Manion opened the panel by discussing employee engagement with respect to sustainability, saying, “we really think about employee engagement as a key driver of the sweet spot for companies—it connects the employees’ passion and interest with community need and with company interest.” She added that it also improves morale, noting that companies have saved $2,400 per engaged employee in decreased turnover and increased productivity. Employees who participate in skills-based engagement also increase leadership, communication, and problem-solving skills. She also said that millennials and consumers are increasingly advocating for companies to have community engagement programs.

Measuring Engagement

She then turned to Lacy to describe Prudential’s community engagement experience. Lacy said that the program’s goal was to figure out, “How do we create programs that connect employees to the company’s purpose in a way that both leverages their skills and their talents and their expertise while having a community impact?” This led to both “done in a day” programs, such as cleaning playgrounds, as well as pro bono, skills-based services, such as serving on boards.

Senne shared his thoughts on measuring the value and effectiveness of a company’s employee engagement program. He cited a Gallup poll which found that 51% of employees are disinterested in their jobs, which costs the economy an estimated $35 billion a year. PricewaterhouseCoopers conducts its own, intensive engagement survey of its employees, he said, and compares data from that survey with data on participation in its volunteer and corporate responsibility initiatives. The results suggest that the company makes $150 million annually in increased productivity from employees who participate.

Lacy said that Prudential does similar measurements, but as its program is newer, it has not reaped rewards on quite that level. Lacy noted that Prudential tracks participation by length of tenure with the company. In addition, she said, it measures how employees incorporate the skills learned in engagement programs into their day-to-day job performance. Walsh said that Holland & Knight does similar assessments, where employees self-report on experience gained from volunteer activities, such as attending a deposition or a client meeting well before they would have on a paid engagement.

Skills-Based Programs

Manion next asked the panel about skills-based volunteer engagement. Walsh discussed the structure of Holland & Knight’s program. “You want to set a very clear policy at your organization around what your goals are for each individual and for the firm as a whole,” Walsh advised. Goals are expressed in terms of employee hours spent and percentage of annual revenue. It also partners with specific nonprofits to find opportunities and train the employees who volunteer. Walsh also recommended that firms carefully document and adhere to the exact scope of the volunteer engagement.

Senne gave examples of skills-based work. PricewaterhouseCoopers does, saying that increasing the amount of skills-based projects the company offered drove the company’s “top talent” to get more involved and increased the perceived benefit of the program. Lacy added that skills-based and non–skills-based programs serve different needs, and that firms can match skills-based opportunities to employees that need or want to develop that skill. Both Senne and Lacy noted that non–skills-based volunteering can be an easier “sell” to management, both because of the lower cost and the immediate return.

Walsh said that in some cases, non–skills-based projects had led to skills-based ones, essentially serving as a networking opportunity for the two organizations in addition to a service project. “We’re giving them our resources that they may not have in house, and we’re getting from them a little bit more loyalty.” The other panelists agreed that this was a fruitful way to develop relationships. Senne even wondered if service partnerships and volunteering could replace the golf course as a venue for business-to-business networking.

Senne then returned to the topic of valuation, saying that while PricewaterhouseCoopers still uses many traditional valuation methods, it has also incorporated analysis of sustainable development goals into its services. He used the example of gender equity, saying that the firm has estimated that eradicating the glass ceiling by 2030 would yield close to 7% more annual revenue for the economy. “That’s huge,” he said.

Audience Q&A

After Manion opened the floor, an audience member asked about the motivating factors for small businesses to engage in social responsibility activities. Senne said that small and medium-sized businesses are often easier to get involved in corporate engagement, since they have a smaller overall scope and are often embedded in their communities in a way that large multinationals aren’t. Lacy added that, even though the United States has no social responsibility mandate—as some countries, such as India, do—there exist strong incentives for companies to engage in such behavior, including employee interest and stake-holder engagement.

Another audience member asked how companies can balance the costs of social responsibility engagement. Walsh replied that, while she could not define “that exact value in terms of impact … we have to do it because our competitors do it and because our employees can go to 200 other firms that do it and that believe in it.” Lacy summed up by asking rhetorically, “What’s the cost of not doing it?”

As Manion asked for final thoughts, Senne said that while measuring the value of such programs can be helpful, “not everything has to be done through a valuation lens.” Business leaders do, he said, understand that “business can’t thrive where society and communities are failing.” Walsh gave a final piece of advice to companies beginning their engagement programs: Make it fun. Provide some food or drinks, she added, and “make it a chance for bonding, and they’ll remember that day for the rest of the year.”

Madden DeGarmo Manion chief development officer at Points of Light, moderated the panel.
Meghan D. Hely Walsh, JD public and charitable service manager at Holland & Knight LLP;.
Jeffrey Senne senior director of corporate responsibility at PricewaterhouseCoopers;.
Spring Taylor Lacy vice president of corporate and community engagement at Prudential Financial Inc., were the panelists.