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Let’s Take a Step Back and Revisit Employee Volunteer Engagement

For years I’ve been hearing about what for-profit businesses must do to fully engage their employees in volunteerism. The overwhelming call to action has included adopting practices allowing overriding choice in cause-area selection coupled with paid time off to volunteer, or simply “volunteer time off” (VTO). In a utopian society where candy grows on trees, and everything is equal and just, this works for everybody.

There’s just one problem. Candy isn’t growing on trees and last time I checked, most things in life aren’t equal or just. So, this needs to be revisited.

I understand the many benefits of such policies. I also believe more needs to be done to champion volunteerism through the engine of private capitalism. But It’s much more complicated than calling VTO an easy remedy as some suggest. If volunteer engagement professionals are to suggest businesses take greater steps towards employee volunteerism, then it’s incumbent upon those same people to suggest practices that can be adopted by the broadest audience.

Unfortunately, VTO and overriding choice in giving isn’t hitting the mark. Perhaps it’s such a stretch for the majority in corporate social responsibility (CSR) that it’s widening a divide and discouraging progress. VTO isn’t a wildly unheard-of policy, in fact it’s been adopted by a good number of major companies. However, I suggest we take a step back and understand our audience and their challenges. Just like it’s expected that CSR professionals better understand challenges that exist in the non-profit sector, equal consideration should be given to those running a business.

I get the sense from those working in the for-profit business sector, VTO and overriding choice (while sounding great), is just a naive “easier said than done” concept. I fear by suggesting businesses take such steps, it’ll require those same businesses to leap from crawling to running, bypassing the important step of learning to walk. In most instances asking someone to crawl then run would be a problem. We don’t expect children to do it. Those same principles shouldn’t change when asking businesses to take what could be extreme measures with their employee volunteer programs (EVP).

This to me highlights the very real divide between non-profit sector professionals and for-profit CSR professionals.

Getting away from suggesting simple fixes that can’t address complex problems.

I love the spirit of VTO, but it ignores the realities of running a multi-million (or billion) dollar company. While I don’t run a business, I happen to hear enough feedback about it from those who do. VTO conveniently glosses over nuances associated with having tens (or hundreds) of thousands of employees across continental borders. It also ignores business models that include independently owned and operated franchised locations, labor unions, or the ratio of exempt to non-exempt workers. Not to mention international government policy and law, cultural nuances or competitors seeking to dethrone a thriving business empire.

It’s no secret VTO has the power to maximize volunteering. VTO allows employees personal choice in selecting where they volunteer. VTO can also transform the culture of a company in the most positive way. But it’s simply not a realistic option for some, especially those that are heavily franchised. While a business may be making millions, and can afford to give more, franchisees often have incredible decision-making power regarding what their location does and to what extent. Sure, they must maintain a brand standard, but in instances like this it’s hard to demand each location give VTO. It’s simple really, I suggest you do what works for your business. In many instances, that could mean eliminating VTO from the conversation. Not because people don’t want to allow choice, but because it’s not always a friendly option for growing a successful business.

Giving choice is tricky and needs great consideration.

Choice is incredibly important. Volunteering is almost like a vote during a political election, it can be extremely personal based on one’s values. Because of such sensitivities associated with giving the precious resource of time, allowing choice in selection will increase participation. But it can’t be granted in an “at will” fashion, nor should it be without guidance. Encouraging businesses to adopt such practices without greater consideration is foolish.

Giving choice is good when balanced, but it’s not a simple process of pushing employees to, leaving a person to their own devices. By doing so you run the risk of leaving employees ill-equipped without necessary guidance to empower or encourage them to give. Sometimes overwhelming choice is the perfect recipe for “paralysis by analysis” or decision fatigue, the psychological deterioration of making decisions.

Imagine working in a career field for years, never having had the responsibility to plan or seek a group volunteer opportunity. Then suddenly being charged to do so by your supervisor. Going to for the first time can be overwhelming given the amount of choice, let alone the process of searching and screening for the right non-profit to serve. It’s a time consuming and difficult task, even for skilled professionals who do it for a living. It’s like walking into Toys“R”Us as a child for the first time, it’s overload. Those not familiar with the non-profit sector will likely need more direction. Non-profit vetting is still a major challenge for grantors and major donors when selecting who receives funding. These are professionals with expertise in the field. So, we shouldn’t think it’s okay making employees do this without the proper resources. If left to their own devices, they’ll revert to what they know when panicked or overwhelmed. And while is okay for me, it’s not a comfort zone for everybody.

Let’s not forget by not providing guidance, you lose an ability to align employees with the greater company brand or purpose, which is important.

Thinking strategically.

This is precisely why it’s not so simple to say, “don’t dictate.” If volunteerism (as part of a greater CSR program) is to strategically align with the business, then it’d be wise tying it to the larger brand or purpose in a way that adds value. And while you can allow employee choice in giving, I suggest it be done judiciously as volunteerism can play an important role in strengthening brand identity. Additionally, volunteerism can also be used as a mechanism for talent sourcing and a diversity and inclusion strategy.

When It comes to brand identity, The Home Depot is a perfect example. The Home Depot has The Home Depot Foundation and Team Depot. Some of their national partners include Habitat for Humanity International, the American Red Cross and Team Rubicon. This makes sense, they’re one of top American “do it yourself” (DIY) home improvement supply retailing companies that sells tools, construction products, and services. Focusing on disaster relief and building communities connects to their brand identity and the resources they bare. I imagine focusing on unrelated cause-areas would be a mistake.

Don’t risk standing for nothing.

In this era of consumer activism, the decision you make could mean life or death for a company from both a financial and brand perception standpoint. More so now than ever before consumers want to purchase goods and services from companies that hold their same values. They want to know that the dollars spent is being done so responsibly. If a business is even perceived as unethical, it could have a negative effect. And let’s face it, a loss in revenue or decline in financial health means less resources for positive social impact. But businesses must be careful because giving every option on Earth could communicate that a brand stands for everything, and possibly for nothing at the same time. While not as disastrous as unethical behavior, it could just be enough to dissuade a would-be customer.

Partially dictating employee volunteerism helps establish brand purpose. If a part of your purpose is to eliminate hunger as a major food distribution company, then it may not be advisable to allow most employees to choose every other cause that exists. On the flipside, ignoring employee choice is a huge mistake. So, I just want to reiterate that injecting choice into decision making needs to be done with a measured approach. It’s a balancing act.

Whether you’re a for-profit business seeking the volunteer opportunity, or a non-profit professional suggesting a business adopt a certain practice, it’s about finding that middle ground that satisfies both parties. In this instance working to better understand limitations for-profit businesses are working within and putting forth suggestions that can be adopted. And I know it goes both ways, but volunteer engagement professionals need to take time to better understand those they’re asking from. I also know everybody wants to eat their cake and have it too. But if the end goal is to create a more perfect union that results in greater resources for non-profits, it’d behoove volunteer engagement professionals to reach across the divide and suggest business friendly ideas.

This is the first of a two-part post. Next, I’ll put forth suggestions on the types of actions for-profit businesses can take that allow employee choice while aligning with the broader strategic goals. In the meantime, if you have a suggestion of your own that you’ve seen work, have a comment or simply want to say hello, I’d love to hear from you.

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