The Contribution Equation: How Brands’ Sustainability Initiatives Impact Employee Recruitment and Retention

By Emily Grant and Chloe Frank

We increasingly see ourselves as agents of change, authors of impact—in part because we know we are, or at least we can be. We are equipped: more so than ever we are connected to each other and the tools that enable us to get closer to, and participate in, what brings more purpose and meaning to our lives. When we choose to take part in what matters, we have come to expect insight into the impact of our dedication, and a sense of ownership in the outcome.

This psychology is especially true in the workplace, a phenomenon we can call contribution. Contribution is an evolved state of employee participation in which employees are ready and willing to give more when asked for more, and as a result they possess higher expectations for outcome and impact. Contribution leads to deeper employee engagement and loyalty, and has recently become an essential element to recruiting, retaining, and motivating talent. But while the contribution equation, for employers and employees alike, is simple when seen in motion—the more you put in, the more you get out—its success remains contingent upon an employer recognizing this desire and designing corporate citizenship programs that ask for more from the start.

This personal desire for active contribution—to work hard, and to work even harder for good—is potent across generations. 72% of college students feel it is important to select a job in which they feel they can have an impact.[1] Kash Rangan, co-chair of The Social Enterprise Initiative at Harvard, sees this link as an increasingly central consideration for the next generation of leadership. “[Today’s] business students […] challenge themselves to integrate the success of the core business with successful efforts to address societal needs.” But contribution is not just an optimistic Millennial trend. Boomers also prefer to earn a living while giving back. Of the 70% of Boomers who desire to keep working past age 65, 60% desire to engage in work for a social good.2 Employers, too, are beginning to catch up, and are demonstrating an increased understanding of this need for employees to take on greater change agent roles within the context of companies’ social and environmental impact strategies. According to Interbrand’s 2013 Best Global Green Brands study, 66% of employees believe it’s important/very important for their employer to take positive steps to address environmental issues, and 56% assign the same priority to their employer influencing its supply chain to positively impact society.

So how can corporations spark the contribution equation? What do truly activating programs look like? At a fundamental level they link back to, or stem from, an employer’s core business, perhaps a unique capability, or an organization’s driving philosophy in the context of the broader world. This kind of relevant, authentic programming offers contributors a more unique sense of place and purpose. Ideally an employee would think, “Nowhere else would you address this kind of issue in exactly this way. I see myself in what this company is trying to accomplish, and I want to be part of it.”

Perhaps more importantly, these opportunities also offer the unique chance for employees to stretch their skill sets in a different setting or apply their existent working knowledge toward impact that might carry more personal meaning. Indeed, employers could benefit from seeing these social initiatives as a unique opportunity for talent development. A recent study showed that 75% of employees wish to demonstrate skills-based volunteerism.[3] As United Way’s President and CEO Brian Gallagher states, “Strategic philanthropy is now built into business plans. And today’s employees are often leading the way. They want a fuller, more engaging philanthropic experience... they are not only volunteering their time, they are leveraging their professional expertise and driving community strategies and solutions.”

We see the beginnings of this higher form of contribution coming to life across industry sectors, as more evolved companies tap into the desires of their workforce to create corporate citizenship strategies that ignite effort, reward, and impact. For example, Microsoft’s Employee Giving Campaign, which has now raised over $1 billion dollars in employee contributions for over 31,000 charities and garnered the involvement of over 35,000 US employees, asks employees to give money or time—both matched by Microsoft—to particular organizations that are of personal interest.

The individual and collective impact of this program continually comes to life through personal stories from Microsoft employees: James Lao desired to focus on improving children’s lives through technology, so Microsoft allowed him to give more than 700 volunteer hours within his first 6 months to a youth education nonprofit. Microsoft then matched James’ contribution with a $12,000 gift of their own as part of the “dollars for doers” program. This serves as a remarkable illustration of an organization activating employees’ passions to give, in a personal way that’s both significant and aligned with the core business strategy, and in turn securing a deeper level of connection and relevance with the employee.

Employees such as Lao naturally feel a heightened sense of loyalty to their employer when they recognize their ambitions can be met both personally and professionally. “I joined Microsoft because it shares the same passion I do to make a positive difference in the world through the magic of software and IT services.” The success of this program is undeniable: Microsoft employees in the US have volunteered more than 2 million hours of their time to causes they care about since the inception of the program in 2005, resulting in a combined donation from Microsoft and its employees of over $6.5 billion in cash, services, and software to nonprofits around the world. [4] Microsoft, along with a handful of other companies leading the way in treating their workforce as an army for good, is truly a testament to the internal transformation that occurs when you aim with commitment towards external impact.

Corporate Citizenship engagement by the numbers

  • According to Gallup, “companies with high levels of employee engagement enjoy a significant uplift of every business performance number. For companies where employees were more engaged than not, their profitability jumped by 16%. Not only that, general productivity was 18% higher than other companies. Customer loyalty was 12% higher, and quality jumped up by an incredible 60%.” (Harvard Business Review)
  • The 2008/2009 study, Driving Business Results Through Continuous Engagement by WorkUSA, companies with engaged employees experience 26% higher revenue per employee, 13% total higher total returns to shareholders, and a 50% higher market premium. (In the case of Microsoft, where earnings per employee are currently $244,831 per employee, increasing that number by 26% equals a $63,656.06 increase in revenue per employee.)5

Employers that merely offer corporate citizenship programs to employees may be missing the larger, more motivating opportunity. To ask for more and enable meaningful employee contribution, employers must embrace the philosophy of ‘changing the world by how we do business,’ and create clear, substantial roles for their employees in joining this mission. Employees must see how they fit into the larger mission of the organization and be given explicit ways to contribute.

As employees’ belief in the possibility of large-scale change in the context of corporations only increases over the next decade, their expectations of their company’s purpose and strategic, resource-driven power to do good will only rise. If, in a near distant future, corporations are widely accepted as the go-to vehicle for social and environmental change, then employees are in the driver’s seat, co-leading and learning from the journey. The world’s goodwill depends, then, on organizations that make that unique link between corporate value creation and social good, and ask (or perhaps require) employees to steer. These organizations stand to reap the benefits of a more committed and content workforce.

1 – Net Impact Survey: Talent Report: What Workers Want in 2012
2 - Net Impact Survey: Talent Report: What Workers Want in 2012
3 - Cone Cause Evolution Study, 2010
4 – Microsoft website
5 – “Apple staff raking in the cash: $419,528 profit per head” — Pingdom, May 17, 2011
6 - Society for Human Resource Management survey, 2011