November & December theme:
“Choose One Thing”
Posted in :  Community Works

Three years ago at this time I was wearing a cheesy holiday sweater and thinking of alias names for my co-workers such as Jennifer “Sweet Treats” Ford and “The Bruce.” We were creating “Legends of the Sled,” a holiday digital card that followed the 2009 online Saucer Sled game created for the enjoyment of clients and fans.

Long before my days at Fathom, it was an annual tradition to send digital holiday greetings. Today, holiday spirit is just as important to us. But, what’s changed is how, and when, we bring that spirit to life.

In 2011, we decided to cash in the hours we typically invest in creating a holiday card for a commitment to year-long community service and volunteering. Year one felt like like an experiment (because it was). In 2013, when we knew we could commit to more, we formed a committee and filled the calendar with events. “Community Works” was born and our dedication to making community involvement a sustainable part of our culture was on its way.

As a committee member and someone who has been involved in every step of this process, I have learned so much. We are not a corporate entity where programs like this are rolled out on a big scale. We are a small business. We work long hours, wear many hats and can never predict what our day looks like. We know of other organizations who want to do more to help their community but are unsure as to how. Where do you start? How do you balance volunteering with running the business? How do you determine where you can have the most impact?

For others looking to start something similar at their company, the committee thought it might be helpful to share what we’ve learned. Here are nine things to consider based on our experience:

ONE. Form a smart, agile committee. We don’t have a Committee Chair. We have a dedicated group of people. Our group is flexible and we divide up the work versus a few doing the lion’s share (i.e., research, planning, internal communications, blogging, etc.). We try hard to have our committee mirror what great community work is all about: all hands on deck working together for a common cause.

TWO. Ask for ongoing feedback from your peers to encourage continuous improvement. Our individual volunteering program wasn’t a hit with the team right away. We assumed the reason was lack of interest. But, when we asked we discovered that many were unsure of where to go to volunteer and some needed more time to make it happen. We stopped sending mass emails that said “sign up for individual volunteering!” Now we are meeting one-on-one with the staff to help them get enrolled and find a place for them to volunteer. Even more critical: we doubled the allowable time for staff to volunteer.

THREE. Get clarity and support from the top. Brent and Dave, Fathom’s partners, have been wonderful supporters of our work. We are thoughtful of how to use them as resources and seek their counsel. Our committee occupies the middle space between leadership and the team and we work hard to make the process easy and engaging. We also keep an eye on when to be inclusive and democratic, and when not to be.

FOUR. Capture and share your experience. Document your volunteer activities with pictures, write ups or team regroups so you have time to reflect and grow from the experience. Remember to share with the outside world too. We also have received numerous clients and friends telling us how much they wish their company did something like this. Our hope is to inspire others to take this on!

FIVE. Never stop exploring new opportunities around your community or listening to neighbors in need. The more we uncover what other people are doing to solve serious social issues — from hunger to homelessness and beyond — the more we discovered that we didn’t have to go far to help people. Our own backyard is full of good people doing amazing work.

SIX. Consider a theme to help filter the many ways to get involved. For 2013, our theme was “nourishment.” This allowed the committee to focus our efforts. Our group events that supported this theme were: volunteering at a soup kitchen, planting a pizza garden in Hartford, gardening at the Community Farm of Simsbury and collecting and distributing Thanksgiving turkeys for FoodShare. Having a theme is also a fun way to create a dialogue with your peers and clients!

SEVEN. Generate levels of involvement. Our program is constructed so that we have 2-3 group activities per year and opportunities for individuals to volunteer on their own during work hours.   The group activities are company-wide so we plan them months/weeks in advance. Individuals volunteering on their own have few limitations on where/when so they are free to choose how they volunteer. Having different levels opens up more possibility as people’s schedules can be tough to work with.

EIGHT. Find out how you are making a difference. We’ve surveyed the team to gather feedback and have talked with the organizations we volunteer with to understand that what we are doing is making a difference. But, how much of a difference? I’m still uncertain we’re doing all we can to know the impact of our efforts but we will continue to look for more ways to uncover this.

NINE. Keep an eye on what else is being generated. We soon discovered that our community involvement was important to our team for other reasons than giving back. Our group events allowed for team building and out-of-work connections to form among our staff. To encourage more of this, we decided to add on a team building activity in 2014 to one of our group volunteering events so we can have fun and let loose.

So, have we achieved the goal of making community involvement a sustainable part of our culture? Not entirely and that’s okay. My biggest take-away from all of this hard work is that this is a process. The work of making giving back a part of our DNA will continue to evolve, as will each of us.

If you are interested in starting a program like Community Works, contact me. I’d welcome the opportunity to share more experiences and best practices.

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Posted by: Suzi Craig
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