Company Culture

What Is ‘Volunteer Time Off’ and Why Should You Implement it?

As we approach the holidays, it’s natural to reflect on our own situation and how we can give back to our friends, family, and local community. Given the current state of the world, it may seem more difficult to give back in meaningful ways right now, but in reality, there’s a huge opportunity to make difference in people’s lives through volunteering.

Unfortunately, many volunteering activities take place during the workday, making it hard for employees to balance giving back and collecting a paycheck. That’s why many employers have begun to offer volunteer time off, or VTO. This allows employees to take paid time off (PTO) during the workday and contribute to a cause they believe in.

Interested in learning more? Here’s a look at what volunteer time off is and what its benefits are — plus all the information you need to decide if a VTO plan is right for your organization.

What Is Volunteer Time Off (VTO)?

Volunteer time off gives your employees the flexibility to volunteer during the workday and still get paid. This allows employees to give back to the local community — without having to give up a full day’s wages. Additionally, VTO is often built into your paid time off plan so it’s just as easy to track as vacation, sick, and bereavement days.

A successful VTO policy should include the amount of time employees may take off, any requirements for volunteering activities, and how an employee can get their request approved.

When it comes to choosing policy details, you’ll need to decide what works best with your organization’s goals, advised Laura Handrick, contributing HR professional at Choosing Therapy, an online mental health education platform.

“A smaller firm might let employees take one day of VTO a year to volunteer at a food bank, spend a day cleaning up a beach or highway, or teach a class at a domestic violence shelter,” Handrick said. “Larger firms might choose to offer larger blocks of VTO. For example, a construction firm might give employees up to five days of VTO a year to assist with local Habitat for Humanity builds.”

Katie Maurer, Executive Director of People and Development at Media Minefield, a Minnesota-based PR agency, shared that her company offers employees 16 hours of VTO a year. “We know that making an impact and giving back to our communities is essential, and that can look different for each employee,” she said. “We allow our employees to volunteer in a way that’s meaningful to them. That might mean serving at their child’s school or at their local polling place, but whatever they choose, we know our employees will bring good to their community.”

Like Media Minefield, you can give employees free rein to pick a nonprofit they believe in for their day(s) of service. Conversely, some companies might choose to limit where employees can volunteer. For instance, if your company has tight-knit relationships with a handful of nonprofits in your area, it might make sense to limit employees to those organizations for their volunteering, so that your company can continue to build on its support for those nonprofits and their goals. 

If you do decide to let your employees choose their own nonprofits to support, be sure to offer a few suggestions for inspiration, and include those organizations’ contact information so your employees can easily get in touch to schedule their volunteer time. You can add an explanation of your VTO policy and any additional details on your company intranet or in your employee handbook.

“This makes it easy for individuals who haven’t volunteered before to get started,” Handrick pointed out.

Attracting Top Talent With VTO

Employees today want more than just a paycheck; they want to feel like they’re helping to make the world a better place, and that they’re working for a socially responsible organization aligned with their personal goals and values.

Studies have found this mentality is particularly prevalent in millennials, currently the largest generation in the workforce. In a 2016 study by Cone Communications, 75% of millennials said they would be willing to take a pay cut to work for a socially responsible company, and 64% said they’d pass on a job offer if they felt a company didn’t have strong corporate responsibility practices.

“Offering dedicated time out of the office for employees to get involved in giving back to the community is one way we show our employees that their personal development and fulfillment are valued,” Maurer said. “That’s attractive to a generation that is ready to roll up their sleeves and make an impact.”

Offering volunteer time off can help attract recruits and prove your organization’s dedication to investing in the local community. According to the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) 2019 Employee Benefits Survey, only 26% of employers allow employees to take paid time off to volunteer. That means VTO can be a workplace perk that helps your company stand out from the competition. 

And there’s clearly an appetite for company-led giving: In Deloitte’s 2017 Volunteerism Survey, close to 70% of employees said they are not volunteering as much as they would like to, with nearly two-thirds of respondents attributing this to the fact that they can’t dedicate time during the day to volunteer. VTO gives employees an opportunity to give back to their community while contributing to a cause they’re passionate about, like domestic violence, climate change, or animal cruelty.

The Benefits of VTO

Attracting top talent isn’t the only benefit of offering VTO at your organization. In addition to helping your business give back to the local community, it can also improve the physical and mental health of your employees as well.

Here are some of the major benefits of offering volunteer time off.

1. It enables your business to give back to the community. 

VTO inspires your employees to go out and make a difference in the surrounding area. This can help improve your business’s reputation and set you apart as an organization that cares about the local community and its inhabitants.

2. It can boost your employees’ mental health.

In a UnitedHealthcare study, of the respondents who volunteered in the past 12 months, 93% reported having an improved mood, and 79% said they experienced lower stress levels. While most studies measure the long-term effects of volunteering, volunteering can help boost your employees’ mental health and overall wellbeing in the short-term, too. Hopefully your VTO plan will help your employees connect with an organization they believe in, motivating them to continue volunteering in the future.  

3. It can also improve their physical health.

Volunteering can even have a positive impact on employees’ physical health. Research suggests that regular volunteering can lower the risk of high blood pressure in older adults by up to 40% and can even help you live longer

4. It can teach employees new skills.

Volunteering provides a valuable opportunity to learn and hone new skills outside of the workplace. Your employees can get hands-on experience in a new field, or gain experience that could even help them in their role at your organization. For example, a marketer could learn how to build a social media strategy and manage an online community by volunteering to run a dog shelter’s social media accounts. Or, an employee could hone their communication and leadership skills by overseeing a soup kitchen’s volunteer training program.

5. It facilitates a sense of purpose. 

Volunteering can be immensely rewarding because it allows you to see firsthand how your efforts can change people’s lives for the better. It can connect you to others and increase feelings of accomplishment, belonging, and confidence. That feel-good emotional boost can help employees lead fulfilled lives and ensure that they come to work energized, engaged, and inspired. 

If you decide to implement your own volunteer time off plan, just remember that while VTO is a nice workplace perk, you should see it as only one part of your organization’s larger corporate social responsibility program. Odds are that just offering VTO won’t be enough to attract and convince socially-minded employees to stay at your organization.

Instead, build out a program that allows your company and employees to give back to the community in diverse ways. This could be in the form of throwing an annual company-wide day of service, developing partnerships with local schools, and/or hosting food and clothing drives in the office, to name a few.

“On its own, VTO isn’t that big a deal — it’s just one more paid day off,” Handrick said. “But when added to an existing list of employee-friendly, people-supportive perks, it demonstrates that the company cares about its employees and the community. That never hurts.”