How to Engage Your Employees Through Community Service

How to Engage Your Employees Through Community Service

Giving back to the community fills us with joy—but there is perhaps something even bigger at play—it often brings people together and engages us deeply. Organizations have a huge opportunity to mobilize their workforce, particularly around the holiday season, to volunteer time as a group for many great causes that exist in our local communities today. But how do employers choose an organization that aligns with their values and beliefs? How do we treat volunteer time for employees—is it paid time or is it not? And what kind of impact can community involvement have on individual employees within a company, as well as that company as a whole? Will it impact the culture in a positive way?

Rhonda Meadows, Senior HR Business Partner at Xenium HR and Founder of non-profit organizations Project Lemonade and Bridge Meadows, joins the podcast to answer many of these questions and to share her own story of recognizing a need and responding with a solution. Don’t miss this timely discussion on the importance of giving back and the difference it can make in your organization and peoples’ lives.

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MP3 File | Run Time: 25:53

Brandon: Welcome to the HR for Small Business Podcast, this is your host, Brandon Laws. Today I have Rhonda Meadows with me. She is a Senior Human Resource Business Partner at Xenium. Rhonda, welcome to the podcast.

Rhonda: Thank you!

Brandon: So Rhonda, you by day are an HR rock star. You’re a great consultant for Xenium and you have thirty years of experience in HR, would you say?

Rhonda: Over 30.

Brandon: Over 30! Ok.

Rhonda: Not going to give you my age though!

Brandon: So over 30 years of experience. But then you have this whole other side of you, and I want you to let people in on that whole other side of you. You’re very involved in the community. Can you shed some light on what you’ve been doing all these years?

Meadows, Rhonda - circleRhonda: Yeah. So I years ago brought in a young foster child. My mom was teaching at Chapman Grade School and told me there was a young man whose dad was in prison and his mom could no longer take care of him. So my family agreed to take him in and I think it was when he landed on my doorstep that I realized that there was such a need for foster youth. When he landed on my doorstep, all he had was a paper bag and in the bag he had a pair of socks and a T-shirt. That really stuck with me.

When he left our home, it was truly my motivation to look into children in foster care and what services we provide for them as a community, and we were lacking. The community needed to come together and support foster youth in more ways than what they were getting in the system.

So, since Alan, my foster son, I have started two non-profits. Both of them serve foster youth. One, Bridge Meadows, has a 90 percent adoption rate for foster youth. Back in 2004, we had 16,000 kids in foster care, now we have 13,000. The second is Project Lemonade, and Project Lemonade is a back to school event for foster youth to provide them with confidence and self-esteem when they start school. So we serve all school age kids and we’ve served over 8,000 kids in five years.

Brandon: Incredible.

Rhonda: I think the “giving back” piece is spiritual for me. Everybody has their own spiritual interests and what is spirituality to people? For me, it’s spiritual to serve kids whose parents can’t take care of them. Coming together as a community and serving kids the best way we know how is a good feeling. One of the kids that we served this summer, he tried on a new pair of Jordans. He had asked for a pair of black Jordans.

Brandon: What kid wouldn’t want Jordans?!

Rhonda: Yeah! And it was at that time that I really had to take a moment of silence when he strutted around in his new Jordans and said, You all have changed my life. With a new pair of Jordans! So we asked ourselves, What is something that would change our life? And something as simple as a pair of shoes is – again I go back to kindness and giving and how important it is and how it feels good inside in your heart.

Brandon-iconBrandon: That’s an incredible story and what goes to my mind is that day your first foster child showed up at your front door. Something inside you must have clicked, like this is like what I was meant to do. In community involvement, I think it’s so purpose-driven and you can see the bigger picture. What was that bigger picture for you? You said like the Jordans, for that kid, they made his world. He had never had an opportunity to have Jordans and he got to be like all the other kids. Tell me about that – like what the purpose was for you.

Rhonda: After Alan leaving, the purpose of starting Bridge Meadows was that there were so many kids who weren’t being adopted.

Brandon: Yeah.

