The grim jobs report in May has riveted the nation like a slow-motion train wreck, confirming our darkest fears about a sputtering economy that may be stuck in a stall or, worse, falling. We’re a country of Chicken Littles now, squawking about a double dip recession while wringing our hands and blotting our brows.  Whether or not fears of a fiscal cliff-dive are overwrought or prescient, no one denies that tough times are sticking to us like tar.

So, now is, of course, the worst time to be thinking about “extras” like pro-bono volunteering, also known as skills-based volunteering.  Surely, logic would dictate that the business community stick to its knitting, wait until the recessionary dust settles and then get back to the relative luxury of employee-centered philanthropy.  Charitable efforts like these are clearly best left to flush times, aren’t they?

In a word: no.  In fact, the opposite is true.  When times are tough, businesses must optimize every asset at their disposal, and a company’s employees are its most important asset of all.  The high costs of employee recruitment, turnover and additional training are now imperative to minimize, so terms like employee engagement and employee retention take on new urgency.

Demanding Careers with Cause

Struggling economy or not, top talent will always have options about where to work, and Millennial employees are increasingly looking to build their careers with employers who demonstrate socially-conscious values that align with their own.  Indeed, Net Impact’s recent study, Talent Report: What Workers Want in 2012, showed that 65% of students entering the job market today expect to make a social and environmental impact through their work, and 45% indicated they would be wiling to take a pay cut to do so.  In fact, students say it is more important than having children, a prestigious career, being wealthy, or being a community leader — ranking only below financial security and marriage.  Meanwhile, consumers are also asking more from companies; people want to buy products from companies that are conscious of the communities around them and that are helping to find solutions to tough societal problems.

That’s why a growing number of corporate citizens have embraced skills-based volunteer service as a way to add value to their companies and their communities.  Recently, A Billion + Change, a national campaign to mobilize billions in skills-based volunteer services from corporate America, announced that more than 160 companies have pledged a combined total of more than $1.7 billion and at least 11.5 million hours of time and talent to serve the nonprofit sector.  This represents a sea change in the way companies view corporate volunteering, where investments are made in nonprofits by aligning business interests with community needs.

“Over the past few years, companies of all sizes have begun to reap the benefits of pro-bono service: strengthening their communities by expanding nonprofit capacity and boosting the skill set and morale of their own employees,” said Jean Case, CEO of the Case Foundation and a founding member of the Leadership Committee of A Billion + Change.

At the recent 2012 Corporate Philanthropy Summit, held by the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP), senior executives from UnitedHealth Group, Morgan Stanley and Gap joined A Billion + Change to address the emergence of skills-based volunteering in the corporate landscape.  The discussion that flowed from this panel yielded perspectives that illuminate the importance of skills-based volunteering as a part of a company’s service to both its community and its employees.

The group agreed that employees today want to work at companies that care about the communities around them.  They want to know what a company is doing through its business strategy that makes the world a better place, and they expect to be connected to a higher purpose through their companies’ engagement strategy.  Millennials in particular are asking for more from companies that they work for and purchase from.  They want to give back and want those they associate with to do the same.

Employee Engagement Via Pro-Bono Volunteering

Accordingly, companies are embracing this mindset and establishing the strategies and programs to back it up.  They want to be long-term partners with their stakeholders and together help determine how to effectively structure their societal engagement and giving programs to deliver more impact.

“We are optimistic about the levels of commitment we see from companies; not only are they continuing to give, but they are also doing so in more strategic and thoughtful ways in partnership with their employees and their communities,” stated Charles Moore, Executive Director, Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy.

CEOs say they want to have a positive impact on society and this is evidenced by several trends.  According to the Corporate Giving Standard survey, conducted by CECP in association with The Conference Board, companies are becoming more focused in their societal engagement.  They are making fewer grants but with higher dollar amounts (from a median of 78 grants, $31,000 in 2009; 62 grants, $37,000 in 2011).  They’re leveraging non-cash assets (product, volunteers or other company assets) and allocating more concentrated funding to selected program areas (more than 31% of companies gave 50 percent or more to one program area, and 81% of companies gave 20% or more in education or health and social services).

As companies are looking to engage employees in how their business gives back, they’re tapping into the skills and resources that are the core of the company.   Businesses have been paying a lot of attention lately to crafting employee engagement programs that reflect what employees care about and that can be seen as an employee benefit.  As a part of these programs, companies are instituting policies such as matching gifts programs, payroll deductions for nonprofits, employee days of service and disaster relief campaigns, to name a few.  Skills-based volunteering is often a centerpiece of all of these initiatives, one which delivers high impact to employee and nonprofit alike.

Effective pro-bono initiatives feel authentic, springing naturally from an alignment between employee interests, community needs and company programs.  When all of the pieces are in place, skills-based volunteering programs yield tremendous benefits.  Employees gain leadership training, job skill development and internal networking beyond the highly valued community service experience.  According to a study on skills-based volunteering by True Impact, skills-based volunteers are 142% more likely to report job-related skills-gains than traditional volunteers, 47% more likely to report high satisfaction from volunteering than traditional volunteers, and 82% more likely to report that volunteerism generated new recruits for their company versus traditional volunteers.  And from the nonprofit point of view, pro bono and volunteering of skills and talents can be as much as 500% more valuable for nonprofits.

In tough times, companies look for every competitive edge they can get.  It’s refreshing when bottom-line advantages so clearly align with community advantages as well.

This blog originally appeared in The Huffington Post.