Thursday, September 27, 2012

Giving Back

Corporate Social Responsibility has become a popular addition to many incentive programs in recent years.  The idea that a company can take a small portion of time during a trip to do charity work not only helps the community they are visiting but makes their employees feel good.  But why limit volunteerism to a once-a-year addition to the incentive trip?  By integrating it into an everyday employee engagement strategy, it can raise employee morale and make your staff feel good about themselves and the company they work for.

Recently some of the FLG staff spent time on a Tuesday morning helping out at the River Food Pantry, a local food and clothing pantry in Madison, WI.  They are a great organization that help the needy in the Madison area.  As Dane County's busiest food pantry, River serves about 600 families per week.  While they are technically a christian organization, they welcome those of all faiths.  In fact, they actively encourage those of other faiths to help and join the community.

On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, the pantry is open to the public.  On Tuesday, our staff members took on different jobs and helped clients who came in to get food from the pantry. The process was fairly straight forward.  Based on the number people in a household, families were allotted a certain amount of groceries, measured by weight, which they were able to choose for themselves off of the shelves.  They were also able to choose their meats, fresh produce and dairy.  I love this method since many other pantries I have seen choose the food for their clients.  The choice truly makes all the difference.  

Stocking Shelves


I personally worked the "meat area" and was pleased to be able to give people so many options.  You would think a pantry would only have had hot dogs or ground beef but there were steaks, pork tenderloins, brats, chicken breasts, and even some whole chickens and beef roasts!  It was great to see such a variety of donations from the area supermarkets and distributors.  I'm glad people got a real choice since tastes and diets vary so widely, especially given the large diversity in ethnic backgrounds that use the pantry.  I'll tell you, I was positively drooling over an unclaimed rack of lamb that were in the bin in front of me.

Lucky for me, my drooling didn't have to last long since River Food Pantry also feeds people in-house.  In addition to feeding their volunteers after each shift, on Tuesday and Friday nights they open up their doors and feed whoever is hungry.  They have a talented head chef, Ray (seen below in the black apron), who cooks all of the meals in their on-site kitchen with the help of volunteers.  I was impressed with the variety of food choices Ray had out which ranged from barbeque beef to spaghetti with sausage to salad with fresh veggies.  He even made a large chocolate "Texas Pan Cake" with nuts on top.  Delicious.

The Kitchen Area

Anjee and Sandi after lunch

The pantry also has a small clothing and home goods area where people can give and receive apparel items as well as various household items.  We did not work there during our visit but it is great to know that they offer free, decent clothing to those who need it.  It was interesting to learn that what they need the most is men's clothing.  Once I thought about it, I realized that most of the guys I know wear stuff until it is nothing but threads so perhaps they just don't have that much to donate.  Either that or the thought of donating their old clothes to the pantry never crossed their minds.  Well, now I know where I am taking all of my husband's unwanted clothes from now on.

Clothing and House Goods Pantry

All-in-all, this was a humbling experience as it certainly reminded me that there is a great deal of need in Madison, even if we don't see it on our daily commute or everyday lives.  The River Food Pantry staff, volunteers and clients were all wonderful, gracious people with big hearts.  This pantry is located less than a mile from my house and, before this, I didn't even know it was there.  Now that I know where it is and what it's all about, I plan to go back and help out as often as I can!
I wasn't the only one who was moved by my experience there.  Here is how some of our staff felt about the time they spent at RFP:

“It is hard to see the need, yet heartwarming to see so much humanity among the volunteer group.  The River Food Pantry is one of the best run I have seen, allowing the clients to shop for their food is a much more efficient and dignified way to go about it.” - Sandi Daniel

"The River Food Pantry is an asset to the community in every way.  They provide as many services as possible for the funding they have.  I am happy to donate time not only to the people receiving assistance but also to the people who have dedicated their lives to helping others." - Dustin Sorge

"I found the River Food Pantry to be such a positive and empowering experience for both the clients and volunteers.  The problem is so much larger than most of us can even comprehend.  Not only does the River Food Pantry provide food and clothing to families in need, they also provide community.  They have a play area for kids and they bring local entertainment on Friday evenings.  A few short hours of my time gave me so much more in education, compassion, friendship and community that I am certain I gave while I was there.  I look forward to helping the River Food Pantry again very soon."  - Sarah Pingry

If you are looking for ways to give back personally or company-wide, here are some ideas for charity projects that you can find or organize in your area.
  • Help out at a soup kitchen, food pantry or homeless shelter
  • Have a shoe cutting party (Sole Hope takes your uppers and makes shoes for kids in Africa)
  • Donate time or books to a literacy project
  • Hold a blood drive
  • Build-a-Bike/Bear/House
  • Plant trees
  • Clean up a park or nature area
  • Run a charitable stand at a local festival
  • Help plant or pick weeds at a community garden
  • Volunteer to read/play music/visit with the elderly at a nursing home
  • Organize a food drive or bake sale for a cause
  • Get a corporate team together for a charitable run/walk
  • Hold a game show-style team challenge (physical or mental) where the winning team gets to choose their favorite charity
  • Deliver Meals-on-Wheels
  • Organize a clothing or bedding drive
  • Set up charitable giving/match programs with groups like the United Way
  • Answer phones for a pledge drive at a local PBS or NPR station 
  • Help out at an after-school program at a local Big Brother Big Sisters
  • Set up corporate mentorships for under-privileged youth
  • Join or start a free tutoring program
  • Offer rides, gutter cleaning, shoveling or mowing services to the elderly
  • Find some specific needs for your area on sites like Volunteer Match

The opportunities for doing good are truly endless!   

I know with the speed of business it is often hard to find time to volunteer.  However, it was such an excellent team-building experience for our staff that the time spent away from the office was well worth it.  It is actually pretty amazing that more companies don’t use this opportunity to engage their employees.  There are people who give so much back every day, for us to find a few hours in a month or quarter seems like it is the least we could do for the community that we live and work in.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to organize something on a company-wide scale, perhaps you can help make change your corporate policy to include concessions for volunteerism.  For example, giving the employees one paid day, or even an hour, per month to volunteer much like Randstad Canada has done.  What a fantastic dynamic that must create in the office!

Corporate charitable giving is great (and much needed) but nothing makes people feel good like actually doing something where they can see the benefits of their actions.  It builds strong bonds among your staff and even stronger ties to your organization.  It helps employee morale and retention but most of all, it's just a really good thing to do for the community that supports you and your people.

Anjee Sorge
Director of Operations
FIRE Light Group


PS. A small post-script on the clientele at River Food Pantry.  I think a lot of people don't volunteer because they are scared to work with the homeless or needy.  They expect people to be crazy or mean or drunk or think they will not be able to relate to them.  My experience was quite the contrary.  Most of the people I met were very gracious and friendly, just normal folks trying to get by.  I think one of the most important lessons that can be taken away from this experience is that it can happen to ANYONE.  If I or my husband were to lose our jobs tomorrow, we could be on the other side of the table in no time.  Seeing and understanding this can really change your perceptions of what "need" is and exactly who it affects.