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Professor’s Research Connects Career Skills with Volunteering

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For almost a decade, David Jones, Ph.D., associate professor of business administration at the University of Vermont, has studied how company-supported volunteer programs increase employee loyalty, happiness and retention.

Starting in 2006 with his study of a Green Mountain Coffee Roasters program to support and encourage its employees to volunteer and serve their communities, Jones began to note a pattern: Companies who invest in employee volunteerism can recoup those investments – and then some.

Over time, he has completed more than 10 empirical studies, consulted with six companies – both local firms and large multinationals – seeking to set up volunteer programs, and seen his findings published in academic journals and scholarly book chapters. His studies about company volunteer programs, in turn, connect to his other research showing that many job seekers want to work for employers committed to sustainable business practices.

“I’m not setting out to try to show that these volunteer programs pay for themselves or that companies will always get a lot in return, but the results across several studies make a heck of a good story,” Jones said. “When setting up volunteer programs, companies often have motives that are strategic – to improve their brand image and improve their profits – but the leaders I’ve worked with also care deeply about the wellbeing of their employees and their communities. When a company invests time and resources in this, they appear to reap benefits through improved employee retention and loyalty, while at the same time the community and nonprofits are being served by talented and skilled professionals, and meanwhile the employee volunteers themselves believe they benefit in numerous ways. It’s a win-win-win.”

Jones draws on his research studies when teaching about sustainable business practices; he teaches courses through UVM’s Center for Leadership and Innovation; summer Professional Certificate in Sustainable Business Practices; and the School of Business Administration’s newly launched Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA (SEMBA) program.

“Our views about sustainable business in Vermont include, but are much more than just, ‘We have to protect the environment,’ ” he explains. “It’s about long-term survival and sustainable growth through managing relationships with important stakeholders, such as employees, the future labor force, government regulators, suppliers and customers, as well as the natural environment.”

Featured in Forbes
Recently, his research has turned to examining the connection between employees’ job skill development through company-sponsored volunteer work. And it has drawn national media attention.

Forbes magazine highlighted Jones’ study of professionals volunteering over the course of several months to teach enrichment activities to lower-income and at-risk middle-school students. Through a non-profit organization called Citizen Schools, employees from partnering companies such as Google, Cisco, Cognizant Technology Solutions and Fidelity Investments use their expertise to mentor students through an after-school program and work with them to complete projects on everything from art to robotics. Nearly half the programs focus on science, technology, engineering or math areas, giving Fortune 500 companies a chance to use their company brainpower to help improve America’s STEM education.

Founded in 1995 by UVM alumnus Eric Schwarz and Ned Rimer, the Boston-based Citizen Schools places over 4,700 employee volunteers in 32 schools across the country. By connecting adults with low-income students, the nonprofit hopes to close the “opportunity gap,” in which students from upper-income families receive more adult attention and enrichment activities than do low-income students.

And while Citizen Schools reports that students’ test scores improve as a result of their time with these “citizen teachers,” Jones’ study shows that the employee volunteers learn as well.

“There is a lot of anecdotal evidence and opinion poll studies that directly ask employees if they developed work-related skills through volunteering, and it’s pretty easy for them to say, ‘Yes, I did.’ But while those perspectives are important, they don’t provide rigorous evidence that their skills actually increased,” Jones said. “My study is the first to provide more rigorous evidence by testing theoretically grounded hypotheses that tie the extent of volunteers’ skill improvement to the nature of their volunteering experience. The results provide a pretty nice picture. Certainly, the evidence leads me to conclude that employees’ claims about skill improvement seem to reflect what actually is happening, at least for some of them.”

Improvement in Specific Career Skills
Jones found that because of the Citizen Schools experience, as many as half the volunteers reported improvement in 10 critical job skills: leadership, mentoring, motivating, public speaking and presenting, project management, time management, speaking clearly, communicating performance expectations, providing performance feedback, and teamwork. Other evidence suggests that these claims were not just talk. For instance, employee volunteers who spent more time using and practicing specific skills throughout the course of a multi-month assignment reported significantly stronger improvements in those skills.

“Employees have this opportunity in many volunteering contexts that’s so novel compared to their regular work environment. They can get the chance to practice and hone and develop these skills in a safe place,” he said. “In the case of Citizen Schools’ volunteers, those employees aren’t used to managing a group of kids. All of the sudden, they’re having to use their professional skills in a challenging but socially supportive and safe context. According to theory and research, that’s exactly the sort of context where people have the greatest potential to develop and improve.”

UVM Professor David Jones
UVM Professor David Jones