Not so long ago the only way a business typically would show it cared about its standing in the community was by posing for a photo with an oversized check. That still happens, of course, and people like Adrienne Rubin are happy to know that. But these days the public wants to know that a company does more for its community than hire people and cut checks.
Rubin is the executive director of VolunteerConnect, a Princeton-based nonprofit, originally known as Hands On Helpers, that works with most other nonprofits in Mercer County.
From her insider’s perch, Rubin has witnessed the shift from big check to community involvement, and VolunteerConnect has started a new program to help guide companies toward giving more of themselves back to the communities that host them.
The core of community engagement as Rubin sees it is volunteering — on boards, as part of a clean-up day, or whatever. In fact, she so strongly believes in volunteers that she helped engineer an unusual event to honor them. On Wednesday, October 27, VolunteerConnect will host “Community Connections,” an event honoring 87 volunteers from roughly 30 nonprofit organizations, beginning at 6 p.m. at Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals in Titusville. Cost: $50. Visit www.volunteerconnectnj.org.
“Community Connections” also will be a tribute to Craig Lafferty, who, after almost 17 years as president and CEO of United Way of Greater Mercer County, is retiring at the end of November. Rubin says the event came together because she and some associates looked at how volunteers are honored in their communities and realized that she had never seen an event that honored volunteers in general. The United Way might honor its own volunteers, for example, but that’s about as far as it went.
The importance of the event, as it relates to the volunteers, their organizations, and to business in general, Rubin says, is that it will showcase the importance of volunteers to an organization, whether it’s for-profit or nonprofit. A lot of nonprofits do not have the resources to make a big deal about their volunteers, especially right now, when nonprofits are struggling to survive. Consequently, people sometimes feel underappreciated and might even stop volunteering.
But empowering volunteers, connecting them to each other, and showing them how their work helps goes a long way toward retaining them, Rubin says. And, just as in business, it is cheaper, easier, and more stable to retain someone than it is to replace a person.
Companies today see the comparison, Rubin says. When a company recognizes its volunteers, it promotes a sense of unity with the person and a sense of connection between the community and the company itself. Volunteering raises the company’s profile and promotes active engagement, and being recognized often makes a volunteer feel more connected to his company. And that means not having to keep finding new employees because yours keep leaving.
The other major advantage of having your employees volunteer, Rubin says, is that it teaches them new things. Employees sent out for, say, a day of painting at a small inner-city school get a chance to use their skills and to enhance them. Breaking out of the comfort zone of the office routine, she says, can give employees new reasons to hone their problem-solving skills or even acquire new ones.
Rubin took over at Hands On Helpers in 2008. She previously served as associate director for class affairs at Princeton University’s Alumni Association. She had worked at the university for more than 13 years. She holds an A.B. in music theory and composition from Princeton and is a former associate of the Society of Actuaries.
Company, know thyself. If a company wants to do more for a community or an organization than donate money, the first step is recognizing it, Rubin says. “Don’t get me wrong,” she says. “The checks are great, but realize the importance of community involvement.”
Rubin admits that finding your community service groove can be intimidating. But it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. A good start is to just know what you can do, and a good way to figure that out is by asking. “Ask your employees what they care about,” Rubin says. Consider it in the context of your company’s mission. Does it do something — say, make pharmaceuticals — that could directly fit into a plan of action — say, a health screening?
Listen to what works. Maybe a health fair is just right. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe the best way to raise the company’s public image and do the most good is to give your employees the day off to take part in something. Maybe it’s better if some of your executives sit on nonprofit boards.
“There is no one-size-fits-all answer,” says Rubin. While some companies prefer to take part in an activity that is in line with their businesses, others see it as pandering and want to do something completely foreign to what they do every day. And while some companies encourage board seats, others do not want a nonprofit to look at its board and see a corporate representative.
“Do the research,” Rubin says. “Explore the possibilities.”
Step up. Once you know where you want to go as a company, the last thing is to just go do it. Rubin says she does encounter a number of people who want to bite off way too much of the community service apple. It is best, therefore, to keep in mind the scale of what you want to do. You don’t have to plot out an annual event involving thousands of people, you can start with a simple day of community clean-up in the park.
And if you blow it? So what. Mistakes teach us as much as successes do. Says Rubin: “There’s a great line in Chicken Soup for the Soul — ‘There are no mistakes, only lessons.’ And right after that it says ‘A lesson will be repeated until it is learned.’”