THE BLOG
24/12/2013 05:01 GMT | Updated 22/02/2014 05:59 GMT

I Gave at the Office

Tis the season of workplace giving and the topic always seems to get a few people's blinky Rudolph noses out of joint. It's an emotive and hotly contested topic that ranges from someone's kid selling Christmas wrapping paper to large corporate donor programmes that raise thousands. And let's not get started with the peer pressure of Secret Santa gifts. What exactly can you get that guy in accounting for £5 that says "I care about you co-worker! Happy Chrismahanukwanzakah!" (FYI, scratch-off tickets are my fail-safe in case you're wondering...)

Workplace giving was popularised by the United Way, facilitating giving through payroll deductions. When this practice became common in the mid 20thcentury, so did the expression "I gave at the office." Now used as a euphemism for "buzz off, I'm not interested", United Way's giving programme is credited with laying the foundation for modern CSR programmes and has been called "one of the greatest social inventions in American history."

Despite this, I can't blame people for feeling a bit bah-humbug about holiday workplace charity. I find giving very personal. It's a bit of a tinsel laden minefield. How much do you give? Anonymously or not? And how, as an executive, does one balance leading from the front in a giving campaign with possibly pressuring people to give more than they feel comfortable with? Add that on top of the usual holiday stress and it is easy to see why people might just opt out.

But a soon to be published book on stress management by Mayo Clinic stress expert Amit Sood suggests that some of the keys to stress reduction are closely aligned with charitable activity. Sood cites that cultivating a greater degree of gratitude, compassion, and higher meaning in your life can actually help reduce that overwhelming crush of the holiday time.

Pro bono work, gifts of talent and time, have been hugely popular in professional services, but are implemented in even less traditional organisations. Periscopix, a London based pay-per-click provider, allows each staff member to select a charity they wish to support through their internet marketing services. Research has shown that the most effective CSR engagement programmes have a high degree of cultural alignment. By aligning charitable and CSR initiatives with the core business or values you are assured of a greater sense of authenticity, key to successful engagement programmes.

So how does doing good help businesses do well? Brand loyalty and employee engagement are the top reasons. According to a 2012 study done by Net Impact, 53% of employees want a job where they can make a social impact, with almost the same percentage willing to take a paycut to work at a job that makes a positive social or environmental impact. And the number for recent grads is even higher. In a case study from the book 2020 Workplace, 80% of Millennials cited social impact as a factor in selecting an employer. Realistically we can't always find this as part of our job role, and this is the engagement argument for bringing charitable partnerships into the workplace. CSR is rapidly replacing charitable giving, and play a much deeper strategic role in recruiting and retaining talent.

My firm recently turned the notion of "I gave at the office" on its head. We didn't give AT the office. We gave AN office. Let me explain.

The idea came (as so many of the best ones do) after a few pints with some co-workers. We were trying to find a way to engage staff in a meaningful CSR project that would have us doing something significant. We weren't talking about one of those programmes where a select few climb Kilimanjaro for the rights of houseplants or a bike ride to Paris for teenage malaise awareness. We wanted a proper charitable event where everyone could participate in making a difference, and as a side benefit, get to know one another a bit better. Inspired by the incredible work of charities like Habitat for Humanity and the cheesy but tear-inducing wow-moments of shows like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Charity SOS was born.

Over the course of a day 80 people from Morgan Lovell descended upon the Down's Syndrome Association and refurbished their entire office. Supported by dozens of suppliers, we gave DSA what a check made out to the charity never could: an office that made them feel valued. In the end the value of the project amounted to about £150k. But the staff there said that even if they had been given an unrestricted £5mill donation, they never would have spent it on themselves. It would have been unseemly. But now with a new office they can offer better service delivery to their clients and feel a greater sense of professionalism in the incredible work they do.

So what was in it for us? Every person who worked on site has said that they felt moved by the experience. We bonded. We became more engaged. And the stress of the holidays melted away. Don't get me wrong. It was exhausting, but the sense of purpose meaning, and yes, the holiday spirit made it well worth the effort. And it certainly put each and every one of us on Santa's nice list.