Volunteer Programs That Employees Can Get Excited About

The benefits of well-designed corporate volunteer programs have been clearly established: They boost productivity, increase employee engagement, and improve hiring and retention, to name just a few. But too often, firms’ programs fall short.

The Reason

In designing their volunteer programs, companies fall prey to common pitfalls: They blindly copy what other firms are doing, they prioritize leaders’ pet projects, or they pressure employees to participate, essentially making volunteering mandatory.

Best Practices

Such errors diminish the value of the programs to the company, employees, and society. Instead, firms should prioritize meaning, balance top-down structure with bottom-up passion, and seek to involve a variety of stakeholders in their initiatives.

Across society, volunteerism has been stagnant or trending slightly down in recent years. In the corporate world, however, it has been on the rise. In fact, paid time off for volunteering is one of the few employee benefits that has increased significantly in recent years. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 47% of U.S. companies offered community volunteer programs in 2018, up from 40% in 2014. That percentage is even higher for large companies. The Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose—a global coalition of multibillion-dollar companies—reports that 66% of its member firms offered paid-time-off volunteer programs in 2019, compared with 56% in 2016.

It is unclear whether these trends will continue as the Covid-19 pandemic and global recession continue to unfold. Some crises seem to sensitize people to societal needs: In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, for instance, volunteering reached its highest level in two decades, a bump that lasted for several years. Yet in the wake of the Great Recession, volunteer participation and charitable giving both declined. The current economic downturn is likely to cause corporate belt-tightening, and managers may be pressured to cut volunteer programs. But even in trying times there are good reasons to preserve well-run initiatives.

Many studies have shown that volunteer programs boost productivity, increase employee engagement, and improve hiring and retention. For example, a study I conducted in 2013 showed that the more people volunteered (even if it was on their own time instead of on company time), the better they performed on work tasks. It also showed that volunteers tended to be better citizens at work (helping others, voicing ideas, and so on). Another study, by David Jones of the University of Vermont and colleagues, showed that potential applicants found companies with employee volunteering programs especially attractive, for three key reasons: job seekers’ anticipated pride in being affiliated with the company, their perception of how their values fit with the firm, and their expectations about how the firm treats its employees. Research has also firmly established the benefits of volunteering to people’s well-being and sense of purpose, not to mention their physical and mental health.

Corporate volunteer programs tend to reflect the personal priorities of top management. But what matters to executives doesn’t necessarily matter to employees.

In my research and consulting work, I’ve seen corporate volunteer programs of all shapes and sizes. Some firms allow employees to volunteer for whatever cause or activity they choose; others arrange highly structured outings that teams can participate in together—a charity run, for example, or a house-building effort. Although the constraints associated with Covid-19 have halted many common volunteer activities, they have also given rise to a host of creative programs that allow people to make a difference even during a lockdown—by, for instance, remotely staffing vital hotline services, serving as “phone buddies” to check on seniors, or participating in 5K races at home on treadmills. Companies also differ in how they encourage, recognize, and reward employees’ volunteering efforts. And that variation makes sense: Companies should tailor their programs according to factors such as firm size, the expectations of customers and investors, and cultural norms and characteristics. As varied as the programs are, however, the mistakes companies make are often painfully similar. In this article, I talk about the pitfalls companies commonly encounter and some best practices for designing and implementing programs that work.

The Pitfalls

There are many ways in which companies can go wrong when they structure and implement volunteer programs. Three problems are most common:

Copying others.

When designing programs, executives are often tempted to take the easy way out and simply copy what they see successful companies in their industry doing. The thinking is “everyone else around me is doing it this way, so it must be effective.” However, this rationale rests on an assumption that may be faulty; the programs of those other firms may not be effective or beneficial. The cut-and-paste approach can also cause a disconnect between a company’s mission and goals and its program, limiting its strategic value and its intrinsic appeal to employees.

Prioritizing pet projects.

Too often, executives focus their corporation’s volunteer programs around their own personal charitable-giving preferences. (They often do the same when making corporate donations or in-kind gifts to charitable organizations.) Or they allow inertia to dictate a continuation of their predecessors’ philanthropy choices. The result is that corporate volunteer programs tend to reflect the personal priorities and values of top management. But what matters to senior executives doesn’t necessarily matter to employees—who are the linchpin of corporate volunteering efforts.

In conjunction with United Way Worldwide, my colleagues and I surveyed nearly 500 employees in 2014 and 2015—some who volunteered and some who did not—in 50 companies that offered volunteer programs. Among employees who chose not to participate, some said it was because of logistical concerns and lack of flexibility in the program, explaining, for example, that the timing of the opportunity “just wasn’t right” or that the location was “too far away.” But many others reported that they were demotivated by what they saw as programs that prioritized executives’ pet projects, sharing sentiments such as: “I would rather choose volunteer opportunities that I’m interested in and that I feel really need the extra help, not the ones that [my employer] has some association with.” These findings suggest that volunteer programs structured around senior management’s preferences are unlikely to be well received by rank-and-file employees.

Making volunteering mandatory.

Once corporate volunteer programs are formed, companies often feel compelled to engage as many people as possible and then continually expand their initiatives. Unfortunately, this can put pressure on employees to volunteer—creating de facto “mandatory volunteering.” Research by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan shows that a problematic contradiction then ensues: If people perceive that they’ll be rewarded for participating in a task or punished for choosing not to, their intrinsic motivation and satisfaction with the activity are often diminished.

Corporate pressure may also lead to what researchers call “virtue signaling” in employees, as they participate just to make a good impression on coworkers and supervisors. In theory, this could result in a virtuous cycle of employees’ cheering each other on, but that’s not what happens in practice. When employees respond to pressure from management to volunteer, their efforts are often perceived by coworkers as insincere attempts to ingratiate themselves with higher-ups. In a longitudinal field study of U.S. employees, my colleague John Lynch and I found that employees who volunteered in order to make a good impression were often stigmatized rather than applauded. Far from being viewed as moral paragons, they were characterized by their coworkers as distracted from their work, self-righteous, and narcissistic. Employees in our study noted how they commonly avoided or shunned colleagues who drew attention to their volunteering in this way, resenting what they felt was a subtle attempt to push the activity on others. Even supervisors were more likely to overlook those individuals when making important decisions, such as recommendations for promotions.

Ollie Hirst

Companies often measure volunteer-program success in terms of the percentage of the workforce that participates, but my research suggests that the mere existence of volunteer opportunities can help employees feel more engaged. In our study with the United Way Worldwide, we discovered that among companies that offered programs, employee loyalty increased not only among those who volunteered but also among those who did not. People who chose not to volunteer made comments such as “It is great that [my company] offers volunteer programs” and “I am happy that volunteering is available.”

Best Practices

Although companies should avoid pressuring employees to volunteer, they can still take steps to encourage engagement. My research provides some guidance on what to think about when designing or refining corporate volunteering programs.

Prioritize meaning.

A study I conducted with the United Way and the Junior League found that volunteer experiences must be seen as mean

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