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Top employers get more from staff by giving back

Manulife Financial's Shibani Ahuja volunteers for Habitat for Humanity Toronto.

Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Six years ago, Shibani Ahuja didn't know the difference between a floor joist and a truss. That all changed when she started working for Manulife Financial Corporation.

Don't worry – the financial-services company hasn't branched out into the construction industry. Rather, it encourages and supports employees' volunteer efforts with organizations such as Habitat for Humanity Toronto, which helps low-income families buy quality, affordable homes.

"I've probably helped build about 2,000 houses," says Ms. Ahuja, Manulife's director of product development. "We're hammering; we use power tools; you show up onsite and you don't know what your job will be. You might be dry-walling, you might be doing floor joists, you might be putting up a wall, or you might be framing doors.

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"I've been busy nailing my own fingers," she adds with a laugh. "It's an organization I'm very passionate about."

Manulife provides employees like Ms. Ahuja with paid time off to do such volunteering. The company's commitment to giving back to the community is a key reason why she joined Manulife in the first place.

"I'm very big on volunteer work," Ms. Ahuja says. "I wanted to be in a corporate function but also to work in an environment where I was allowed to volunteer and where the company supported it…. Every company offers a product development role, but not every company offers and promotes the chance to give back to the community they're in.

"I feel I've been extremely fortunate in my life, and I get a high out of knowing there's a way I can give back," she adds. "I can take what I'm so grateful for and give it back to community. Volunteer work is a reward."

Manulife Financial is so dedicated to volunteering, in fact, that last year it declared the practice its signature cause.

In 2010, the company's Canadian employees donated more than 20,000 volunteer hours through company-sponsored events and their own time.

Manulife supports more than a dozen community organizations, including Junior Achievement, which helps young people develop work-readiness skills, and the Evergreen Foundation, which aims to connect people with nature and reduce habitat destruction.

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If employees do more than 25 hours of volunteering outside of work, the company makes a financial contribution to the charity.

"We made a pledge to Canada to support volunteer efforts," says Jeronimo De Miguel, Manulife's assistant vice-president of external relations. "It became clear to us that this was an opportunity to create a movement and to galvanize people – not just internally, but across the country. The best possible way to inspire Canadians at large is to get our own employees to volunteer."

That meant putting infrastructure in place to support the process. Manulife has an intranet site called Volunteer Central, where employees can share ideas and find volunteer opportunities. It has a Facebook page, Get Volunteering, which holds live chats every Thursday at 1 p.m. EST on all things volunteer-related. And it runs the website Getinvolved.ca, which matches people from across the country with volunteer opportunities in their local area.

According to Volunteer Canada, corporations that have a robust corporate citizenship strategy – one that goes beyond cash donations and actively supports their employees' efforts to contribute to their community – are helping develop more innovative forms of volunteer engagement.

The organization has found that employer-supported volunteers have unique needs that distinguish them from other social groups: they like to measure their efforts and know the impact is worth the time they're contributing, and they enjoy meaningful volunteer engagement, not just one-day company volunteer events.

The health benefits of volunteering are well-established – increased self-esteem and social connections among them – but a growing body of research supports a business case for the practice as well. Payoffs to employers include increased employee motivation and loyalty, lower absenteeism and higher productivity.

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Mr. De Miguel maintains that the company is determined to push the volunteer mentality forward.

"This is all about active citizenship, not just something to do in your free time – and most people would argue they don't have free time," Mr. De Miguel says. "It's about volunteering becoming part of your lifestyle, another part of how you go about your day and engage with your community. We all have a sense of responsibility to the greater good. Without preaching, civic engagement is such a powerful thing."

Toronto Hydro Electric System Limited also supports active citizenship. Through its Brighter Days program, employees are encouraged to volunteer for an organization of their choice – and they have the flexibility to make it happen.

Senior office clerk Cathy Leblanc, a 27-year employee, has been volunteering at the City of Toronto's One on One Mentorship Program for the last seven years. The program matches youth aged five to 14 with an adult mentor to increase the kids' self-confidence.

One lunch hour a week, Ms. Leblanc goes to an inner-city school and spends time with an athletic 11-year-old girl, one of four kids to a single mom. The two eat lunch together, then hit the gym to play volleyball or basketball.

"I want to make a difference and have a positive effect on the lives of the children I mentor," Ms. Leblanc says. "She's a very shy girl, but I find that when we're doing sports she's a little more willing to talk. Just knowing that she's opening up is so rewarding. It gives me a real sense of personal satisfaction. I feel fortunate that I get to do it."

Through its corporate-responsibility initiative, Toronto Hydro is also actively involved in the United Way campaign, with more than 100 employees volunteering to raise awareness of the charity. In addition, about 500 employees and counting are involved in the payroll-deduction program, in which the corporation matches donations of up to $100.

"Toronto Hydro has a big presence in the city, and it's important as a company to give back to the people and the city," says communications consultant Jennifer Link. "It's also key to employee engagement. We have six separate offices, but we want to be a unified organization, for employees to be engaged and a part of and proud of who they work for. Corporate giving and volunteering and working together collaboratively are all part of that."

There are practical benefits to volunteering as well, as Manulife's Ms. Ahuja can attest.

"I do product development, but thanks to the company allowing me to volunteer and work with Habitat for Humanity, I can now finish my own basement."

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