Brands harness the power of the hour

Home Depot, Microsoft and others come together to donate PR, media and employee time to promote volunteerism.

While volunteering may have eclipsed the environment as the U.S. media’s new darling cause thanks to Obama’s star-studded “United We Serve” campaign last year, up here in Canada corporate volunteerism has been slowly gathering speed for some time.

Bon Jovi may not be the spokesceleb, but the Corporate Council on Volunteering boasts a roster of 23 Canadian companies, from founding members like The Home Depot to newcomers like Microsoft, coming together in a non-competitive environment to donate PR, media and employee time to promote volunteerism. 

“The industry is moving away from just being simply about cash. There are a lot of different ways to help,” says Paulette Minard, manager of community affairs at Home Depot Canada.

Following a TV campaign on BNN in January, phase two of the council’s “Power of the Hour” campaign went live during National Volunteer Week at the end of April, with 10 TV spots featuring senior execs and staff from Home Depot, UPS, SAP Canada, Microsoft, Deloitte, Investors Group, Direct Energy, CIBC, Manulife and Molson Coors building playgrounds, picking vegetables and challenging other Canadian companies to do the same. At press time over 3.3 million hours had been pledged at Powerofthehour.ca, and 34 businesses had joined.

Fourteen companies formed the council in 2005 after Home Depot Canada president Annette Verschuren saw a similar program in the U.S. and reached out to Ottawa-based Volunteer Canada. In 2008, Volunteer Canada and the council partnered with TVO series Get Involved, 50 short documentaries on what Q Media Solutions executive producer and series creator Dorothy Engelman describes as “a new generation of people turning to social entrepreneurism and innovation, what we like to call ‘the new volunteer.’” The TV drives to social networking site Getinvolved.ca, which is “the point of action and connection for people,” says Engelman.

Home Depot appoints captains in its 179 stores across the country to lead activities in the neighbourhood. The teams determine the charities that will best benefit from their DIY expertise, from community centre refurbishments to gardening programs and affordable housing projects, using products from their stores. September is the company’s annual month of service, with 21,000 hours donated last year.

UPS Canada has been working with Volunteer Canada since 2001 to create a link between financial contributions and employee volunteerism. Aside from Global Volunteer Month efforts every October, employees who have donated more than 50 hours can nominate a charity for a UPS grant for $25,000 to $50,000. So far in 2010, $257,000 has been donated to six organizations.

“We just thought it was a better, more encompassing way to give back,” says spokesperson Tara Smith. “We had found that, not that it’s easy to write a cheque, but sometimes charity organizations would benefit more from hands-on volunteer hours.”

Molson Coors Canada has a similar linkage between dollars and hours. If employees recruit five other staffers to volunteer, the company will donate $2,000 to their charity, and a national mentoring program hires summer students to implement solutions for chosen charities. MC launched the Molson Coors Volunteer Program in 2006 and named April 2010 its first global month of action (2,515 hours were committed on the first day). Employee stories are promoted on Blog.molson.com/community and other internal communications like Yammer, a microblogging tool.

“Our model is born out of the grassroots, because our business is local,” says chief public affairs officer Ferg Devins. “It’s good business to be involved in the community, and it’s most powerful for the company at the local level where beer is being sold.”