Rhonda: My mom gave me a book called Hope Meadows, nothing to do with my last name, but it was about an intergenerational community outside Chicago that had a 90% adoption rate. It’s intergenerational which is cool because you’re bringing your seniors together, you’re bringing your kids together, you have loving parents, and you’re getting kids adopted. Most kids over age 8 don’t get adopted in foster care, so this had a nice, high-level adoption rate. So I left for Chicago. I went and visited and came back to Portland and met with Commissioner Saltzman about a piece of land and sure enough, he gave us a piece of land and for $11.4 million, we built Bridge Meadows.

For Project Lemonade, it really has to do with the state and the services they’re reducing for foster youth. I read in the paper in 2011 that no more vouchers for foster youth would be provided. No more vouchers for foster families to take the kids back to school shopping, and that was the impetus for Project Lemonade—let’s get these kids feeling good about what they’re wearing just like everybody else, they just want to look like everybody else on the playground. That was the motivation for Project Lemonade.

Brandon: It sounds like you had such a pulse on the community because you were already involved and you saw these glaring gaps and you said, Hey, we need to raise some money. We need to start this non-profit that’s geared specifically to this. Talk about the whole process of starting that up.

Rhonda: I’ve always had a philosophy of, if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Brandon: Absolutely.

Rhonda: And I think sometimes, with all my fundraising, people walk across the street when they see me because they feel like I’m going to ask them for something! But that’s OK because I think you have to have the thought that “no” means “maybe.” Maybe this will happen. Maybe Commissioner Saltzman will give us a piece of land, and sure he did! So I think that for me, it’s really believing in the purpose and the cause and it’s really compassion. My spiritual giving is foster youth.

Brandon: All these years of being so involved in the community, starting two non-profits, Project Lemonade I’m more familiar with, you’ve reached so many people. Talk about what kind of impact you are making. Not only for yourself, but for the community.

Rhonda: Now it’s a bit contagious for me.

Brandon: It’s a need, like if you’re not doing anything, it’s like a hole in you?

Rhonda: Exactly. There is a hole in me if I don’t do it. I need it.

Brandon: It fills you up.

04_18-16_camp-fire-columbia-volunteeringRhonda: It fills me up. Yeah, it fills my heart. I will say this, too—when we first started, we had 100 volunteers. So when you say, What does it do for the community? What does it do for companies, organizations? Now we have 700, and last summer we had 700 volunteers. Why do people keep coming back? Well, they keep coming back because of the purpose that serves them. When they get in their car and drive home at night, they say, I made a difference today. I did something good today. I think that all people need that. I believe most people really want to give back, and most organizations need organizational help to do it.

They need somebody to start the committee and get things rolling. And then you have everybody coming out of the woodwork to see how they can get involved. It’s a piece of wonder really. It’s a piece of wow, this is special.

Brandon: It’s interesting you say that because it fills this need that you have, but for other people, you say they come out of the woodwork when they see everybody else involved, so it becomes contagious. Talk about the development people can experience from just getting involved, whether it’s at an organizational level or just as an individual. Like, This is the right thing to do, it’s going to fill me up, but it’s also going to provide something for somebody else. What benefits could we experience personally by getting involved?

Rhonda: Several years ago I worked for a man named Ed Maletis. He’s a pretty powerful man in this area. I remember Ed called me into his office and saying, What are we doing this year for the holiday party? Because you know what, Rhonda? The last thing I want to do is stand around and eat meatballs for an hour.

I really thought about that, I wondered, What can we do differently? How can we change it up? How can we engage the employees? Because yeah, standing around and eating meatballs, that’s not engaging! And a lot of companies feel like they have to do that, right? They have to have this kind of holiday party.

Brandon: A big social event. But a lot of times, they’re talking to the same exact people they always talk to!

Rhonda: Exactly! So for me, I said, Well, let’s serve the community! Let’s get out in the community and bring kids in this year. Let’s create an event that will be meaningful for the employees and meaningful for the kids.

I reached out to the Urban League of Portland and Self Enhancement. I always like to think big, so the number 100 seemed really good to me! We brought 100 at-risk kids into the company and there was a lot of planning, a lot of organizing. But what it did was amazing. Our accounts payable clerk, she was pretty quiet, she didn’t talk very much. But when she heard that we were going to bring kids in, all of a sudden her personality came out, and she said, You know, I don’t know if you know this, but I’m a singer and I would love to lead some singing for the kids.

