Originally posted on Washington Post.
Corporate volunteerism: 'Not charity. It's good business.'
The one-day volunteering event — where employees give back to their communities by packing boxes of food or cleaning up a park or fundraising — is so ingrained in corporations that it’s long been lampooned by pop culture.
However, as the national decline of volunteerism deepens, both corporations and nonprofits are looking for something more useful.
“A leader calling up the nonprofit saying, ‘Hey, I have 20 people that can be over there in an hour. What do you want them to do?’ That’s not helpful,” said Kari Niedfeldt-Thomas, managing director of corporate insights and engagement at Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose, which advises companies on sustainability and corporate responsibility issues.
“What you want is for those volunteers to be part of an ongoing engagement, so those volunteers become embedded in the community,” she said. “They understand better what those participants needs are and they truly are then approaching their volunteerism work not as ‘I’m helping you,’’ but with a lens of ‘We’re in a partnership about making our community a better place.’ That levels the playing field. It doesn’t make it charity. It makes it a relationship.”
It’s the kind of relationship that more and more corporations are trying to cultivate with their philanthropy.
Tech giant Salesforce is a high-profile example of that connection, with its wide range of volunteer programs and funding initiatives that focus on education and workforce development, as well as climate and community resilience.
Ron C. Smith, Salesforce’s vice president of philanthropy, said giving back has always been in the company’s DNA, along with innovation.
“You have to be willing to hear what the community you live in — or the community you want to support — is asking for,” Smith said. “We start with the question ‘What can we do?’ or ‘How can we help?’ Then, we align to their strategic plans.”
The company is part of the Pledge 1% movement, where corporations promise to donate 1% of their equity, time, products and profit. Salesforce often supports nonprofits through several of those donation types, often stacking them as its relationship with the group grows.
Salesforce’s partnership with The Marcy Lab School, for example, began when some of its employees started volunteering at the New York nonprofit that trains high school graduates to become software engineers in one year at no cost to the students. Then, Salesforce started providing the school access to some of its software and is now looking at hiring some of the school’s graduates.
Last year, The Marcy Lab School became one of the first grantees of Salesforce’s Catalyst Fund, which provided $100,000 to emerging nonprofits that were led by a person of color and had operating budgets under $2 million annually.
Reuben Ogbonna, co-founder of The Marcy Lab School, said the Catalyst Fund allowed the nonprofit to nearly double its student body from 30 to 50. Students accepted at the school pay no tuition and receive a free laptop for their studies. Most graduates land jobs at top tech companies as software programmers, with starting salaries over $100,000.
“What was most interesting about it was that they were making bets on organizations that typically don’t get on the radar of a big funder like Salesforce,” Ogbonna said. “And what I appreciated about Salesforce is that there was this acknowledgment that our organization already had the seeds of competitiveness and impact.”
Ogbonna said Salesforce hasn’t exhibited the signs of doubt that other major funders have over whether an emerging nonprofit can handle a substantial donation properly. Instead, he says, Salesforce volunteers are helping make Marcy Lab School’s curriculum even stronger.
Marcy Lab School’s other co-founder Maya Bhattacharjee said that its impressive 16,000 square-foot campus in an 11th-floor loft space in Brooklyn, New York’s Industry City neighborhood, with views of the Statue of Liberty across New York Harbor was “beyond our wildest dreams.”
But their training program is exactly how they envisioned it. “I always dreamed of building a school that was just filled with a lot of love for students,” Bhattacharjee said. “Teachers are not thinking about students as numbers or test scores or things that needed to be fixed. To have educators around a table working to have programs work for every student is everything I dreamed of.”
For Enmanuel de la Nuez Carvajal, getting accepted into Marcy Lab School was a dream come true as well. Like a lot of the recent high school graduates who apply to join Marcy Lab School, he felt like he was languishing at LaGuardia Community College. But not everyone was convinced.
“Some of my friends were a little skeptical,” said the native of the Dominican Republic. “They said it sounds like it’s too good to be true. But I thought I don’t see how this could go wrong.”
After graduating from Marcy Lab School in 2020, de la Nuez Carvajal was hired by the project management software company Asana, where he is currently a software engineer.
Those are the kind of results that excite volunteers and keep them engaged to help their communities.
Naomi Morenzoni, Salesforce’s vice president of philanthropy strategy, said the company is an outlier in terms of volunteering, with about 87% of its workforce donating time each year. According to Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose, the average volunteer participation rate through company-sponsored initiatives was 17% in 2022.
“There’s a sea change that’s happened,” Morenzoni said. “We see that 50% of job seekers won’t take a job if a company doesn’t align with their values. All of that is driving value both for the company and for the community. The two are completely interconnected now.”
Salesforce sees its philanthropy program – which provides employees seven days of paid leave to volunteer and a company match for donations up to a $5,000 total each year – as a tool for recruitment and retention.
Morenzoni said Salesforce’s internal surveys show that 91% of its volunteering employees feel more engaged in their regular jobs.
“This is good for us,” she said. “This is good for our communities. It’s not charity. It’s good business.”
Not everyone agrees. In February, Strive Asset Management President Anson Frericks wrote a letter to Salesforce CEO
Marc Benioff urging him to “stop using your business as a ‘platform for social change’ and focus on serving your customers alone.” Frericks claimed five groups of activist investors who have reportedly purchased stakes in Salesforce “smell blood in the water.”
However, after Salesforce reported better-than-expected financial results in March, several activist investors, including Elliott Investment Management, supported the company’s recent business moves.
Though Salesforce declined comment on the investors’ complaints, officials said the company’s commitment to volunteerism will continue.
“I can’t speak to what the investors are looking for,” Smith said. “But I know we’re going to continue doing the good work that Salesforce has committed to. And we’re going to make sure that we bring our employees and partners and everyone else along with us – including our investors – so they can see the good work that’s happening.”