'Tis the season! Employers find many happy returns in volunteerism


I’m standing shoulder to shoulder with Lonnie, an analyst, and Aishwarya, a database administrator, both from our I.T. department. My job: to place a small, pop-open can of fruit into a partially filled plastic bag into which Aishwarya has just placed two microwavable soup containers. If I place my fruit cup just right, Lonnie can then insert his two individual cereal containers, before passing the bag down the line for heat-sealing and boxing.

Across from us, our director of compensation attempts to match Lonnie, cereal container for cereal container. Behind me, our chief information officer, in charge of restocking the production line, tears down empty cardboard boxes with a level of enthusiasm usually associated with opening birthday presents. We’re all moving at a brisk pace, and despite the cold, I’m starting to work up a sweat.

Is this some kind of bizarre training session? Or preparation for our annual holiday luncheon? Maybe it’s a team-building exercise, or a new wellness initiative?

In a way, it’s all of these things. We’re part of a team of 60-plus AMC associates who have signed up to spend the day at Harvesters, a local clearing house and supplier for area food pantries. Our job is to help prepare sealed packages of food for needy kids in the area. We’ve just watched a video explaining that in far too many metro households, kids go home from school on Friday looking forward to a weekend of low to no nutrition. So Harvesters supplies area food pantries with backpacks full of donated nutritional meals and snacks to get these kids through the weekend. Last year, they had 8,000 kids in this backpack program. This year, they have 14,000.

As the morning progresses, a good-natured rivalry develops between the two teams of AMC volunteers, as each strives to exceed the other in terms of palettes of boxes completed. (I, of course, continue to maintain that my team won this contest, but there is some debate on this score.) By the end of the day, we’re exhausted, sore and…happy. We’ve just spent several hours ignoring our “day jobs,” working with people we may rarely see in the course of our normal duties, accomplishing tasks that have nothing to do with our job descriptions.

So we’re doing this just to get out of “real” work, right? Hardly.

We’re at Harvesters as part of AMC’s commitment to the community, donating associates’ time for a day of volunteerism (this is in addition to two days a year associates can donate time to a charity of their choice). Like many companies, AMC sees numerous benefits in programs like these.

First and foremost, participation in company-sponsored programs like these helps associates feel a sense of pride in their employer. As I’ve mentioned previously, this is one of the key factors the Great Place to Work® Institute has identified in its research supporting Fortune Magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list. There is a direct correlation between pride in one’s employer and one’s engagement at work.

Secondly, a group volunteering effort like our experience at Harvesters helps create teamwork and camaraderie among associates who don’t normally collaborate on projects. Not surprisingly, these two things are also important elements in the “100 Best” assessment process. At these activities, and others like them, silos are “busted.” Hierarchies are blurred.  We’re all working toward a common goal, with a unity of purpose rarely found in a corporate office setting. This feeling of shared purpose is something associates can carry with them back into that corporate setting. For me, Lonnie and Aishwarya are no longer just I.T. associates, they’re my Harvesters teammates.

It would be disingenuous to ignore the public-relations upside of allowing associates this kind of volunteer activity. At AMC, we provide t-shirts to all volunteers just so that others who see them will know they’re part of the AMC team. It’s important from a brand perspective that prospective customers know we’re doing this. We are, after all, in business to make money. And if we can do so while helping the community along the way, so much the better.

And speaking of money, it should be self-evident that this is a great way of providing a benefit to associates that really doesn’t cost the employer anything at all in terms of “hard dollars.” Sure, you could say that AMC “donated” 60-plus associates’ time for eight hours, equaling more than $12,000 worth of time (and we probably will say that—see “PR” point above). But in real terms, our day at Harvesters didn’t cost the company a dime.

These days, it’s hard for employers to keep employee benefits competitive in the face of tremendous pressures to cut back and contain costs. It’s rare to find benefits that provide upsides without costing an arm and a leg. Employers are starting to feel less like Santa and more and more like Ebenezer Scrooge. So when an opportunity comes along like this, especially at this time of year, it’s the ultimate “win-win” scenario. Unlike Dickens’ miserly character, we shouldn’t need to be visited by a series of paranormal tour guides to help us see this one.

God bless us, every one!

For more information on Harvesters, check out their website at www.harvesters.org. Keith Wiedenkeller welcomes comments or questions via e-mail at kwiedenkeller@amctheatres.com.