Building Better Teams by Building Communities

Dina Steiner, Founder and Director of Spirit at Work ATX

From direct charitable contributions, matching gifts, fundraising or donation drives, to encouraging volunteering, most companies in the US have some way to give back to the community. All of these activities share benefits – increasing brand or company recognition, making connections, contributing to the “greater good” and, of course, tax benefits. But one particular form of corporate philanthropy has been shown to have the greatest impact on employee wellness, retention and loyalty – team-based community volunteering. Whether part of an annual company-wide Community Day event, or an offsite team building activity, volunteering together can have lasting positive impacts.

Volunteering together connects us to the communities we serve.

Team members can directly see the people or community that they are impacting. Sometimes the act of getting “out there” can highlight new community needs or change perspectives on challenges and solutions. There is often a tangible result – “We built that” or “We did that” – which provides an immediate sense of satisfaction. But meeting the recipients of your efforts, or better yet, working alongside them can can also have longer term effects. The memories of the faces of children as you read to them, or painting walls of a community center with the teens that will use it, will remain with volunteers and provide positive feelings for longer than just bringing school supplies to a collection bin in the office.

Working together on a project increases team cohesion.

It’s no secret that volunteering is one of the most popular team building activities. Being out of the office, working together on something unrelated to your typical business can lead to increased sharing of stories and trust among co-workers. They see a different side to each other when out of their normal “habitat.” Among 357,000 people surveyed for Fortune’s Best Workplaces list, those who had a positive experience of giving back at work were four times more likely to say their teams were willing to give extra to get the job done.

While even teams of three or four can benefit from volunteering together, the best projects bring together several different teams and departments. There is enormous synergy to be had in putting together people who would never otherwise have a chance to interact. Executives work alongside the admin staff. Folks from the loading dock sit next to accountants during the lunch break. In the course of working together on a shared goal, employees can gain new insights into others, as well as their own roles in the company. Having meaningful work and understanding how your work makes a difference in the overall corporate mission is vital to worker satisfaction and productivity. By sharing with other teams and departments, employees can see how their job fits in with the whole.

Giving back feels good

The feel-good effects of giving begin in the brain. It’s called “giver’s glow,” says Stephen G. Post, director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at New York’s Stony Brook University. The response, he says, is triggered by brain chemistry in the mesolimbic pathway, which recognizes rewarding stimuli.

Philanthropy “doles out several different happiness chemicals,” Post says, “including dopamine, endorphins that give people a sense of euphoria and oxytocin, which is associated with tranquility, serenity or inner peace.” Volunteering and giving back should be part of every company’s wellness plan.

Volunteering can also help to highlight new and hidden skills.

I once participated in a Habitat for Humanity build with my team. Even though I was the boss everyday in the office, I was completely useless when it came to putting up drywall. The leader that day was our intern, whose dad was a homebuilder. He gained valuable experience in directing the team and patiently teaching newbies, while I handed people tools, cleaned up the building site and made coffee runs. I was not the boss that day and my new respect for the intern continued back in office as I realized that he was ready for more responsibilities.

Philanthropy puts your values into practice.

Leadership teams work hard crafting core values for their businesses but the implementation of those values shouldn’t stop at the parking lot. Working in the community can be a great way to reinforce values like integrity, transparency, team work, creativity and problem solving.

Bottom line, corporate volunteering is a win, win, win situation. It’s good for the company, it’s good for the employees and, most importantly, it’s good for the community. Philanthropy and giving back should be an integral part of each company’s mission and vision. I think Richard Branson puts it well,

“We must learn that doing good is good for business. If we start to be a force for good, I genuinely think we could get on top of most of the problems of the world. And people will have a lot of fun. It is just such a satisfying way of doing things.”

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