01/15/2013 03:48 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2013

Hands Up If You Have Had Enough of Volunteering

Research to be published this spring by The Centre for Corporate Citizenship, Boston, will reveal high levels of job satisfaction among corporate responsibility professionals.

No surprise there, you might say. After all, in contrast to finance and HR professionals, so often perceived, especially in straitened times, as bearers of bad news, those in CR deliver the kind of experiences more likely to make the heart sing. And according to the IOpener Institute, appetite for corporate citizenship programmes is blooming.

Retaining Gen Y employees is depending more on the blend of worthwhile work and access to community activity than the financial rewards on offer. Given the spiraling costs of recruitment and training, this finding reinforces the powerful business case for placing corporate responsibility at the heart of the organisation. Yet rarely do companies have sufficient faith in the principle of doing good to do well. As Hollender and Breen put it, "All too often, the company's values never make it out of the executive suite." Unsurprisingly, then, the major gripe of CR professionals is that their work remains under-resourced (The Centre for Corporate Citizenship, ibid.)

There is an issue, though. Businesses are understandably fearful of being branded cynical and inauthentic if they stick their heads too far above the parapet. And this can condemn them to the 'safety' of the bottom rung of the CSR continuum proposed by ethical business theorist Wayne Visser. Visser's framework sets out five business ages each with an accompanying stage of CSR; at the foot is Greed Age Defensive CSR, and at the summit Responsibility Age Transformative CSR. Visser locates the types of community programmes that involve employees at the Greed end of his continuum. He does this precisely because of their instrumental value in contributing to staff commitment and motivation. Companies at the other end of the scale -- those enacting Transformative CSR -- are not content to play it safe. They make it their business to identify and implement innovative responses to unsustainable and irresponsible behaviours.

But employee/community engagement does not need to be distinct from these transformative processes.

Think of the impact companies could make with their Gen Y employees if instead of offering occasional volunteering, even of the skills-based variety, they were to demonstrate the centrality of social purpose to other key areas of their activity. What if companies' formal learning and development took the shape of experiential learning in community settings? What if employees at all levels of the organisation were tasked to work with community groups not as volunteers on a jolly, but as highly focused employees, committed to dialogue, through which they and their organisation learnt from and shared learning with their community partners?

With careful planning businesses stand to harvest a range of tangible benefits from this approach: formal employee learning and development; employee motivation and retention; purposeful and authentic community engagement with its concomitant reputational enhancement; and valuable market intelligence about how products and services might be aligned with genuine social and environmental needs and sensitivities.

From a relatively mundane point of view, by sharing costs with other business areas, under-resourced CR professionals will increase the stretch, scope and esteem of their programmes. At a more profound level, businesses aiming to transform themselves in to truly responsible and sustainable enterprises, will never achieve this by working in isolation. Dissolving internal silos is a key step on the journey, but it also requires greater permeability with the outside world, the world beyond existing colleagues and customers. It's time to take those values out of the executive suite and onto the street.

Now, hands up all those who have had enough of volunteering.