Brandon: Wow!

Rhonda: So here we have this woman who works with numbers all day and just sits at her desk quietly.

Brandon: And here she’s good at something else!

Rhonda: A warehouse employee came out and said, You know Rhonda, I don’t know if you know this, but I’m a woodworker on the weekend. I carve all kinds of figures out of wood. How about if I make some wood ornaments that kids can paint for this holiday event?

People just come out and say, I play the guitar. Can you use that? And of course we can! We would love to have a guitar for the singing. So it allows people to come out of their normal everyday role and get creative and express the other gifts they have. Everybody has lots of gifts, but a lot of times in corporate we don’t recognize them.

Brandon: No, that’s exactly right.

Rhonda: This really allowed employees to come together and share and show the other gifts that they have.

Brandon: I feel like the other thing is that people always want to be part of something bigger than themselves. A lot of times you can get lost in the corporate world and people often feel like their skills aren’t utilized or they just don’t do something that they’re passionate about. But then they see other people getting involved in something and then they’re like, Hey, I’m good at this. I can contribute too. I just want to be part of something that’s so much bigger than just me as an individual contributor. I think that’s what a lot of people want.

Rhonda: I do too. The other thing we did was invite all the employees’ families to come help support it as well.

Brandon: That’s great.

familyRhonda: Family is important to every employee. When you bring in family and when you put on an event with 100 at-risk kids. When you set up five stations throughout the company and 25 kids are at each station enjoying and creatively doing art projects or sitting on a forklift in the warehouse and honking the horn—it was a huge success. I remember when Paul Linnman came out from Channel 2 and interviewed me and he asked, Why would you do something like this?

My first thought was, Well, because it’s the right thing to do. How many times do we really look at the right thing to do when it comes to holidays—how we can do something meaningful for people?

Brandon: I think it’s a key point because oftentimes, and I’m guilty of this, maybe you’re guilty of it at times, and other people are as well I’m sure, but it’s a “me” thing. It’s what do I need, what fills me up during the holiday. But it’s not about us! It’s about other people as well. I think the change that you made with the holiday from a party where you sit around and eat meatballs and talk to the same people you’ve always talked to to something new. Now you have a shift in what you’re doing. Now you’re involving other people and you get to sit back and see the impact that you’re making on other people and I think it’s much bigger than any one person.

Rhonda: Well I can tell you, it increased the morale. I think the employees talked about the event for months. It improved productivity because when people are happy about what they do and about the company they work for, they’re going to work harder and smarter. The other side of this and a little bit of research that I did, Brandon, was that 82% of U.S. consumers consider corporate social responsibility when deciding which products or services to buy.

Brandon: Incredible.

Rhonda: A lot of choices with where we go to buy things. But I have to say I’m one of those people. I want to shop where I know the company is caring about community. What is the company doing to give back to the community? There are all different ways to give back. But I want to know that. I thought 82% was very high.

Brandon: I never would have thought it would be that high. But at the same time, what goes through my head is how do you as a consumer even know? I guess they have to market that they’re involved in the community and put their logo on everything that they’re doing, show pictures on social media of them helping out in the community. So it’s as much a branding play as it is just doing the right thing and being there in the moment helping somebody else. What do you think about that? I mean just the marketing versus the action?

Rhonda: What Cone Communications and Echo Research said is that you publicize it, you promote it, because that’s what the consumer wants. So you put it in writing, you put in your vision statement that you believe in giving back to the community. If that’s what consumers want, then that’s what you do, but it’s not just about the money and that. Again, it’s about what’s in your heart and what employees care about and ways that they can give back.

Brandon: That’s a good point because I’m in a marketing role and oftentimes I think that if we just get our message out and the way we feel about our brand and what we actually do and the impact that we can have, if we use specific language, then you’re going to attract a certain type of person—somebody that resonates with your core beliefs. I think that’s no different than the community-based things too. It’s We’re involved in these communities, we’re helping these people. And people out there who might want to buy our product at the end of the day, they will see that and think That’s a community I’m also involved in or a non-profit I’m involved in. I love to donate my time to them. I want to buy their brand now. So I just think it’s an alignment of core values, to a certain extent.

