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Tonya Lagrasta is the head of ESG for Colliers Real Estate Management Services in Canada.

Scroll through companies’ sustainability web pages and you’re bound to come across photos of employees gathered for a day of volunteering at the local food bank, planting trees in a community park, picking up litter from a shoreline or standing behind an oversized donation cheque.

These are all worthwhile activities, good for the community and for everyone lending a hand. But could there be a better way to engage employees in philanthropy – a way that ties back to the organization’s strengths and core values, advances environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals and personalizes how each employee makes a positive social impact in their community?

That may seem like a lot, but it is possible, and it makes sense for all involved because it prioritizes impact and outcomes.

Philanthropy 2.0

From the perspective of the organization, we often see efforts to help accelerate positive social change aligned with the nature of its business activities and purpose. For example, a food service company directs its community giving toward programs that address hunger, or a medical device manufacturer might focus its efforts on certain patient groups. The key is making these philanthropic efforts strategic and measurable. Once organizations figure this out, it’s a game changer.

When it comes to engaging employees, efforts to mobilize them to contribute to the community is best done through a lens that considers their personal values, skills and ability to integrate volunteering into their busy lives.

Even better, how about incorporating employees’ volunteering efforts as one component of their overall performance, and as a way to further their professional development and career growth?

Instead of a day off to volunteer, offer flexibility

For example, one organization I had worked at previously decided to ditch the annual volunteer day. In its place, everyone was given the flexibility and tools they needed to contribute to their community, with one catch - community goals would be included in annual goal setting and performance. Employees could choose to lend their time in the community or within the company (for example, by being part of an ESG or special event committee) but they needed to ensure their volunteer activities made sense for them professionally and personally.

For one employee – a mother with a kid in little league baseball – it made sense personally to volunteer as a coach for her child’s baseball team because this would allow her to integrate her volunteer work into the time she had already set aside in her schedule. It also made sense professionally because it linked to one of her career development and performance goals to strengthen her leadership and teambuilding skills.

Others focused solely on lending and learning new skills by joining the board of directors at a non-profit.

In both scenarios, the company gave employees the flexibility to manage their time and workloads so they could leave work early for practice and games or to attend a midday board meeting.

Employees worked with their performance manager to set their philanthropic goals and agree to the flexibility needed to meet them. Then at the end of the year, the performance manager sat down with each employee to talk about what they did in the community and how these philanthropic activities contributed to their personal and professional development.

These were simple changes that were transformational. Instead of “voluntelling” its employees for a day at the food bank, planting trees or cleaning a stretch of shoreline, the organization empowered them to lend their time and skills in ways that were not only personally meaningful, but also helped them achieve their development goals and tied into their performance.

Community giving that ties into compensation

At this previous company, every employee’s contribution toward the company’s ESG goals is also part of the calculus for their compensation. Doing good is, truly, good for them.

Organizations still unsure about the business value of ESG and, in particular, employee philanthropy should consider a PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP-guided survey by America’s Charities, a membership-based non-profit for charitable giving campaigns in workplaces. The survey found seven out of 10 employees said it was important for them to work in an organization where mission and values align.

The survey also found three out of five employees volunteer their time through a workplace-sponsored program and – this is where the argument for personalization and flexibility gets loud and clear – six out of 10 said it was important for them to have a say in their community giving.

These findings all tie into employee engagement, which we know has a direct impact on productivity, talent attraction and retention.

It’s time for organizations to rethink their employee programs for community giving. Any volunteers?

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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