The holidays are here, and that means that seasonal giving campaigns are cranking into high gear.  Before you know it we’ll be bombarded with holiday viral campaigns like Office Max’s popular time-killer, Elf Yourself, and opening earth-conscious holiday e-cards from companies instead of the snail mail kind.  Since an increasing percentage of shoppers use mobile platforms to do their holiday shopping, our cell phones will be hit with seasonal promotions that benefit charities, like the ones that Starbucks did for The Global Fund to help fight AIDS in Africa.  It’s that time of year when most philanthropic giving transpires, so now is when companies are pulling out all of the stops to grab the attention and charitable dollars of their customers.

But one of the best ways that companies can give back is by giving their employees the opportunity to do so.  Not only are workplace giving campaigns efficient tools for fundraising, they’re also effective at increasing employee engagement.

Each year, employees raise an astonishing $4.8 billion for nonprofits through workplace giving programs, according to Charity Navigator.  And a recent study by America’s Charities revealed that 68% of employers report that their employees expect them to support volunteerism and 50% of employers are moving to year-round engagement with their workplace giving programs.  Eighty percent of surveyed companies offer employees the ability to contribute to nonprofits via automatic payroll deductions, 70% offer matching gifts as a component of their volunteering and giving program, and 60% percent are incorporating contests and events as a way to add fun to workplace giving programs and keep them vibrant.

The study definitively showed that one of the benefits which employees now expect from their companies is an effective, contemporary workplace giving program.  So if your company doesn’t yet offer a giving program, the holidays are an excellent time to start.  And if you do have an existing workplace giving program, the holidays are the best time to really let it shine.

One of the most powerful tools to fuel your workplace giving program is matching gifts, in which companies match donations made by employees to nonprofits.  Many companies look at matching gifts programs not simply as an employee perk but as an integral part of their overall engagement strategy.  According to Double the Donation, about 65% of Fortune 500 companies (and many others) match employee donations.  That means that millions of individuals work for companies that match donations from employees.

An excellent example of companies using matching gifts to supercharge their workplace giving programs is Ernst & Young.  Last year, I sat down with Ellen Glazerman, Executive Director of the Ernst & Young Foundation, which is the nonprofit that oversees matching donations for Ernst & Young employees.

The matching gifts program at Ernst & Young has tight parameters, rewarding employees for donating only to an accredited nonprofit college or university in the United States. Small donations need not apply – the company only tracks donations over $25 (or $100 for more senior personnel), and the donations to a single college or university must be over $2,500 for a calendar year to be matched. Despite the restrictions, or perhaps because of them, the program has flourished, allowing Ernst & Young to maintain close connections with the accounting and business programs at top American universities.

Glazerman gave me some tips on how her company’s matching gifts program has thrived, which are worth keeping in mind, whether your company already has a matching program or could use improvements:

1.    Pick a Focus

“Long ago, we decided that we wanted to focus on creating a talent pipeline,” Glazerman told me.  Ernst & Young wanted to support higher education, and it also wanted to create a crop of accountants with top-notch training. From this strategic focus, the current matching gifts program was born. “We are driving specific goals that relate to our strategy,” Glazerman noted. “While people will always come to you looking for other ways to give, you simply can’t do everything, so it’s important to put a lot of thought into where your company decides to help out.”

2.    Know Your Interests

What philanthropic ventures does your company have a vested interest in? That’s the question you must ask yourself as you begin a matching gifts program. For Ernst & Young, “If there’s not a pipeline of bright, interested people coming out of accounting and business programs, we don’t have a business,” according to Glazerman. While Ernst & Young employees are not bound to donate to accounting programs, much of the money is directed that way simply because people tend to give to the places that they came from. Thus, while not every donation will result in a swarm of new, hungry recruits, the lion’s share of donations will wind up serving this strategic goal.

3.    Automate

Automation makes things easier on your employees and encourages more of them to participate in your volunteer and corporate giving programs.  At The Honest Company, employees need only sign onto a website, enter in their donation…and it just happens. They don’t have to spend time trying to figure out how much of their donation is tax deductible and how much qualifies for matching gifts; their giving platform does all of that for them. The easier your matching gifts program is to use, and the more that your program is communicated, the more employees will want to participate.

4.    Include Employee Voices

When asked about the best way to overcome any challenges a matching gifts program presents, Glazerman suggested involving employees. “Everyone needs to feel encouraged to share their point of view,” she said. This not only heads off potential employee resentment about how decisions are made; it also allows you to mine all the energy of your engaged employees to find the best solutions.

5.    Evaluate Your Goals

Before and after the matching gifts program is up and running, you need to evaluate your goals and progress. “You have to look at what your interests are, but also what you’re interested in,” Glazerman believes. “Maybe your goals have changed. Always ask yourself, ‘Is this what we want to do today?’” There’s one added benefit to evaluating your company’s goals with regards to your matching gifts program: “it provides a good excuse to start making changes.”

Companies that offer well-run giving programs get back as much as they help their employees give, in the form of increased employee engagement, diversified touchpoints into their communities and stronger legacies of impact.  As this holiday season roars into gear, get into the spirit by offering a robust giving campaign with all of the bells and whistles to make it gleam.