Finding the context and sustainability in employee engagement

Finding the context and sustainability in employee engagement

What does employee engagement have to do with global sustainability or caring for the poor in India or the hungry in Africa?

One simple premise: What gets our attention gets our time and dollars.

At the recent Charities @ Work conference, organized by four charitable federations – EarthShare, Global Impact, Community Health Charities and America's Charities – this question formed the theme for two days of debates, discussions and presentations.

How do you prioritize the crises facing us today globally? With ever-complex supply chains, hierarchies of decision-making and the highly unfashionable long-term thinking getting in the way, how can businesses effectively address social and environmental solutions?

From companies like General Electric, JPMorgan Chase, TIAA-CREF and Accenture, to the World Bank and my company, CSRwire, -- including the panel I shared with Microsoft and Wells Fargo on creating feedback loops with employees – we tossed around challenges, ideas and asked repeatedly: How do we leverage our employees' energy, diversity and creativity to solve the social and environmental problems facing our communities?

General Electric's Corporate Citizenship Mantra

For GE Foundation's Kathleen Mayglothling, this means "working on things that matter," she said. Referring to GE's famous citizenship framework of "Make money, make it ethically, and make a difference," Mayglothling indicated that the value proposition for employee engagement today rested in aligning business goals with social and environmental levers. "Where can we make a difference? How can we grow our business and help our communities progress?"

Finding the Context in Employee Engagement

Marc Gunther, GreenBiz senior writer and a keynote speaker at the conference, however, cautioned attendees to contextualize employee engagement before defining its value proposition. "What do you mean by an engaged employee? Are they engaged at work or in their community?" he asked.

Capturing that context and engaging employees on environmental causes that matter to them has been the springboard for much of EarthShare's work in recent years, says Mary MacDonald, the organization’s SVP for National Business Development. From their Give @ the Office tool that streamlines the employee giving process – and offers choice in giving – to the charity's EarthShare @ Work program that helps its workplace partners integrate volunteerism, education and employee philanthropy into business strategy, EarthShare has been quietly working with its partners to bring together dollars, skills, and people power to address critical environmental challenges.

And in an apparent vacuum it would seem. Referring to the 2011 USA Giving Report in a recent blog on CSRwire, EarthShare CEO Kal Stein noted:

In the United States in 2010, total charitable giving came in at almost $291 billion—an increase of around 3.8 percent from 2009. From that pool, just $6.7 billion went to charities that support the environment and animals, while $24.3 billion went to charities that provide "public-society benefit." And total donations to charities in the environmental and animal sector fell by 0.7 percent year on year—this at a time when the focus on environmental concerns, not to mention the need for action, has never been greater.

So, how are corporations deciding what cause deserves more of their attention and dollars more than another? Does it come down to strategic alignment or the C-suite's wish list?

"Primary to our efforts is to make sure we are truly looking at our work as a business,” said Michael Carren, JPMorgan Chase's VP and Director of Employee Engagement and Financial Education. “I am not suggesting that we haven’t in the past, but I want to be clear here that if we have not developed a business model and plan that details not only our outcomes, but our impacts, costs and growth strategies, we will forever be playing a game of catch up.”

He added: "Managing our work like a business, to me, means that first and foremost we need to not only position ourselves, but continually reinvent our work from perch of authority as an expert in the field.”

The Virtuous Cycle of Giving

Stein calls this quandary – the constantly moving target – the "Virtuous Cycle of Workplace Philanthropy."

"We built EarthShare to serve as a truly virtuous cycle — or as many business executives would call it: creating shared value" because "there is not a single party involved that doesn't benefit in some way, whether from increased funding and new supporters, the sense of satisfaction that comes through helping to tackle a difficult issue, a deeper connection on the part of employees with their company’s goals, or by freeing up more time for administrators to focus on other critical business issues," he wrote.

The World Bank, for example, had to find what made sense from the ground up. "It all comes down to leadership," said Viki Betancourt, manager of the bank's community outreach program, and, unsurprisingly, "data."

But for Accenture, the battle between choice and maximum impact came down to answering one central question: How can we give our employees maximum choice so they drive collaborative impact instead of us?

Robin Boggs, the firm's US corporate citizenship lead, described it as a balancing act between "our corporate citizenship values and offering robust choice." And TIAA-CREF's VP for Corporate Citizenship Renee Alexander called it "reinforcing our values while offering our employees a real chance at influencing our impact."

Making Engagement Personal: Find the Context

Despite the divergent approaches to workplace giving and employee engagement, it's clear that freeing up choice is at the center of this debate. Because the impact we have on a social problem or an environmental crisis is directly related to our personal values and perspective.

Remember when you helped clean up a park or playground in your community because you grew up in a chemically contaminated neighborhood, and therefore understand the value of a clean environment for our kids to play in? Or participated in a breast cancer awareness drive because you lost a family member to cancer? Or made the choice of buying from a cooperative versus a big box because your father had to cave in and shut shop?

That's true impact. Because we've seen the alternative firsthand. Because we believe in the impact of our contribution. And that is where business and charities like EarthShare can become valuable partners.

As Gunther alluded to during his keynote, engagement without context and direction might make for good metrics in your annual CSR report but could be meaningless collectively in solving the very problems you're targeting.