The case for community engagement and outreach in corporate America

A recent post Why are today’s professionals undervaluing volunteerism? by Anne Taylor, Vice Chairman and Managing Partner at Deloitte, in which she reflected on her participation in Deloitte’s 17th annual Impact Day and corporate volunteerism in general, struck me as a potent reminder of the numerous benefits that community service offers to all involved. “Business as usual” marks a win-win relationship for the company and the client; with the addition of a community service component, company employees and charitable organizations are implicated in the winnings as well.

Anne’s post then sent me scrolling through the Deloitte Volunteer IMPACT Surveys, Deloitte Volunteer Impact Research which provided even more substantive information on the positive effects of volunteering. Relying on this kind of hard data as well as our own sense of the type of influence we want to have in the local community, Obsidian Learning recently launched a Monthly Service Project initiative. I am honored and humbled to have the opportunity to direct this program.

Once a month, Obsidian Learning employees have the opportunity to sign up for a service project organized through the company. Employees can sign up as individuals, and also have the option to include family members. Each month a unique service project is undertaken during a work day. Some of the charitable organizations we work with include: Houston Food Bank, VA Hospital, Trinity Foster Homes, Houston Area Women’s Center, Aspire Accessories, Keep Houston Beautiful, Habitat for Humanity, and Candlelighters Cancer Families.

Another aspect of volunteerism, often overlooked, is putting our skills to work for charitable organizations. Obsidian’s first experience of this kind was the organization of a competition, in collaboration with the Association for Talent Development (ATD), which involved creating a custom piece of e-learning on hazard communication for the Houston Food Bank (HFB). Participants used our new rapid authoring tool, Obsidian Black, to create the course, and the winning entry is now used to educate HFB employees and volunteers about the dangers associated with certain chemical products found on site. Directly as a result of the positive impacts of this experience, Obsidian intends to broaden its action in the area of pro bono consulting.

Whether chopping food, cleaning floors, working with autistic adults, talking to war veterans, or creating a useful piece of custom e-learning for a charitable organization, all of our endeavors provide a distinct opportunity to feel useful within our community.

On a personal note, I would like to share my experience of a recent visit to the Houston VA Hospital, which was our July community service project. Along with four of my Obsidian co-workers, we handed out hundreds of thank you cards to military veterans. Our volunteer guide, Michelle, escorted us through several different waiting areas. We took the time to introduce ourselves with a handshake, deliver a card of appreciation, and look each veteran in the eyes and thank them for their service. We lingered with those who asked questions or offered stories. All were very appreciative of our small gesture.

Once we completed the waiting room visits, Michelle took us to one of the hospital units. If handing over a thank you card in a waiting room felt insufficient, imagine the emotion attached to visiting someone immobile in a bed, on a ventilator, unable to reach out to accept a handshake or a card. Somehow I managed to visit a few patients in these rooms before needing a moment to myself in the hallway. As I regained my composure, I entered the last room and began my little speech. My voice took a dip; I paused, took a deep breath, and apologized for my tears. With a huge smile on her face, the veteran in that room pushed forward in her wheelchair and gave me a big hug. I didn’t make it through my rehearsed speech, but she helped me to understand that it didn’t really matter.

The truth about volunteerism is that the benefits are vast and immeasurable. No on-budget, on-target, award winning project can give a person the same satisfaction as filling a basic human need. And you just might be surprised to find the need that gets filled is your own.

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