Employee volunteering remains a cornerstone of most Corporate Social Responsibility programs. Yet corporate volunteering programs often don’t achieve the levels of engagement one would hope.
According to the latest Chief Executive’s for Corporate Purpose (CECP) Giving in Numbers Report, 89% of surveyed companies had an employee volunteering program, but that same report found that these programs only had a 17% participation rate in 2021. That engagement should, and can, be much greater.
In a challenging hiring market, the upside for companies that get employee volunteering right is significant. Numerous studies have shown volunteer programs boost productivity, increase employee engagement, and improve hiring and retention. To cite one example, a Cone Communications Millennial Employee Study found that 64% of millennials won’t take a job if their employer doesn’t have a strong CSR policy, and 83% would be more loyal to a company that helps them contribute to social and environmental issues. Further, a report by Deloitte found that 77% of employees surveyed believe that volunteering is essential to employee well-being.
In short, employees say they want to volunteer. But most aren’t showing up. The question is: why?
There are two likely reasons, one conceptual, the other operational.
The conceptual barrier is that many companies view employee volunteering through a transactional lens. Volunteer events are often passive, one-time occurrences loosely linked. The benefits for the employees, company, and nonprofit are short-lived, and measured by input/output (for instance, boxes of food delivered). While certainly the activity has merit, it’s limited to a moment in time, and the sense of accomplishment is fleeting.
At its core, social responsibility should be purpose-driven and transformational, not transactional. That purpose should be clearly articulated, and authentic; employees should have a sense of who they’re helping and why. Creating a sense of purpose means standing for something, and then inviting others to stand with you, making volunteering one of the most concrete of purpose-driven opportunities.
The point of a volunteering initiative shouldn’t be to achieve a short-term goal, but to authentically align employees with nonprofits and the people they serve. This means viewing volunteering programs as part of an ongoing narrative; a transformative experience that ultimately leads to empathy, and long-term engagement for everyone involved. This idea of authenticity, of making genuine connections and building meaningful relationships, is what volunteer engagement is all about. Most importantly, these relationships and this engagement is sticky – it is something that will keep employees involved and encourage them to share with others.
Which brings us to the operational barrier.
Most volunteering programs fail not through lack of effort and desire, but because it’s difficult to wrangle competing priorities, opportunities and resources. Part of the reason that volunteer initiatives are viewed as transactional is that for many organizations, that’s all they can be – the idea of any larger scope is intimidating. Technology can address these operational elements to allow volunteering initiatives to scale.
Here are some specific tips:
1. Empower employees
Making the experience meaningful starts with giving employees ownership over (and input into) the process. Gather input at the planning stage so employees feel they have a voice and stake. Leverage any existing relationships or interests they have with nonprofits. You should also consider letting employees choose events they care about (or even create their own opportunities and invite others to participate), and select their volunteer team, so they can bond with those they work with or meet new folks in the organization.
2. Reduce anxiety
If people are focused on logistics, or have limited access to information, they’re not going to have a transformative experience. Eliminating uncertainty can be as simple as providing clear information up front, from a description of the activity and schedule, to suggestions on what to wear and how to get there. Again, technology can help here by providing a centralized hub for everything from sign-ups to logistical details and reminders to tracking of volunteer hours.
3. Discuss the why
Dialogue is an important piece of a transformational experience, providing context and framework to understand both the event at hand and future activities. The why is what differentiates transformation from transaction.
Set aside time to talk both before and after the event. This is your opportunity to outline the reasons and impact behind this particular initiative, and explain how the employee efforts will help. That said, don’t do all the talking – gather feedback, allow employees to share stories, etc.
Two notes of caution: First, don’t just quote statistics. Instead, focus on the human connection. Second, don’t pontificate or over-persuade, which can have the opposite of the desired effect. You can’t tell people to care about something, but you can have a conversation that gives them the space to do so.
4. Embrace complexity and connection
Volunteering isn’t meant to be a sanitized version of the real world. It’s a door to a more complex understanding of society. The more engaged employees are, the more likely they are to question past assumptions, confront bias or inequality, feel better about their work, etc. As part of that, be sure not to cast volunteers as saviors and recipients as victims. Focus instead on interconnectedness. Remind participants the roles of helper and person helped are fluid, and everyone will be in one or the other at some point.
5. Find tools that will help
Back to the original premise: The barriers to volunteering success are conceptual and operational. Employees are often unclear on the larger context (and thus not engaged) and there are a million little reasons to “just skip this event.” If employees have to bounce around emails, HR platforms and spreadsheets to find what they need, participation will plummet. They need a way to get all the information in one place, as well as engage with other employees and supervisors about the programs. This can be especially true in a larger organization, where some may feel it’s too challenging to get the right details or provide feedback.
While CSR technology platforms can’t by any means solve all problems, they can make it easier to share information, dig deeper into an opportunity, sign up, get reminders and details, connect with others, see who they’re working with, and track outcomes and Volunteer Time Off (VTO). In short, help employees connect – with the cause, and with each other.
Volunteering presents a powerful opportunity to build alignment and engagement, and done well can be a transformative experience for all involved. But employee volunteer programs only succeed through high participation. By bringing the authentic, purpose-driven goals to the fore, and eliminating the operational barriers that get in the way, HR leaders can see dramatic improvements in this important CSR initiative.