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The Private Sector’s Role in the Future of Volunteering Isn’t What You Think It Should Be

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What if I told you the private sector’s role in shaping the future of volunteering is more important than ever before? Would you agree? I suspect my non-profit sector counterparts may not. Over the past two weeks in an online discussion hosted by the United Nations (UN), IMPACT2030 and the International Association for Volunteer Effort (IAVE), I’ve had an opportunity to expand on my views of the future of volunteering and specifically the role of the private sector. The discussion focuses on the role of employee volunteerism by corporations and responsible businesses to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

In short, I believe the future of volunteering isn’t virtual, and compounding on the complexity, it’s becoming the playground for many for-profit companies. And while the private sector has done a great job responding most immediately to COVID-19, I believe long-term, businesses play an even greater role in advancing volunteerism once the pandemic is behind us. A part of that should be in managing expectations and diverting employees from virtual back to in-person volunteering. I also feel strongly that for the private sector to do so, companies must drastically change the way they engage employees as volunteers. This will partly require a reeducation in how people philosophically understand volunteerism.

The goal of course is to be more aligned with the needs of the community. While many working in CSR will claim they already do that, I have yet to be convinced. This will ultimately require a massive change in current behaviors that drive employee volunteering.

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In case you missed it, the future of volunteerism isn’t virtual.

I won’t spend much time on this as I dedicated an entire post to this. But, in summary, it’s my assessment that while we're hyper focused on virtual volunteerism now, it’ll only remain a secondary (or supplementary) outlet for volunteer engagement. Unfortunately, the spike in “virtual everything” has created a false expectation that digital mediums will play a primary role in the volunteerism space moving forward. Look, while we're all seeking it now (as we should), we can’t lose sight that in a post COVID-19 world there will be a rebound back to in-person and more traditional forms of volunteerism. Why you ask? Because the need for direct service requiring in-person engagement will always exist.

As a result, the private sector bears responsibility to manage the expectations of employee volunteers. This requires great care because it’ll be a balancing act of providing both virtual and in-person forms of volunteerism, while also being realistic in understanding the limited capability of virtual volunteering. Sure, the private sector has done a great job pivoting to virtual forms of volunteering. However, the private sector must also address the continued need of the more traditional and episodic forms of engagement especially as it relates to the SDGs. And while people will be anxious to get back to human contact, we shouldn’t assume that in-person volunteering will come back stronger than it was before.

I believe in-person volunteerism will be stronger for some, but not all. This will be based on the trust established between the volunteers and the hosting organization. Volunteers must trust that they’ll be safe volunteering in closer proximity to others.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed cracks in current service models. It also exposed the great need for in-person volunteerism for organizations fighting poverty and food insecurity. So, for those that heavily rely on in-person volunteers, this will be a time for them to campaign, using the lessons learned to strengthen their volunteer base. For other organizations that can deliver services virtually, this will be a launchpad for them to more strongly embrace virtual means of service delivery. After all, there are now many proof-points for virtual volunteerism that didn’t exist before.

That said, here’s my prediction. It won't be until we see more "normal" levels of business by the travel, hospitality and airline industries that we see higher levels of in-person opportunities that lend themselves to being in close quarters with others.

As it's related to corporate employee volunteerism, this means companies navigating and assessing higher degrees of risk.

Trust between companies and community organizations will be vital to assessing risk.

Many companies already aim to protect employees while they volunteer on company time, this will only increase. In a post COVID-19 world, companies will be even more risk-averse when sending their employees to volunteer. They’ll assess what liability they assume if they send employees to volunteer and one of their employees is exposed to COVID-19 as a result. Risk management, legal teams and human resources professionals will have to grapple this, and for some non-profit partners this will mean some corporate partners may hesitate. I even suspect some companies may even pull back on group volunteering altogether, for two reasons.

One, to reduce risk. But secondly, to mitigate costs as many group volunteer opportunities have associated costs. It would only make sense for companies strongly impacted by financial constraints to turn away from opportunities that bear costs for engagement.

Related to risk, this is tricky because every organization and company have their own method on assessing risk and accepting varying degrees of it. So, to overcome this, the respective risk management, legal and human resources teams of companies will need to be increasingly more collaborative with non-profit organizations their company serves. It’ll be critical for businesses and non-profits to be more aligned in co-creating language and policy that addresses the needs of the community while also protecting the employees of their corporate partners.

