Todd VerHeecke, senior marketing representative for John Deere Harvester Works, talks to a class of students at the John Deere Pavilion about the history of John Deere. VerHeecke volunteers time with the Rock Island Farm Bureau as part of the John Deere employee volunteerism initiative. The program, started in 2011, allows John Deere employees to take paid time off to volunteer with causes and events that fit into the company’s enterprise philosophy for volunteerism.
Todd VerHeecke, senior marketing representative for John Deere Harvester Works, talks to a class of students at the John Deere Pavilion about the history of John Deere. VerHeecke volunteers time with the Rock Island Farm Bureau as part of the John Deere employee volunteerism initiative. The program, started in 2011, allows John Deere employees to take paid time off to volunteer with causes and events that fit into the company’s enterprise philosophy for volunteerism.

ROCK ISLAND, Ill. — It can be said that Rock Island County is the house that Deere built.

While the county doesn’t rely solely on John Deere for employment and economic benefits, the familiar name and the gold and green is an undeniable pillar of the county and the local communities of the Quad Cities metro area.

From John Deere Road to the John Deere Classic to the buildings that bear the stamp of the maker of the steel plow, this is Deere territory.

But John Deere is more than steel farm, forestry, lawn and agriculture equipment. It is a people company, a company that is branded by the name of the man who started the global equipment giant.

People throughout Rock Island County have a strong connection to John Deere — whether it’s a farm tractor, lawnmower or bulldozer they operate, whether it’s their job at Harvester Works or as a John Deere retiree, the human connection to Rock Island County is strong.

Nowhere is it stronger or more connected to Rock Island County than through the John Deere employee volunteerism initiative.

“It’s rewarding,” Joan Conrad said.

Conrad is the manager of communications and training for worldwide supply management at John Deere. She’s a 35-year employee of John Deere, and she volunteers with Living Lands and Waters, the organization started in 1998 by local resident Chad Pregracke to clean up the Mississippi River in the Quad Cities and to highlight water pollution.

Since its founding, the organization has grown to more than 70,000 volunteers who each year clean up the shorelines of the Mississippi, Ohio and Illinois rivers, as well as tributaries. The group also works to educate young people about water pollution, water quality and education.

“You feel like you’ve made a difference in your community, and I know we have,” Conrad said.

She and some 30 to 40 fellow Deere employees volunteer each year with the Living Lands and Waters cleanup of the shoreline along the Mississippi River in the Quad Cities.

“That is a really good organization, and they have people who are very, very, very devoted to their mission. You feel like you’ve done something good for the community and for the environment,” Conrad said.

2011 Initiative

That was one of the things that Sam Allen, John Deere chairman and CEO, may have been hoping for when he launched the Deere volunteerism initiative.

In September 2011, Allen and a group of 20 senior leaders from the company’s U.S. and India offices traveled to northwest India, north of the tourist mecca of Udaipur, to work with small farmers and help them harvest their crops.

“That was his way to show our employees that if he can take a week off to volunteer, that our employees certainly can do the same,” said Deb Wirth, manager of the John Deere global volunteerism program.

The move to emphasizing and encouraging more volunteerism among employees was the result of research done by a project team at John Deere, Wirth said.

“They investigated whether we should offer volunteerism as an employee benefit,” she said.

The findings were positive — encouraging volunteerism would benefit not just the company, but employees and their work. In other words, doing good made good business sense.

“They came back with a recommendation that this would definitely help us drive employee engagement, it would help us improve the communities where we have John Deere locations and it would help our employees learn new skills and share the skills they have,” Wirth said.

Conrad said the volunteerism program has done just that.

“When our employees come back from the annual United Way Day of Caring, they’re pumped up and it gives an extra burst of enthusiasm for their work,” she said.

Many Skills To Share

Cheryl Ashcraft is the manager of the John Deere Foundation and a volunteer with the River Bend Foodbank. She also volunteers at road races, 5K races, that benefit local charities and organizations.

Ashcraft said that with the variety of jobs at John Deere, employees have many talents to share in volunteering.

“You have your people who are doers and those who look for the opportunity to do something in the community and support organizations that are in need, and I think our talent here within Deere & Company, we have somebody who has a talent for virtually everything and so, based on a skill set that an organization might need, we could probably fill just about any need they could come up with,” she said.

