Michelle Barbin’s job does not always fill her bucket. Yes, she likes her nine-to-five helping improve consumer experiences at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. She emphasizes she wouldn’t have spent nearly 19 years working for the health insurance provider otherwise.

But her “empathetic heart” gets true satisfaction from the company’s opportunities to apply professional skills toward resource-strapped nonprofits. Routine work — managing projects or organizing slideshows — feels more fulfilling when it involves, say, a new marketing campaign for a Pittsburgh children’s health group.

She’s reaped developmental benefits, too; she credits her leadership on a day of service for helping convince her current boss to hire her onto a new team.

“This is a huge part of why I stay,” Barbin said.

Employees increasingly find that robust workplace volunteer programs meet their desires for in-person connections, professional growth and altruistically inclined employers — career objectives that might be missing in conventional corporate atmospheres. The surge in interest coming out of the pandemic-era shutdowns that forced many Americans to reevaluate their commitments to their communities led to more corporate partners, volunteer hours and active participants in 2023 than ever before, according to Benevity, a platform that helps companies manage such programs.

More than 60% of respondents reported increased participation last year in employee volunteer activities, according to an Association of Corporate Citizenship Professionals survey of 149 companies.

Even employees who don’t volunteer themselves feel better about working somewhere with strong public-spirited cultures. Regardless of their own individual volunteer commitments, they feel proud about their affiliation with a socially conscious company, according to Jessica Rodell, a University of Georgia management professor who studies worker psychology.

Companies with robust volunteer programs tend to also have lower turnover rates, she said.

“Volunteering can be one tool in a company’s toolbox to help employees invest of themselves enough in the company to perform well, and then want to stay there instead of go somewhere else,” Rodell said.

It can be an especially good tool for instilling social purpose among frontline employees who tend to derive a sense of meaning from work but report detachment from their company’s mission.

But flexibility is key. Business management experts note that employees must have the freedom to choose their volunteer activities, nonprofit partners and time commitments for fruitful bonds to actually develop.

Workplace volunteering was not something that Jesse Weissman knew he wanted from employers when joined Microsoft in May 2021. Three years later, it’s an aspect of professional life that he said would warrant serious consideration if he ever pursued a new job.

Searching for a deeper connection to the Seattle community, Weissman began mentoring students of color through Microsoft’s partnership with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and a local nonprofit. Since September 2022, he’s worked with Microsoft’s Black employee affinity group in the Seattle area to arrange speaking and mentorship opportunities for his colleagues.

“It filled a hole that I didn’t realize,” Weissman said.

Not just any slapdash activity will do, experts say. These service days are not necessarily circled on office-wide calendars as afternoons of matching tees and on-site photo opportunities. Some companies set aside regular work hours for months at a time so employees can build websites or develop business strategies for local charities.

Executives might think that a lighthearted, social effort — filling backpacks at a happy hour, for example — is necessary to turn out their fun-loving employees. But Rodell, the management professor, said that more time-intensive, meaningful programs have greater resonance with volunteers.

Best practices include following employees’ leads and meeting them where they’re at. Skills-based opportunities at Blue Cross Blue Shield range from one-day, “flash” projects to monthslong partnerships. The company sets aside 15 days annually for associates to spend volunteering, much like vacation and sick time. Affinity groups can co-create service projects.

Integrating giving into the volunteer programs is another way to engage busier, seasoned employees with less time to serve but deeper pocketbooks. Liberty Mutual matches employee gifts to more than 11,000 eligible charities. The insurance company’s volunteers are further incentivized by the chance to earn miniature grants for the charity of their choice. Totals reach $2,500 for those who have completed 100 service hours.

Some employees recently spent parts of more than six months consulting with More Than Words, a Boston nonprofit that provides work for youth ages 16 to 24 who have cycled through foster care, courts, homeless shelters or other systems. After surveying participants, Liberty Mutual employees identified a lack of front-end support, according to Naomi Parker, the nonprofit’s chief advancement officer. Youth needed help obtaining transportation and food before they could hold down a job.

The volunteer commitments are now part of extensive ties that have seen a Liberty Mutual employee join the More Than Words board and more than $3.4 million committed to the nonprofit since 2013. Employees have given more than $85,000 including matches and other incentives.

“It doesn’t turn into a LinkedIn post, right?” Parker said. “It’s not a quick hit. It’s real. It’s deep. And it’s not for show.”

Volunteering can be a gateway to relationships beyond the otherwise costly, behind-the-scenes help provided by employees. The long-term partnerships in turn introduce budget-constrained nonprofits to new pools of donors.

Now is an especially good time to forge those connections given that Gen Z is forecast to overtake Baby Boomers in the workforce this year, said Blackbaud Giving Fund Executive Director Matt Nash. Over three-fifths of charitable donors recently volunteered with the organization they supported, according to a Fidelity Charitable report. As younger employees increase their earnings, Nash said, well-formed bonds can become especially lucrative for nonprofits.

Legendary Legacies Executive Director Ron Waddell had no expectations that Blue Cross Blue Shield employees would stay engaged with his nonprofit’s work rehabilitating young gang members. Several IT specialists and data analysts had helped them better capture metrics on the success of their programs — important for both feedback and grant applications. But many months later, one volunteer made a $200 donation in what Waddell considered a testament to their honest motives.

It wasn’t “a performative measure to look good,” he said. “You could tell folks were really invested.”

Associated Press coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.

—James Pollard, Associated Press

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