But there’s also the question of how the private sector can support volunteering to make it more relevant and effective while also creating next-generation support packages.

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CSR must embrace servant leadership in the community.

To be more effective in the community, the private sector must shift away from the traditionally defensive nature of CSR. While some may feel differently, I think history has shown that CSR is traditionally driven by a company’s self-serving (sometimes subconscious) motives, and not always by the needs in the community. I imagine this idea will draw criticism but think about it for a second. CSR is generally designed through the lens of the company's motives and expectations first and foremost, not the community it's serving. A perfect example of how this shows up is when corporations and businesses seek to serve the community during significant dates in history or times of year as decided by the company.

Sadly, we’ve all been willing participants in some of these; the "single day of service" and group volunteering as "team building" to satisfy employee engagement goals. These same events often happen during significant dates in history (i.e. MLK Day of Service, September 11th National Day of Service and Remembrance, the holidays) and times of cultural significance. The problem is that these historically significant dates during the year don't match up with the true needs in the community.

Yet, we perpetuate it.

While it satisfies an urge to give by employees of the company It can create an influx in services not always needed by the community. Adding to this, CSR is often seen as the thing to do in order to insulate a company's reputation, attract talent and retain employees. And while some of those are byproducts of good volunteering and community service, they can quickly become the primary reason companies serve the community. To overcome this, the private sector needs to shift CSR to more fully being focused on the community being served.

I'm currently not convinced that idea is embraced and executed by most CSR programs. I hope someone reaches out and proves me wrong on this. I’m still waiting for that moment.

This shift requires the creation of a next-generation volunteering support package.

The true next-generation volunteer support package must have more of an education component behind it. It should do more to educate employees about the critical issues in the communities where they do business, while also more fully promoting real solutions. But be warned, these solutions (if adopted and practiced) will likely fly in the face of expectations. For CSR teams taking this action, change management will become an even more important skill to possess and practice.

Lastly, if we’re to more positively advance volunteerism there will need to be more deliberate action through increased funding of research and the actual mechanisms and administrative structure needed to more effectively engage volunteers.

So, what role would individual employees play in implementing this change you ask? A small one if I’m being honest. Just bear with me and I’ll tell you why.

You may think that making employee volunteerism more democratic and putting a greater emphasis on employee voice is the way to go, but I have a different thought. I'd argue that employees probably shouldn't be the primary voice to lead or propose new forms or approaches to corporate led volunteerism. Here’s why. The average person is not an expert in social change or understanding the levers to make that happen through volunteering.

There are experts of volunteer engagement, but the average employee isn’t one of them.

What I’m about to say will certainly strike a nerve for some, so buckle up.

The average employee is far less equipped in many cases to propose change that'll have great impact on the community, let alone the SDGs. This is largely because they're still operating with the mindset of serving the community based on the societal norms (i.e. significant dates in time and history, the holidays, and based on their expectations) without tested experience in creating programs for social and environmental change. Putting the average employee in the driver seat of a corporate employee volunteer program would create a situation what would largely ignore the needs of the community.

That said, there should still exist a mechanism for CSR programs to collect employee feedback and input. The feedback can be critical in helping influence the programming because the employee voice is important. It just shouldn’t be the overriding factor.

The other thing I'd mention is if we're talking about advancing the SDGs, you need focus and strategy that places company resources and energy on the specific SDGs you’re seeking to achieve. Unfortunately, employee volunteer programs that are too democratic or based solely on the employee input often lack such focus. The volunteering ends up being spread across too many cause areas, and sometimes not on any specific SDGs at all. In those instances, it becomes more about the personal passions of the employee, and less about SDGs.

And as previously mentioned, education must be a component of a proposed next-generation volunteer support package. Just be aware that it will require key employee volunteers to become those knowledgeable champions of specific cause areas, SDGs or community-based organizations. CSR teams in this instance would need to have the programming in place (created in collaboration with their community partners) to immerse their key volunteers in that critical issues to a point where they can effectively train other volunteers.

I’ve seen that work, but in some cases takes an investment from the CSR team to create the correct mechanism. But before we put the cart before the horse, the CSR team's focus must again first be on the needs of the community, first and foremost.

So, what can companies do right now to embrace and implement this shift?

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Here are four concrete actions that companies must take.

Of course, I talk a big game in terms of what companies must do. But I’ll also back that up with four concrete actions companies must take to create those next generation programs.

