Strengthening employee engagement should be one of your middle market company's prime retention and productivity strategies. Why? Because engaged employees work harder, grow their capabilities, are more loyal and have a direct, positive impact on your middle market company's overall performance. Among the most effective ways to drive employee engagement is with a well-run volunteer program aligned with your core values.

Volunteerism boosts employee engagement because it puts the company's core values into practice.

Consulting firm Deloitte points out a major benefit of volunteering: More than 70 percent of employees under age 35 prefer to work for a company that shows commitment to the community. This means that having an effective employee volunteering program can make you more attractive to potential job candidates, too. And your size, relative to larger rivals, makes setting up such a program more workable.

How do you engage your employees around volunteering? Here are four steps:

1. Align Initiatives Around Your Core Values and Mission

If your company makes medical devices, organize visits to a children's hospital. If you make exercise equipment, try a bike-a-thon or a 10K road race. A middle market company that produces construction materials could volunteer to build houses for low-income families. The possibilities are endless, as are the nonprofit organizations ready to partner with you.

Speak with your employees about which volunteer initiatives and partnerships best align with your company's values. Make sure that your leadership team is also engaged in, and talks about, relevant volunteering initiatives. Leadership by example is usually the best form, and it's a must in middle market companies where leaders succeed through demonstration.

2. Support Volunteering in Tangible Ways

Many companies talk a great story about how they engage with the community, but they often have no policies that support employee volunteer work. Companies show real commitment when HR gives each employee dedicated, paid days off for volunteer activities. In addition, you may wish to set up an employee volunteering committee with the power to award grants for volunteering initiatives or organize companywide responses to community needs. The committee should have a lucid understanding of your middle market company's core values and seek out employee ideas about how best to spend your time, people and money.

For individuals, be flexible in allowing employees to volunteer in whatever way works best for them. Allow a project team to run a road race together, or help a department organize a charity auction or event. If your employees want to invite their friends and family to participate in a company-led volunteering initiative, all the better. Enable creativity and be supportive. Such volunteer activities also help build your middle market company's brand, which will help in sales and recruitment.

3. Recognize Employee Achievement

Highlighting success and creating competition are great ways to foster more engagement. The tasks that are recognized and incentivized tend to get done, and it's no different with employee volunteering initiatives. Measure the positive affects of volunteering with quantitative and qualitative data, then celebrate successes by recognizing employees who have gone above and beyond. Maybe your volunteering committee could offer an annual community-engagement award or hold a contest, with a prize, for the best volunteering ideas and initiatives. Use your internal and external social media and digital platforms to publicize upcoming volunteer initiatives. This will create more participation and spread success stories.

4. Use Volunteering to Develop People and Skills

You might encourage your communications or marketing teams to write promotional materials for nonprofit groups. Alternatively, your finance people could teach a course on financial literacy at the local community center. Your middle market company's leadership team could mentor high school students or advise a nonprofit group on strategic issues. Putting these strengths to work is a win-win for the community and for your employee volunteers, who'll take pride in leveraging their professional skills for good.

Don't make volunteering compulsory or take a top-down approach. This encourages disengagement and promotes cynicism. You'll engage people best by inviting them to develop ideas, creating employee-centered volunteer programs and supporting initiatives that connect with their passions and beliefs. Don't use guilt as a way to shame people into volunteering, and don't tell your employees about your middle market company's commitment to the community unless you mean what you say. Set up internal policies and structures that truly support volunteering, and have your leadership and employees share the good word about your company's community involvement.

Have your employees conducted service initiatives for the community or for nonprofits? Has your company publicized these accomplishments, either internally or externally? Tell us how by commenting below.

Boston-based Chuck Leddy is an NCMM contributor and a freelance reporter who contributes regularly to The Boston Globe and Harvard Gazette. He also trains Fortune 500 executives in business-communication skills as an instructor for EF Education.