Giving People the Business
Corporate employees become community volunteers and everybody benefits
Photo by Lynne O'Connell
Having a”sense of purpose” is a fairly universal wish for workers of all ages—not the least of whom are millennials, often given a bad rap when it comes to being industrious. And yet, according to the 2015 Millennial Impact Report (sponsored by The Chase Foundation as part of the Millennial Impact Project), 37 percent of employees ages 20 to 40 volunteered up to ten hours of their time in 2014. Forty-five percent of those same employees said that some of the time they spent volunteering was promoted by the company they worked for. A strong volunteer ethic is a powerful draw, especially for employees under 40. In fact, Berkshire businesses have been developing such a culture for years with robust volunteer efforts.
“We are completely reliant on the volunteer efforts of local businesses,” says Kristine Hazzard, president and CEO of the nearly-century-old Berkshire United Way. “The type of volunteering varies from people who are doing fundraising on our behalf to folks who come here and literally stuff envelopes for an afternoon. It’s amazing that here in our little Berkshire corner, we are able to raise $2.5 million and get so much done.”
Getting involved in local causes and community initiatives is not just about writing a check. The 1,100-plus nonprofits and charities in the area rely heavily on people’s time donated by local businesses, big and small, to complete sometimes basic, sometimes Herculean tasks. The need for volunteers prompted Berkshire Bank, a multi-region bank with local roots, to create the XTEAM in 2008. Since then, the “team” has committed more than 40,000 hours in last five years to projects in the Berkshires and in other Berkshire Bank communities. Most of those hours, if not all, are paid business hours. And most of the XTEAM projects are initiated by employees who convene regularly.
Projects range from building children’s bicycles to painting houses for Habitat for Humanity to creating “birthday boxes” for kids in shelters.
“Our employees embraced the program from the beginning,” says Lori Gazillo, director of the Berkshire Bank Foundation. “It started as a small initiative, we did a few projects through the year, but then we wanted to formalize our volunteering a bit. There is so much need. And our employees were looking for impactful experiences.”
Many major workplace volunteer arms have grown thanks to the more concentrated efforts of employees who reach out to their coworkers and administration. This is the case at the Pittsfield offices of the New York–based Guardian Life Insurance Company. According to senior internal communications officer Bernie Klem, who also serves on several nonprofit boards in the county, nearly 75 employees help to organize fundraising and volunteer events every year, including raising $200,000 annually for the Berkshire United Way, delivering Meals on Wheels for Elder Services, participating in blood drives, coordinating teams for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, and hobbling down North Street for the Elizabeth Freeman Center’s Walk a Mile in Her Shoes benefit event.
“You see your co-workers everywhere—at school events, in the supermarket, at athletic events, and in worship. We’re all working together to strengthen the community by helping those in need and preserving the natural beauty that surrounds us. With a declining population and a growing number of nonprofit organizations, it’s incumbent on all of us to step up and volunteer,” says Klem.
Stepping up volunteer efforts can be contagious in a workplace, no matter its size. Even smaller companies put the work in as a natural offshoot of a collective “culture of empathy,” says Mitch Nash, co-founder (with his brother, Seth) of Pittsfield-based Blue Q, a hip design and manufacturing company that employs 50 people. “It’s all just an effort to make the company well rounded and a good citizen, and it’s the source of our core strength and longevity.”
In addition to its community efforts—volunteering at the Jacob’s Pillow Gala, fundraising for Doctors Without Borders, helping at Community Access to the Arts (CATA) creative classes—Blue Q has a two-decades-old employment program through Berkshire County Arc, Inc., that employs 12 people with developmental disabilities. “The entire staff at Blue Q mentors these workers just by being their pals and making them part of the company,” Nash says.
Belonging to something bigger, even if a company is small, is a key selling point, it turns out, in retaining employees. At Zogics, an eco-friendly, fitness-supply outfit in Lee, community engagement is built into the company’s “benefit” package, which includes an unlimited time-off policy for volunteering and other volunteer resources.
“We launched the Zogics Culture Cash program that provides each employee with $500 a year to spend on local cultural activities,” says founder and CEO Paul LeBlanc. “This program pours thousands of dollars each season into local nonprofit cultural institutions. Likewise, we subsidize 50 percent of the cost of joining a local CSA.”
Workforce volunteers need to know they’re doing a good job, which is why long-term volunteer projects have an end date. “We have our rock-steady volunteers who take on the same efforts year in and year out,” Hazzard says. “We also have ‘bubble ups’ of people who want to become involved as things happen in the county and nationally. Nonprofits have to be nimble as donors and volunteers become savvier about where they are donating their dollars and hours, and the impact that they’re having.”
In the gymnasium at the Boys & Girls Club of Pittsfield, Berkshire Bank employees measure out, bag and box dry goods for a food drive.