First and foremost, hire for greater diversity of thought. Responsible businesses need to first hire more diverse talent for their CSR teams. Let’s be honest, many companies hire those with traditional business acumen to manage their CSR teams. The issue with that is most people (while well intentioned) make decisions shaped by their personal, academic and professional experiences. This remains true when serving the community.

It’s not absurd to think someone with a marketing background would seek community engagement programming through the lens of a marketer. Or let’s take someone that possesses a strong background in public and media relations for example. They may serve with a heightened attention on creating programming with a public relations focused outcome. You can avoid this by taking more deliberate steps to hiring professionals with backgrounds in human services, education, social work and community organizing. Why? Because by trade they're true experts in serving communities. They understand organizational theory of change, delivering program outcomes, and have in many cases worked in a capacity to engage volunteers in service work. And the fact of the matter is while those with traditional business backgrounds may understand how to work in revenue generating roles within the company, that’s not what we’re asking of CSR teams. Sure, CSR professionals must understand how the company functions, simply because they’re charged with creating social impact programs within those limitations. But you still need a tested professional who’s done that.

I’ll add that in many cases it only takes those without a business background several months to understand how the company functions.

We're asking them to serve in a CSR role, not one that’s revenue generating. So, hire the correct talent.

Next, ask the right questions when forming partnerships. One thing I've noticed (having worked from both the CSR and non-profit side) is that many companies have a pre-defined expectation of how they'd like to see their employees volunteer. The result? The pre-defined expectations end up being how many start the partnership discussion. Doing that creates a situation where the company pursues volunteer opportunities that aren’t always needed by the community. To overcome this nonsense, remove the expectations completely and instead, ask the following questions after introductions:

  • What is your greatest need?

  • Why is it your greatest need?

  • How can our company help?

Then and only after they’re heard, determine if as a company if it’s a good fit. If so, work backwards to determine all the steps required to leverage the proper resources to do so. I've noticed when companies lead with an expectation of how they want to volunteer, it creates a disconnect right from the start.

And of course, I must mention this, but to fully embrace next-generation programming, companies must create more community friendly policy. Companies need to remove barriers that prevent employees from volunteering the way the non-profit or community needs. For example, some companies don't allow their employees to sign waivers, or volunteer in positions where there may be greater risk. Some companies enforce policy that prevent fundraising or other call-to-actions on their property entirely. So, CSR teams need to build alliances with their legal and human resources teams, and then collaboratively involve the non-profits into the conversation. This would create a space that allows volunteering policy to be more aligned from the get to, taking into greater consideration the needs of the non-profits being served.

Lastly, and this one is critical, companies must have greater transparency. CSR teams must do a better job communicating to non-profit organizations what resources are available (grants, types of volunteers, in-kind gifts) from their company. But don’t stop there, take it another step and proactively communicate the process in how non-profits can acquire those resources. The parameters and guidelines should be publicly available.

This will better equip non-profit and community organizations to seek support with instruction on how to do that. And with that last action, CSR teams must also acknowledge these requests, and change their stance from "protecting the castle" to one of being collaborative.

Look, it’s not lost on me that to implement these action items it’ll take time and require a tremendous amount of buy-in.

But this goes back to CSR teams gaining and more effectively using skills in change management.

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Final thoughts.

Billions of people volunteer each year across the world. As we’re experiencing now, it takes on many forms and serves many communities. While we’re most immediately battling COVID-19, It’s also important that we don’t lose sight on longer-term challenges. Some of these include climate change, inequalities in society and other global issues. All of these put at risk our collectively achieving the SDGs. Once COVID-19 is behind us we’ll need to have an honest discussion about how we volunteer. We can and should start that now.

As volunteering continues to evolve so must the methods in which we seek to engage.

While these are just my thoughts on the future of volunteerism and my belief on the private sectors role in advancing the culture of volunteering, I would love to hear what you think.

I’d love for you to share your thoughts on the following questions:

How do you see the future of volunteering? What role does the private sector play in supporting the role of volunteering to achieve the SDGs? And finally, what would next-generation volunteer support packages look like to you? Do you agree or disagree with my assessment? How would your vision differ from mine?

And there’s no right or wrong answer. What I hope is that others from all walks of life, professions and backgrounds weigh in on this. Having more robust and diverse thought on volunteerism is key to advancing the culture of volunteering. In the meantime, stay inside and stay Responsible AF, I look forward to hearing from you.

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