Volunteering has always been viewed as good for your soul. Now it turns out that it's also good for your health and your career.
Recent research conducted by Washington, D.C.-based Corporation for National & Community Service reveals that charitable work literally makes the heart grow stronger, as reported in my book Top Talent: Keeping Performance Up When Business Is Down. Individuals with coronary artery disease who participate in volunteer activities after suffering a heart attack report a reduction in despair and depression, driving down mortality and adding years to life. It's also true that those who volunteer have fewer incidents of heart disease in the first place.
Surprisingly, you don't need to devote huge chunks of time to do-good activities to reap their health benefits. The research shows tangible positive changes by volunteering just 100 hours per year — a figure that works out to two hours a week.
In addition, volunteering can give your professional well-being a boost. Non-profits have long offered a golden opportunity to network and learn new skills in different areas, something that, in turn, will make you more valuable back in the office. The recession blew open that secret, though; according to an article in The Wall Street Journal, social enterprise organizations have been swamped with business-savvy professionals looking to burnish their resumes.
Some of the best opportunities for volunteer work that benefits your karma and your career may come from your own company. Research from the Center for Work-Life Policy shows that high-potential employees (mostly women, but also a significant percentage of men) are seriously motivated by a desire to give back to the world, and increasingly seek out employers that allow them to participate on company time. Smart employers, in turn, are linking altruism and ambition. By using community service partnerships to help valued employees fulfill their dreams and accelerate their careers, companies are betting that their A-team's enthusiasm will pay off in renewed engagement and loyalty.
Since 2003, Cisco Systems has operated an innovative program that blends career development for high-potential, senior-level employees with the company's philanthropic and community-relations goals. Cisco's Leadership Fellows Program enables "top talent leaders" — defined as self-motivated, high-performing and high-potential vice presidents and directors who are committed to their own professional development — to work with a non-profit organization for up to one year and then return to their former position, inspired, rejuvenated and with enhanced leadership skills. The Fellows are considered full-time Cisco employees and receive their salaries and benefits during their period of service.
Candidates for the program go through a rigorous selection process, and each Fellow is matched with a non-profit assignment that requires his or her specific business expertise and that will improve their management and technical skills. To date, 31 Fellows have been chosen, coming from all areas of the company, including engineering, marketing, finance and administration.
Molly Tschang recently served as temporary executive director of NetHope, a consortium of leading nongovernmental organizations, as it conducted a search for someone to permanently fill the job. Tschang helped NetHope leverage technology to build and strengthen relationships among 17 international agencies that are important players in the developing world. For Cisco, her enhanced skills in collaboration and negotiation not only will enhance her performance when she returns to work, but may also enable her to generate future business.
Ernst & Young's Corporate Responsibility Fellows Program appeals to top performers looking for a way to give back to the world through work, while exploring a new country and culture. The Fellows program sends a highly select group of high-octane talent to low-income countries for three months at full pay. They use their skills to galvanize promising local entrepreneurs at a critical point in their business — typically providing help they couldn't otherwise afford — and help jump-start growth in these emerging markets. "Fellows come back rejuvenated, transformed," reports Maria Pena, Americas leader of entrepreneurship — corporate responsibility. "They love it."
Simply giving employees access to charitable work through their job is an effective way to amp up engagement. More than a third of the 106,000 employees of BT (formerly British Telecom) already actively volunteer during their off-hours, according to a company internal survey. Another 30 percent would like to. That's why in April 2009, BT introduced its first coordinated, companywide Volunteer Program.
BT's vision is to effectively pair work teams and individual executives with productive volunteer opportunities that match their personal interests and career development needs. For example, a division that needs team building may spend a day together erasing graffiti off inner-city walls. One CEO of a BT business unit is volunteering his time mentoring the CEO of a charitable organization.
To give this new coordinated volunteer initiative the same strategic heft as BT's other operations, the company appointed Helen Simpson, a long-time BT executive with deep operational experience in bringing products to market, to head up the program. One of her first steps was to conduct "market research" on BT's employees to identify areas where the workforce wanted to dedicate its volunteering energies. By launching an enhanced, cohesive volunteer effort during this precarious economic period, BT hopes not just to satisfy its employees' desire for community service but leverage their skills to help not-for-profits struggling in the financial slump.
In other words, a positive payback all around.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 9/11/2009.