Employee volunteer programs (EVPs) have tremendous power. They create opportunities to invest in both your employees and the community. Regardless of industry, EVPs are the most accessible form of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) that one can implement. Any company with employees can create the necessary programming to empower employees to volunteer.
That said though, as accessible as EVPs are, they continue to present challenges for even the most seasoned CSR practitioner. These must be overcome to have maximum impact for the community.
Whether you’re just starting in CSR or are a seasoned practitioner you’ve probably read other “Top” posts suggesting actions to increase engagement. This isn’t one of those posts. Rather, what I’m suggesting are four (often overlooked or undervalued) approaches that’ll improve the depth and effectiveness of your EVP.
I’ll forewarn you, most of these changes won’t be easy, nor will they come without opposition.
Change #1: Ditch the corporate “day of volunteerism”.
At its core, the corporate “day of volunteerism” perpetuates behaviors we must work to eliminate. I’ll explain.
Many companies (of all sizes and industries) conduct a “day of volunteerism”. For small companies this may be limited to a local market. But, for global companies this manifests in action being carried out in multiple states or even countries by tens of thousands of employees on or around a specific date and time. They’re designed with the intent to serve the community, but, are more often planned and executed with the intent to achieve employee engagement goals, even if subconsciously.
While well intended, those seeking the engagement (including leadership) add layers of complexity to an already complicated event. They often express a desire to keep their team of employees (sometimes as large as 50 to 100 people) together for “team building”. Sometimes even expressing dissenting opinions about the volunteer work they’re expected to complete. And once complete, at the end of the event, the company touts a massive achievement (i.e. thousands of employees volunteering thousands of hours in communities across the nation).
Chances are you’ve seen this. Here’s what’s wrong with the picture. The “day of volunteerism” can lead to the following;
A false understanding that “more employees and more hours served” equals "better".
Volunteerism programming primarily designed to give employees a great experience rather than a positive social impact for the community.
A situation where the non-profit being served is overwhelmed or pushed beyond their capacity to effectively host because the group size is too large.
A scenario where the company is offering services that too few non-profits are designed to receive or use.
The true needs (and when it’s actually needed) being ignored because the event is centered around the date and time set by the company, not the non-profit.
Creation of activities that are cost prohibitive for the non-profit resulting from the volunteer opportunity being primarily focused on the demands of the company.
Not addressing the deep critical issues in society or the environment because the actions are more of a “celebration” aimed at satisfying the company’s desire to serve.
The removal of agency and voice from employees who’d rather support a different cause other than the one being supported by the company.
I could go on adding to that list, but I won’t waste your time. You get the point.
Now, of course you may ask, “Jerome, what about the media attention, marketing from our logos being prominently displayed on our t-shirts and the reputational boost we’ll get by doing this event?”
My answer? I’d kindly ask you step back into your time machine and travel two decades in the past where those perceived benefits were worth something. I’d also argue that any narrative from volunteering will always be better when done year-round and authentically with the objective being to serve the community’s needs first and foremost. If the community’s needs are met, then any marketing, media or reputational boost will be better than if pursued through a corporate “day of volunteerism” that’s designed to achieve employee engagement goals.
Here’s my challenge to CSR practitioners. Instead of creating a forced volunteer event, consider dismantling your corporate “day of volunteerism” altogether. Then connect with the same community partners and determine their needs year-round and plan to more regularly and purposefully serve.
Making the decision to dissolve such a program doesn’t have to be limited to just the “day of volunteerism”. This can be applied to other times of the year.
For example, similar tactics must be taken related to volunteerism centered around significant dates and holidays.
To have the greatest social impact, we must fight societal expectations that aren’t always helpful when serving the community.
Change #2: Decouple volunteerism from significant dates and holidays.
Culturally we’re wired to recognize and observe significant dates in history. We mark our calendars and pay tribute to once larger-than-life figures and historically relevant moments in time.
There’s Arbor Day, Random Acts of Kindness Day, National Volunteer Week, September 11 National Day of Service, Thanksgiving, Veterans Day and Christmas to name just a handful.
