Bruno Rodique stood in front of John Deere’s leaders with a somewhat familiar agenda. The audience, comprised of leaders who made the trip to John Deere Power Systems’ France operations, was used to hearing presentations about business projects.
What they hadn’t heard before was the story of how employees were helping to make a difference across Europe through corporate citizenship work.
With resounding applause, the group recognized the impressive leadership efforts and the hundreds of European John Deere employees who had volunteered thousands of hours in their communities.
Rodique, president of John Deere France and general manager of Orléans-Saran Engine Works, described stories of employees sorting food, providing meals for needy families, and mentoring local youth.
What led to this milestone moment?
John Deere first began to explore expanding citizenship efforts to its European region in 2015, but faced a few challenges.
One barrier was that John Deere and the John Deere Foundation had traditionally invested almost exclusively in the United States, spreading resources across many different citizenship programs in home communities, said Nate Clark, associate director, corporate citizenship, and vice president, John Deere Foundation.
“As our company and workforce expanded globally, there was an expectation that we both increase our citizenship investments around the world, as well as develop practices to empower global employees to drive this expansion,” Clark said. “We asked ourselves, ‘How do we integrate, include, and engage employees in corporate citizenship who have never participated in it before?’”
A second barrier was cultural perception within Europe.
“Corporate social responsibility activities originally had a slow start in Europe,” explained Mark von Pentz, president, Ag & Turf Division, Tractor platform, Regions 1 & 2. “Because they pay higher taxes and very often, mandatory church taxes, local citizens expect that official government entities should take care of social responsibility needs.”
“This was something completely new,” added Vanessa Buttignon, European Union public affairs manager. “It was also not the first business priority. At a factory, their top priority is to produce and sell engines. The budget was also a big question mark.”
Because corporate philanthropy was a relatively new concept in Europe, the Corporate Citizenship team worked closely with global leadership to introduce the notion of citizenship and help embed it in local culture.
“With an increasing sensitivity to social and economic challenges highlighted by recent refugee migrations, Europeans began to ask what role can private industry and the nonprofit sector play to alleviate these challenges,” Clark said.
By partnering with United Way Worldwide and building the support of John Deere leadership, the company overcame these barriers and moved forward with a citizenship program.
Partnering with United Way
Clark contacted United Way Worldwide in 2015, as it was expanding its operations in Europe. The organization was a good fit for John Deere’s corporate citizenship efforts, Clark explained, because of their priority on youth education and empowerment, along with community development, and making sure that people have access to basic needs.
“United Way is an awesome partner for us in the U.S. and has been for more than 40 years,” Clark said. “Through its network of local affiliates, United Way directs financial resources to help tackle a community’s toughest problems, but also creates opportunities to engage entire workplaces through volunteerism and employee giving campaigns.”
It Starts at the Top
Leadership involvement is a critical part of successful citizenship work, Clark noted. The company depends on its leaders to focus attention on its corporate culture and four core values — integrity, quality, commitment, and innovation, he said.
“Having leaders in the company serve as role models for this behavior is so important,” Clark said. “If you don’t have leaders willing to step up, it will never take root. We were fortunate that Mark von Pentz, Bruno Rodique, and other leaders saw the value and impact of these citizenship programs. It takes courage to create time and space for employees to participate.”
In 2016, the John Deere Foundation provided a $1.5 million grant to United Way Worldwide, launching a formal citizenship program in France, Germany, Poland, and Spain. John Deere’s work with United Way would center on alleviating food security in communities and empowering youth through education.
Diving in as Volunteers
Despite the newness of corporate citizenship in Europe, John Deere employees embraced the concept, according to Clark. “They readily connected volunteer opportunities to John Deere’s higher purpose — our commitment to improve living standards for people around the world,” he said.
John Deere also offered flexibility in volunteer opportunities based on location. With food sorting events in France, it worked well for employees to volunteer with their families on a Saturday morning, Buttignon said. In Mannheim, bringing youth into the factories for tours and mentoring opportunities worked best.
Through the United Way Worldwide grant, employee volunteers in France, Germany, Poland, and Spain supported their home communities with nearly 3,036 total volunteer hours in 2017.
“Since we initiated the collaboration with the John Deere Foundation and United Way France, we received an exceptional response and participation from our employees,” Rodique said. “We had broad participation from all our units in France, with employees engaging in these volunteerism activities with passion and energy.”
One example is John Deere France’s support of local food banks. Since 2016, an average of 113,000 tons of food has been collected each year, which allows the group to deliver food to 5,400 French associations. From this, more than 2 million residents living in food scarce environments receive meals. In 2018, 247 volunteer employees from Ormes, Saran, and Arc les Gray sorted 73 tons of food for local food banks, saving a month’s worth of work.
“We can feel the willingness to serve a higher purpose,” Rodique added, “and it is obvious that every employee participating in these activities is extremely proud to make a positive impact in the communities where we are established.”
Creating a Significant Impact
“Giving back is one of the best things we can do for those who need it, but it also makes you feel very good to have done something great,” von Pentz said. “Our partnership with United Way Worldwide has been outstanding.”
Inspired by the employees’ positive response to corporate citizenship, Rodique accepted an offer to join the Board of Directors for United Way France earlier this year.
Buttignon noted that John Deere is becoming known for its volunteer programs. “I hope that John Deere France can show other countries it’s possible to start from scratch,” Buttignon said. “Employees are very happy to join citizenship efforts if offered opportunities to do so.”