Volunteering vs. VolunTELLING

© Eleni Seitanidou | Dreamstime.com

© Eleni Seitanidou | Dreamstime.com

I recently contributed to an article about the new role of volunteering in the workplace. Offering volunteer opportunities (or corporate social responsibility, CSR) is fast becoming a positive differentiator in recruitment and retention. On the surface, this looks like a win-win-win: companies look good, employees feel good, and the community partners gain some much-needed support.

But in the ensuing discussion, one colleague pointed out that this has also given rise to the volunTOLD phenomenon: companies wanting the benefits of a CSR program decide to implement it come hell or high water. Management picks a partner organization and requires its employees to give time to it. In implementation, it becomes part of everyone’s job description to volunteer (which, of course, isn’t really volunteering). Inevitably, a program like this fails to garner the recruitment and retention results desired, and eventually the company gives the whole thing up declaring it was nothing but a big lie and a fad.

“Life is a journey, not a destination.” (And so is corporate volunteering.)

To actually see the benefit of establishing a CSR program, you have to focus beyond the end result of volunteering, because it is the way you implement the program that brings the greatest benefits. A successful program inevitably begins with the employees in a grass-roots fashion. It occurs bottom-up, not top-down. Here is why this approach works best:

  1. When you ask the actual volunteers how they want to volunteer, you get stronger commitment.
  2. Committed volunteers make the most passionate and dedicated leaders.
  3. It provides an opportunity for employees who may not have leadership experience to develop those skills (which can benefit both the employee and the company).
  4. Additional employees will volunteer in order to hang out with their coworkers — it gets popular support.
  5. When managers participate (as volunteers), it builds a stronger trust relationship with the employee leaders, and that is a foundation for better teamwork on the job.

So if you have a company and you want to give a CSR program a try: please, please, please don’t volunTELL. Here are some simple steps to developing a better program:

  1. Determine what you are willing to commit to the program as the sponsor. Will this be a once-a-year thing? Or is there a monthly commitment? How much time will you give to the employee leader to organize the program? Different companies can tolerate different levels of commitment, but I warn you not to be too stingy here. This is your primary way of showing your commitment to the program, and that will impact how successfully it will resonate with the employees.
  2. Ask the employees what they would like to do. Take a simple survey. Ask where people already give their time or would like to if they had an extra-hour per month to do it.
  3. Once you have a winner program, ask who would be interested in leading it. Have people apply like any other job; but remember this is an opportunity for you to develop a new leader in the organization. Look for employees who may not hold leadership responsibility now, but who have some traits you would like to develop. If you really want to use this to develop leaders (or are nervous about making a poor choice), consider making it a termed position (like 1-year) to spread the opportunity around.
  4. DO NOT MAKE PARTICIPATION MANDATORY, but do give time to those who want to participate. Volunteering (like anything else) isn’t for everyone, but if you want a thriving program, giving people a half-day once a quarter or year to do good works is worth it. Think carrot, not stick.
  5. Shout about it. Make sure to thank the participants, recognize the successes of your new leader, and celebrate what they accomplish. Even if its just internal publicity, this is the secondary way you show your commitment to the program.

Corporate social responsibility is not a miracle of recruitment. When you think about it, it is a logical benefit to offer employees, especially those of the Millennial generation who have shown themselves to be drawn to social issues. If you treat it like a fad, you will get shallow results; but if you truly commit to the program, you will see the legendary benefits you’ve heard about.

PS – Contact me if you want some help 🙂

PPS – For more articles like this, follow me on LinkedIn.

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