Mind you, not all of these are focused on volunteerism, yet as a society we’ve sought to couple them with volunteer service. Here’s the question I’d ask each CSR practitioner to ponder. When we couple significant dates with volunteerism, do we unintentionally cause more harm than good?
Our intentions are often genuine, however, there’s just one problem. There’s a fair chance we’re subconsciously driven by a societal expectation to give. It’s the glaring flaw often left unacknowledged; moreover, injecting volunteerism into significant dates and times almost always ignores the true needs of the community. Doing so may elevate the significant date (or the accompanying societal expectation) over the needs of those you’re seeking to serve. Don’t worry, I have a solution for this, so keep reading.
Let’s take the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday (also known as MLK Day of Service) for example. Observed each year on the third Monday in January, MLK Day of Service is the only federal holiday in the United States designated as a national day of service. But just like the charitable spirit from Thanksgiving through Christmas, there’s often an overwhelming outpour of support for non-profits. It’s estimated non-profits experience a 40 percent increase in requests to serve (some as high as 200 percent). But, let me just remind you that too much of even a good thing can be bad, here’s why.
Shortly thereafter (and for the months following MLK Day of Service) these same non-profits are left in a volunteer drought. That spike in requests to volunteer is solely centered on the societal expectation that we’re volunteering. That desire fails to account for the true needs of that non-profit. You may ask, “what happens when we elevate significant dates and holidays above the community’s needs?”, here’s what I’d say.
We assume there’s a need that can be satisfied. And while that may be the case, it may not be best fulfilled on MLK Day of Service.
We ignore the very structure of how that non-profit is designed to best provide service.
Our desire to give fails to account for when the community can be best served (if at all) with what’s being offered.
It also ignores the very fact that a non-profit may take that day off in observance of the holiday rather than engage volunteers.
This is all akin to jamming a square peg into a round hole.
Here’s the hard pill to swallow, unless you make a change, you may continue to be that square peg.
The receiving non-profit is then left with a decision to make. Turn away would-be volunteers and future supporters or alternatively risk jeopardizing the integrity of their services for the sake of engaging volunteers. Here’s what it comes down to, there are close to 25 days related to giving and service to others globally. This doesn’t include the holidays or other periods of time where people are feeling generous. However, social and environmental issues don’t work around your pretty “giving” calendar. Critical issues pop up, and we must rise to the challenge then and there.
My suggestion is to cease tying significant dates and holidays to anything related to the actions of engaging employee volunteers. Yep, you heard me, do nothing. Instead, work with your community partners and determine when they have their greatest needs. Seek to focus on the needs they express Instead of rallying hundreds of employees around a significant date in history. Additionally, in lieu of volunteering, create an internal communication and education campaign aimed at encouraging volunteerism during times of the year that’s best for the community.
Sure, this is a different approach and it’s bound to get questions. Embrace that.
I believe with every question you receive about “why” you’re doing something only presents an opportunity to further educate those asking.
Be bold, you may find that employees will respond positively once they understand the rationale.
Change #3: Fund and participate in corporate employee volunteer research.
Research is defined as “diligent and systematic inquiry or investigation into a subject in order to discover or revise facts, theories, applications, etc.” We need more of this done for corporate EVPs (and volunteerism generally). Think about this for a second. It’s my opinion that many in society arrogantly believe that because they volunteer in their own time, they’re somehow “experts” in understanding the science and philosophy of engaging volunteers.
But, let me put this in perspective with a comparison.
The understanding of volunteer engagement (by the non-experts who believe they’re experts) would be like me believing I’m an expert in global communications and public affairs because I write and blog in my spare time. That would be an absurd assertion for me to make.
Like other professions, volunteer engagement warrants a dedication to continued education, development and pursuit of knowledge. For close to 90 percent of non-profits it’s a core “business function”. It’s also an expected job function of most CSR practitioners. So, we must research this in order to advance.
But, let’s get back to the topic of EVP research.
