At FSG, our clients often ask how a corporation’s societal engagement programs—such as employee giving, volunteering, sustainability initiatives, and shared value initiatives—can help increase employee engagement. The answer to this seemingly simple question has several layers, starting with the definition of employee engagement.
We have noticed a common misperception in companies’ perspectives on employee engagement: for example, participation in corporate volunteering events is often used as a proxy for engagement, but we know that is an imperfect measure at best. As one recent Fortune 500 client said in describing their one-off volunteer events, “How much engagement can you expect to build through a once-a-year volunteer event?” At worst, thinking of employee engagement only in terms of participation rates can lead to programs that feel more like “volun-told” events and can actually erode an employee’s connection to the organization. Several participants in a recent focus group FSG conducted for a client said they contributed to an annual gift-matching drive because they felt pressure to do so, which they resented.
At FSG, we believe that understanding the interplay between a company’s societal engagement activities and employee engagement begins with a stronger definition of the term. We use the same definition that many others who have written on this issue use: the emotional connection a person has to their job, their employer, and their employer’s goals. This deep connection leads to greater productivity and increased employee retention.
What helps create that deep emotional connection? We believe that when employees can make a meaningful contribution to their company’s social purpose, that drives employee engagement and with it loyalty, productivity, and passion. We have written about different employees responding well to different types of programs, but one consistent thread that has emerged across employee types is the desire to see and understand the social impact of the company’s good work.
Partners in Food Solutions is a good example of a volunteer program focused on societal impact. General Mills started the organization in 2008, and now it is a stand-alone nonprofit also supported by Cargill, DMS, Bühler, Hershey, TechnoServe, and USAID. The program’s goal is to improve food security and increase economic development in Africa using expert volunteers from supporting companies. The experience has had a profound impact on employees’ perception of General Mills and other partners. To quote one participant, “This experience was amazing and suddenly things became a whole lot more personal for me. It confirmed my involvement with Partners in Food Solutions and made me very grateful to be an employee of General Mills—whose support of this made it all possible.”
Along with employee engagement, Partners in Food Solutions is creating real impact: since its start, it has worked with over 600 food companies in Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia to increase their productivity, impacting an estimated 829,000 local smallholder farmers.
Any number of additional factors can affect employee engagement, and strong societal engagement initiatives are not a magic panacea for all of a company’s employee engagement woes. But they can play an important part in increasing engagement—and create greater social impact along the way.