Rhonda: It is. I agree with you, Brandon. I agree with you. I think Xenium does such a good job reaching out to the employees and saying, What purpose do you want to serve? What’s meaningful to you? And they invite you to open up and talk about it and have the opportunity to volunteer in the community. So I think more companies need to look at that and embrace it because, for me, it instills loyalty, it instills the belief that I work for a company that cares not only about the bottom line but about the community.

Brandon: Because oftentimes employees feel like the company is out to get them or whatever and if you see your organization involved in giving back just because it’s the right thing to do, how much more loyalty would an employee have as a result of that?

img_0024Rhonda: When we think about our millennials, gosh, they’re leaving every two to three years, but it’s interesting because in the statistics that I was reading, it’s the millennials and women who really want to work for a company that cares about the community and that has opportunities to give back. I thought that was kind of interesting because we lose our millennials after two, three years, that’s the standard, that’s the norm. I have three girls and they actually live that! But I will say this: people care about community. People just need to be motivated, people need a little organizational help. It makes them feel good.

Brandon: You’ve been in a leadership role within non-profits and in the volunteer work that you’ve done. Talk about on the receiving end of this, whether it means time from somebody, a volunteer, or somebody who’s writing you a check. I think you need a little bit of balance of both, but what do you think is more impactful from an organizational standpoint,  writing a big check to somebody or getting everybody involved?

Rhonda: Well, think about it! I mean we’ve all written checks, right? How meaningful is that?

Brandon: Time is finite. We know that.

Rhonda: There was an older man that was volunteering at Project Lemonade and when he left one night, I was closing up the shop and he said, Rhonda, Project Lemonade is the paycheck for my soul. And that has totally stuck with me because writing a check, putting numbers on a piece of paper, there’s no meaning behind that. When you see kids’ faces, when you see the happiness in their eyes, getting excited for school, you feel good all over. It’s a lasting impression. So I have to say that it’s a paycheck for my soul as well and I think a lot of people can resonate with that.

Brandon: If an organization really wants to get involved, and it seems like every organization is involved at some level, it just seems that way. But if organizations are looking at it like, We can get our employees involved and it could make not only a morale change and a culture shift, but it’s also the right thing to do, we need to be doing it. How do you evaluate which organizations to spend time or money on?

Rhonda: Xenium is putting together an equity and inclusion toolkit, and in the toolkit we have a whole list of community giving opportunities. I researched a lot of different volunteer opportunities to try to meet the spiritual needs of all employees. I’m happy to share that list with all of our clients and those of you listening today. From Oregon Food Bank to Meals on Wheels, there are a lot of opportunities. When volunteering with Meals on Wheels, an employee could go with a coworker to the home of a senior who can’t make their own meal and who sit at home all day. You’re probably the only person that they see or talk to—that’s a meaningful piece. So Meals on Wheels is a great opportunity for people to volunteer and you can go in pairs so you can share that experience together. Of course I listed Project Lemonade. And Dress for Success is a client of ours, a lot of opportunities to give back there. Also Habitat for Humanity, for those folks who maybe want to use their arms and show a little muscle while they’re giving back. And of course cancer. We have an employee whose daughter was diagnosed with leukemia a year ago, so we are very supportive of the leukemia cancer research cause as well. So we have a list of opportunities and in the opportunity list, it talks about families volunteering and the hours involved, so it’s very detailed about different opportunities for employers to give back.

Brandon: Let’s talk logistics from an HR perspective on giving back. So, if I’m an employer and I want my employees to get involved, how do we do that? Is it on their time? Is it on paid time? Is there a balance of both? Put on your HR hat for a minute and give the listeners some ideas about what you’ve seen in terms of policies or philosophies. It’s probably all over the map.

Rhonda: All over the map! I’m a true believer in paid time because I believe it shows the employee that this is important to the company. And here’s the other thing, Brandon. When you instill that in the people, how much you believe in the community, I remember back in the Columbia days when we did the Columbia holiday for a couple of years and then employees said, How about a weekend that we take kids, at-risk kids, to camp? I will volunteer my whole weekend, Rhonda.

