Seeing red, when tragedy strikes . . .

Receiving paid time off to volunteer: employee volunteer encouragement policies
Red Cross bandaidThe Indonesia tsunami of 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the 2008 earthquake in China. Earth’s catastrophes strike and its inhabitants are left scrambling to sort through the seemingly impossible mess. But of all the horrible natural disasters in modern history, according to a report by the Inter-American Development Bank, the January 12 7.0 earthquake in Haiti has been the worst with approximately 250,000 people killed, 1.2 million left homeless, and up to $14 billion in damages. But, there’s some hope on the horizon: human goodness.

Neither human nor goodness necessarily comes to mind when referencing Hollywood, but, immediately, celebrities swooped in to help. Within two weeks, a star-studded fundraising telethon had been concocted and brought to full fruition, raising over $50 million in Haiti aid. Shakira and Sting were crooning. George Clooney and Brad Pitt prompted swooning. Julia Roberts and Reese Witherspoon were on the phones, collecting donations. To maximize fundraising efforts, a commemorative album full of telethon tracks was swiftly put together.

The Hollywood elite were sure speedy, but they weren’t the first show of American heart. The U.S. Government can still prove itself a great bastion of hope and help. Within a week, we had sent 100,000 of our troops into the state of disarray to provide a government presence in a nation void of one, security amidst calamity, and distributors of aid to the Haitians’ basic, but very threatened, needs of thirst, hunger, and health. As one Haiti resident, Énide Edoword, declared,“It is not ideal to have a foreign army here, but look at the situation.” Haiti’s already iffy government had vanished completely in the midst of the disaster and without the U.S. presence, there would have been no collective leadership at all.

But, as always, it is not the titanic enterprises that create the greatest impact. The cumulative little guy effort has been chipping away at the chaos, too. Somewhere between Uncle Sam and unctuous celebrities lie the collective kindness of humanity. The everyday, average Americans who have the skills and heart to lend a hand. In a little over two weeks, private U.S. donors had already contributed $560 million to the cause. Considering the current precarious economy, such an outpour of private monetary aid is heartwarming.

Yet, monetary and military aid aside, in a disaster of this magnitude, what Haiti needs now and in the long run is good old-fashioned, roll-up-your-sleeves people power. But for the average American who is a little tied up with the whole working for a living thing which already interferes with her tending to the own messes in her own life, how can she provide that help? And how well is Corporate America getting along with the Caring America that wants to help?

According to Cone, a cause marketing and strategy organization, being a good business is, well, good business. Employees want to work for companies with a cause. That is, companies which are known contributors to social causes. Companies which inspire employees to be better people. Companies which provide employees with ready opportunities to enact their desire to do good. According to a 2008 study conducted by Cone, 76% of employees feel it is important that their employers provide paid time off to volunteer. Lucky for Haiti, businesses big and small are doing just that and more to provide much needed assistance.

Help Haiti TextMany U.S. corporations have outstanding outreach programs established, but, in light of the Haiti disaster, additional assistance efforts were implemented. Verizon, with one of the largest employee volunteer programs in the nation, has brought in more than 5 million hours of community service since 2000. But in establishing the Haiti Relief Connection Center in Miami to assist Haitian-Americans in reaching family members and friends in Haiti, the organization found a way to immediately utilize its resources and people power to help. Microsoft, another known leader in social aid, regularly matches employee monetary philanthropic contributions. But, in addition, the organization donates $17 for every employee volunteer hour and has a firm history of philanthropic aid. In fact, within 32 hours, Microsoft’s Global Strategic Accounts team, along with Iceland’s Urban Search and Rescue Team, was the first show of international rescue. UPS, as well, encourages employee volunteerism during natural disasters. The company has a ready humanitarian relief team whose members are trained in “skill-based volunteering” while still earning their regular pay.

While these and other organizations have established an outstanding culture of encouragement in employee volunteerism, more is and should be expected to come. Organizations with paid time-off for international aid. Benefit packages that include weeks off for volunteer excursions. Scholarships for employees with the skills to help in natural disasters, and training programs for those who aim to learn those skills. Again: it is good business to be a good business and, if kindness and charity is not enough incentive, business leaders should remember those words.

Kudos to those organizations that have employee encouragement policies in place already. And further kudos to those companies who follow that lead and, affected by the heart-wrenching chaos of the Haiti disaster, incorporate new or improved employee volunteer encouragement policies. Workplace organizations have not only the financial ability but the people power to provide consistent local and worldwide help. Not just in times of immediate and obvious tragedy is volunteerism a boon to all. Humankind can always use a helping hand and helping hands, in the form of individuals and corporations alike, are what make humankind kind.

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