Once Allen’s directive to establish an employee volunteerism program was set, the company developed an enterprise philosophy for the program and guidelines.

“It basically says we agree to give our employees paid time off to volunteer in their communities as long as they have their manager’s approval,” Wirth said.

Employees can take paid time off to volunteer with groups and organizations that align with the company’s philanthropic goals of solutions for world hunger, community development and education.

They also can take eight hours per year personal paid time off to volunteer with groups or organizations where they have a personal passion. Wirth said that may be with a child’s school or daycare or membership group, such as Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts.

The Internet-based volunteer tool program allows employees to record their volunteer hours, and it also allows employees to enter volunteer events and search for events to volunteer with in their local areas and around the U.S.

“We have 30 to 40 John Deere locations in the United States, and each of those units is trying to support the nonprofits in their specific community. When the nonprofits reach out to them and say we need volunteers, those are the events we load in the tool,” Wirth said.

At the Rock Island County locations, Wirth said 87 employees have logged 15,150 volunteer hours from Feb. 1, 2012, when the tool was launched, to Jan. 17, 2014. Employees are not required to log their time in the tool, she said, so it’s likely that those numbers are larger.

“Some people are very personal about where they volunteer and they don’t enter their hours,” she said.

There is no limit to how much paid time off the employees can take in a year, but they need to have their manager’s approval. The organizations and groups have to be registered as 501c3 nonprofits and must align to the three philanthropic goals.

Employees at the Rock Island County sites have volunteered at 112 nonprofits in the county. The nonprofits are as varied as the skills of the employees volunteering — Rock Island County 4-H, Rock Island County Farm Bureau, River Bend Foodbank, Habitat for Humanity, Skip-a-Long Daycare and Child Development Services, Boys and Girls Club, Living Lands and Waters and Arrowhead Ranch are a few.

The volunteerism also includes the Dollars for Doers grant program.

“If you, as an employee, volunteer 40 or more hours in our fiscal year with the same nonprofit, you can apply for a Dollars for Doers grant,” Wirth said.

If the application meets guidelines and is approved, the John Deere Foundation writes a check for $1,000 to the nonprofit on behalf of the employee. The limit is one grant per employee per year, but if several employees volunteer at the same nonprofit, they can each apply for a grant, Wirth said.

“If there were 10 of us who volunteered at the same organization in the same year, the organization could, potentially, get $10,000,” she said.

Doing Good, Feels Good

For those who volunteer, there’s a good feeling that comes not just from helping, but in working for a company that is so firmly committed to being a good neighbor.

“I think by making the statement and formalizing the fact that we do have a philosophy for volunteerism around the world, that commitment in itself confirms the type of company this is to work for,” Ashcraft said.

“It’s not all about the mighty dollar. It’s about the greater good. It’s about your employee satisfaction,” she said.

The program also helps to retain and recruit the top talent — workers who expect more from their employer than 9 to 5 and a paycheck. The program further benefits Rock Island County and the area by helping to bring the best and the brightest to live, work and establish families in the Quad Cities.

“If you want good talent, you need to be focused on what it is to maintain and recruit good talent. Good citizenship is a big part of that in today’s society,” Ashcraft said.

Wirth agreed that the program also serves as a great recruiting tool.

“It is very highly regarded by people we are trying to recruit to work for us. Who wouldn’t want to work for a company that lets you have paid time off to volunteer in the community?” she said.

“Companies that have strong volunteerism programs attract employees more readily. It’s something that potential employees like, and it also helps to retain employees and build teamwork and enthusiasm and productivity, it supplies employee engagement,” Conrad said.

It also helps build business relationships. Conrad said an offer made to a supplier who wanted to work more with Deere and who also was interested in preserving and protecting oceans and marine life led to employees from the supplier’s company working with Deere employees on the annual Mississippi River cleanup.

Wirth said the program further extends the connection between John Deere and Rock Island County and the local community.

“It’s so good for our employees to be able to share the talents they already have with their community to make our communities a better place to live. Our employees have such great skills and talents, what better than to share those with nonprofits to help them raise and achieve their mission?” she said.

It’s hard not to notice one of the largest neighbors in Rock Island County and the Quad Cities, but Wirth said the company is dedicated to being a good neighbor on every level.

“We have an obligation to the communities where we have our John Deere locations to be the best neighbor, not only as a company, but by sharing our employees, as well,” she said.