So here we have employees now saying, I will give up my weekend with my family to give back to the community. I feel like once you instill that in people, your love for others, you will get a lot more out of them in the future and they will come to you. They will come to you and say, Let’s do this together. This will be meaningful for us. This would be good and engaging for our team right now.

2016 Light the Night

Brandon: I so agree with that because oftentimes I just don’t know of the opportunities that are available. You don’t even know where to start as an individual contributor or somebody who wants to get involved. So I think on one side, employers want to get involved, so we will give you some paid time off and will make it work out, and I think when you have peers getting involved too, it just means all the world, because then it’s like – Everybody else is doing it, I need to get involved.

Rhonda: I think it trickles, it’s just got this trickle, contagious effect. and yeah, it just brings people together. It’s sharing kindness and love when you give back. I think people go home at night and they just feel really good about the organization and they also feel good in their heart. It gives them purpose.

Brandon: When you think about your history with starting non-profits and being a volunteer and being involved the community in general, how have you developed professionally? Leadership-wise? You’ve made connections that you otherwise wouldn’t have. Talk about some of the benefits that you’ve received as a result of it.

Rhonda: I think it has made me a little more gutsy.

Brandon: You’re doing this interview, for example!

Rhonda: It’s instilled in me that if you don’t ask, you don’t get. It’s instilled in me my passion for this and how important it is, especially today in our world. There’s so much going on and people need that special something to feel good about themselves, to feel good about what they’re doing in different ways of giving back. They need that. People need that today more than ever, I think.

Brandon: And they need people like you because through your actions and through your words you’ve been able to lead people, you’ve been able to inspire other people to get involved. If we didn’t have people like you and these other organizations that are out there doing really good work, I wonder what kind of world we live in. It wouldn’t quite be the same. I really hope over the years people get more and more involved and that it becomes a common practice in organizations.

Rhonda: I think it should be law that all companies have to pick a charity and embrace it! It’s just part of my make-up, I’m such a believer.

Brandon: I really appreciate you coming on the podcast. Just wrap this up for us, if you’re going to give advice to an employer right now and say, Here are the next steps, here’s how you should get involved in the community, what do you tell them so that it doesn’t have to become a law?

Rhonda: I’m teasing you a little bit with that! The more you can engage and interact with your people about what they’re passionate about, about their mission to give back to the community, and take that on as an organization, you’re going to have happier people. You’re going to have more productive people.

We are working with an organization called Campbell Global and their program is called Grow the Good and they’re a timber company. They select three charities every year that they want to give back to and they have a committee in their company that interviews charities and we were interviewed, Project Lemonade, and we promoted our internship program—we have paid interns in our store. And Campbell Global said If we can be involved in the process, interviewing the foster youth, doing exit interviews, being part of their internship, we want to give back to Project Lemonade. So Campbell Global is paying for our interns for the next three years and it’s part of their Grow the Good Program.

And Grow the Good, what a great name, right? We should all be growing the good! So I have to say I’ve met so many different organizations in all my years that have such great, meaningful ways to give back and it really has to do with engaging the employees. It has to start from the bottom up. You can’t start from the top down on this one! It has to be meaningful from what the people think.

Brandon: And I think it’s such a valid point, too. If employers aren’t really asking what’s meaningful to the employees, then it has got to come full circle. I think that’s how everybody can get involved, so I totally agree from that standpoint.

Well, Rhonda, this has been a lot of fun. You’re a wealth of knowledge and I appreciate you for being so involved in the community. So that has been good. We will post links to all the organizations that you mentioned so people can get involved and learn more about what they’re doing and what you’re up to as well. Thanks for joining the podcast.

Rhonda: Thanks Brandon!

Brandon: I appreciate it.

Rhonda: Thank you.

Brandon Laws

As Director of Marketing, Brandon Laws leads all marketing efforts for Xenium, providing oversight on all marketing campaigns, digital marketing strategy, events, sponsorships and public relations. Brandon brings a positive energy to every aspect of his role at Xenium—from internal initiatives around culture and wellness to industry thought leadership through the Xenium podcast and other social efforts. Active within the HR community, he currently volunteers on the board of the Portland Human Resource Management Association as the Director of Marketing & PR.

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