and supported by L’Oréal, HEC Paris and Société Générale, he stresses what he sees as the key take-home point, namely the shift in corporate philanthropy away from a mindset of “giving back” to one that considers “sharing value” and is aligned with key business goals.

“Corporations increasingly view CSR and corporate philanthropy as an opportunity and not a cost. Companies can develop CSR programmes that help not only end beneficiaries, but also employees, customers, partners, and local communities.” This new vision of CSR opens the way to pro bono programmes that benefit company performance by making it possible to simultaneously bring employees together, nurture their talent, improve the company’s reputation and promote innovation. It might just be the future of business.

CSR | July 2016