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Volunteer Programs Offer Instruction for Tomorrow’s CEOs

By TONY BUZZELLI

Gas prices topping $4 a gallon. Declining home values and rising foreclosures. Layoffs. Angelenos are struggling every day to do more with less. So are businesses, large and small, which are scrutinizing costs and streamlining operations to weather the economic storm.

One area of significant spending is training and development. CEOs across Los Angeles tell me that acquiring and developing the right talent is their No. 1 challenge. They recognize that the engine driving success is human capital, and that no matter how technologically advanced we become, business doesn’t get done without people to do what needs doing. However, in the face of a weak economy, most HR managers say their training budgets are flat or shrinking, putting them under increasing pressure to stretch every dollar.

It’s a conundrum.

New research suggests that innovative companies may find a solution to this challenge in an unlikely place their corporate volunteer program. That’s because volunteering one’s business skills to a non-profit can be a highly developmental experience. And demand for this type of specialized support is high among Los Angeles’ 53,000 non-profits.

According to the 2008 Deloitte Volunteer Impact Survey, the vast majority of HR managers believes that volunteering business skills can be a powerful, cost-effective tool for cultivating critical business and leadership skills, and that the intentional integration of volunteer activities into talent development would add value to their programs.

At odds is the fact that only 16 percent of Fortune 500 companies regularly offer volunteering for this purpose. What does this mean for Los Angeles, which is home to 15 Fortune 500 companies? It means that the majority of our local corporate leaders are overlooking a huge opportunity.


Community involvement

Here’s how we can change that.

First, companies must acknowledge that community involvement can purposely be leveraged to satisfy business needs. In the case of training and development, volunteering one’s intellectual capital and professional insights to a non-profit is effective because of the authenticity of the work. The most successful adult learning experiences are those that include challenging assignments, shared experiences, have real-world applications and facilitate networking.

I’ve seen it happen. During our annual Impact Day volunteer event, two of our people led a consulting session with the principal of an inner-city school, where they learned that the school had a computer lab full of computers but lacked the resources to teach the students how to use them. In response, they designed a volunteer program for skilled professionals to donate their time to teach the students basic computer and word-processing skills. All of the school’s third- and fourth-grade students received computer training that year, and these two individuals gained significant leadership, organizational and consultative experience in the process.

Second, companies must purposefully integrate community involvement into the business strategy in a way that produces a measurable return. As with any other training investment, companies need to identify which desired skills can be enhanced by volunteer service (such as negotiating, delegating or motivating others), map them to the volunteerism opportunities that can help deliver results (such as non-profit board service or pro bono work) and set benchmarks for measuring the outcomes.

Third, companies should encourage these types of learning opportunities across the board. The Deloitte survey found that among the companies that do offer skills-based volunteering for training purposes, it is primarily the upper echelon that gets to take advantage. As business leaders, we must quickly prepare the next generation to lead, which means encouraging employees at all levels to engage in skills-based volunteering. One of our newer people recently said, “On top of helping others, skills-based volunteering has been one of the best ways to develop the skills I need to be successful. Among many other lessons, it’s given me good practice with project and budget management, instilling vision, learning to secure ‘buy-in’ and realizing results.”

In my role, I have the opportunity to meet with a number of non-profit leaders in Los Angeles. Whether they are focused on aiding the homeless, improving education and housing, creating jobs or protecting the environment, non-profits want and need volunteers who can offer their professional knowledge and business expertise. Concurrently, companies want nothing more than to build a strong, competitive workforce in the most cost-effective way possible.

I encourage business leaders to think about how skills-based volunteerism can enhance their training and development programs while offering much needed support to the non-profit community. It’s good for employees, it’s good for companies and it’s good for the community.


Tony Buzzelli is the Los Angeles office managing partner and regional managing partner, Pacific Southwest, of Deloitte LLP.

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