While funding and participating in research isn’t tangible, it has greater positive contributions to the culture of volunteerism at large. That’s a good thing for those working in CSR. Perhaps by your funding EVP research you (and others) will learn how to more expertly engage in social impact programming that involves human capital. As CSR practitioners we must not be motivated solely by the desire to one-up our peers at competing companies. I’m hopeful that most of us are eager to see collective achievements and successes towards common goals.
When we fund research, we all win.
There are many benefits that include the following;
Conducting research allows the CSR field to more smartly understand trends and successful practices related to EVPs and achieving universally sought goals like the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
It allows the field to better understand the capabilities (and limitations) of specific technology platforms designed to support CSR reporting for EVPs.
Research equips the field to better coordinate and collaborate in times of disaster when engaging employees in disaster volunteering.
Research will help companies (yours included) to better understand the value in participating in peer-based corporate volunteer councils with strategic member-based organizations like Points of Light, International Association for Volunteer Effort, IMPACT 2030 and even your local or regional organizations.
Research will also help companies with a rich culture of giving to better understand the trends and opportunities around CEO volunteering.
Research can provide insight into how non-profits view, respond to and work best with EVPs. This better equips companies to bridge the divide between non-profit organizations and corporations.
Everybody wins in this scenario where research is funded and made available. While doing so, you may even have an opportunity for your company’s EVP to be profiled as a case study for others to see.
Lastly, through the results of the research, you may even find that your non-profit partners can add value back to your employees.
Change #4: Engage community partners as subject matter experts to educate your employees.
What I’m not referring to is the five-minute “rah-rah” speech given by an organization shortly before a group volunteers their time. I’m suggesting something deeper. Something that’ll connect your employees to the critical issues your company’s EVP is working to solve. Think of this as both an opportunity to more deeply serve while also investing in your own employees. I’ll tell you why.
Over the past two years I’ve visited close to 60 community partners in the Greater Washington, D.C. area. The objective was to become educated about the non-profits I serve in my role.
I recall during a visit asking “What is your greatest need? Where can we best support?”
The answer my surprise you.
Slap yourself if you think the answer I received was “more volunteers”, because you’d be wrong. Matter of fact, they had a steady stream of regular volunteers. Their answer?
“More people to know we’re here” was their response.
What they needed is for more members of the community to know they exist, know where they’re located, and be knowledgeable about the population they serve and the critical issues they’re solving.
I also learned something quite interesting during my visits. I found out some community partners would host periodic open houses. They would do this instead of recruiting new volunteers through the traditional methods focused on a call-to-action for a specific event. You see, they didn’t need people to sign up for kit-building projects, to serve food, or to staff events. They simply needed people to come through their office and learn about their mission and services. That’s it.
In an instance like this it was more beneficial to schedule employees for a guided tour rather than propose that we “do something” tangible for them.
Similarly, there are environmental organizations that provide similar programming in the form of guided boat tours and hikes of the waterways and trails they preserve. For them it’s an opportunity to connect and educate.
These opportunities present an opening to explore what I categorize as unconventional or non-traditional volunteering. Sure, it’s not contributing to the creation of a tangible item like a kit-building project. Instead, it’s advancing the mission of that non-profit by connecting employees with community partners that they may want to support in their personal time. They’ll also get a glimpse into what cause-areas the company supports. It’ll create space for employees to be educated about critical issues in the community they may have not been aware of.
The time they spend on the tour or with the community partner learning about these issues should count as volunteer time spent supporting the organization.
And really, this is a win-win scenario where this contributes to greater learning and development of your employees. They become smarter and become better as a result. And this doesn’t have to end with guided tours. With creativity these events can take on many forms; this can include panel discussions, round-table format discussions and third-person style learning activities.
That all being said, all these changes are no easy feat to implement, I would know.
But, in the long-term these changes are bound to have a profound effect on your employees and community. I’ve seen that firsthand. But don’t take my word for it.
If you’ve tried some of these and had success (or failure), I’d love to hear about your experience. Or, if you’re seeking advice on how to implement these changes don’t be a stranger.
Alternatively, if you disagree with these suggestions, let’s have that discussion.
In any instance, know I’m here in your service and with the goal to help you (and others) be Responsible AF. Until next time, be well.