When you’re the head of your company’s CSR, finding transactional volunteer options is easy. But what about transformativevolunteer options? What happens when the volunteer work gets done, but it just feels like … work? What happens when the nonprofit doesn’t show your employees the connection between their efforts and the impact it creates? And more importantly, how can you make something transactional feel like something transformative? You have the power. Let me prove it.
By Ben Bisbee
It’s 4pm on a Thursday and a hundred of your fellow employees are just finishing up a long day cleaning acres of community park land. The park authority was extremely gracious, making sure everyone was hydrated and got their free t-shirt, and … that was kind of it. People certainly seemed to enjoy themselves. Great work was done. Now what?
Transformative volunteerism occurs when a volunteer experiences facing an organizational or societal problem and can leave feeling like they were part of a solution. These transformative experiences create a sense of accomplishment and a sense of awakening. They don’t just offer aha! moments; they actively promote them.
There are three basic elements required to ensure a volunteering experience moves beyond transactional to transformative:
Start with the why.
Just prior to the volunteering experience participants must be heard about why their contribution matters. It’s not difficult to do but almost all corporate volunteering experiences fail at this most fundamental step. Here’s some guidance.
Finish with critical reflection. Asking participants to make sense of their volunteering experiences is simple, but again, hardly ever happens. But it’s important because this step is what ensures attitudes and behaviors are changed by the experience. Read more.
But what if they don’t? What if all you get out of a local volunteer experience is welcome, work, thank you and free t-shirt? What then? How do you take a transactional event and approach it from a transformative perspective? And more importantly, how do you do this as your company’s CSR professional after the event has already taken place?
You know what would have been great? If the park staff would have thought to gather everyone up at the end of the day, thank them, go over the day’s accomplishments, tell them about the thousands of park enthusiasts who will directly benefit from their efforts, share a touching story, ask for feedback and then applaud the day’s work. Right? Something like that. It’s not a Disney movie. There won’t be any fun musical montages with birds and rabbits holding hands, singing your praises. But a little debrief would have gone a long way. So why too often doesn’t it seem to happen?
Because simple enough, people in control of the day rarely think about it. That’s transactional volunteerism for you. The merits of the day’s efforts are counted by the number of bags filled, the hours of the labor devoted, the distribution of those t-shirts worn. It’s not a bad system, mind you. It’s just not always fulfilling, inspiring or—you know—transformative.
Oh sure, it’s frustrating. You feel like a cog in the machine. A machine called “volunteerism,” but felt suspiciously like work. But the work was done. And will a lack of transformative experiences take away from the transactional nature of the event? No, actually not at all. But it does matter. It does start to tear at the fabric of the point of the whole thing. “Wait … I took off work to … work?!” Abort mission.
So how do you, as the head of your company’s CSR program, turn transactional into transformative for your employees – especially if you were unable to build in the three key elements we listed above? Well, here are a few thoughtful suggestions:
The headline is not the story.
Why did you choose this event? Maybe the opportunity just fell from the sky. It more likely sounded like a really great opportunity, like something that could be transformative. So … was it? What was the story that was created by your employees that day? What was the why? Call the nonprofit back. Ask them. Ask them for tools or stories that you can share in the days following via email or your intranet that reminds people—even after the t-shirts are in the hamper and the hard work is a fading memory—that they did something important, something profound. Essentially, you helped create the day’s headline, so it shouldn’t be too hard for you to help create the story associated if it didn’t immediately present itself.
Build a place for reflection. Often the butterfly has to look back at the cocoon to remind it how amazing its wings truly are. How can you create an environment for the employees to look back and reflect on the day or their own personal transformation? As we mentioned already, critical reflection is an essential step to bringing meaning to experience. So if you were unable to debrief at the event there are some options that you can follow up on later. Ask employees to write you a brief email telling you one transformative or enlightening thing they are willing to share that you can convert into a “thank you and reflection” email to everyone later in the week. Sometimes another person’s aha! moment can help ignite their own. But more importantly, you’re asking them to reflect and you’re creating a space to do it that can be shared and valued.
Close the loop by creating concentric circles. Ok, you’ve gotten some tools to help remind them of the story they created. You’ve asked for written reflections that have been shared. Now it’s time to bring it all home and close the loop by creating a shared mission: a common center. So what’s the next headline? And how can those who are in on the transaction offer ideas or insights to ensure that next time it can be more transformative? Now is the time to ask those who are engaging, post-event, to continue engaging. Don’t lose track of these people! These people are gold. Ask them to help you on the next visit. Ask them for suggestions for new places to volunteer. Ask them to help you make sure all future events can be as amazing and transformative as possible.
Transformative volunteerism is hard, while transactional volunteerism is fairly easy. The process to set up a volunteer event with a welcoming beginning, actionable activity, and thank you-close isn’t too difficult for the average nonprofit. In fact, it’s probably a fairly standard event structure of their daily programming. But anyone can offer an orientation, a slick t-shirt, something worth doing, and then an end-of-the-day-pat-on-the-back.
However, not every nonprofit will take the time to help you create a transformative experience for your employees. Don’t let that stop you from doing so. Don’t let the last thing your employee volunteer experiences be just an invitation to the next event. You have the power to make the exception to the rule exceptional. This, frankly, separates CSR managers from CSR masters. Which one are you?
Reach out to Realized Worth on Facebook or Twitter, email us via email@example.com, or just leave a comment below!
It’s not news that corporate volunteering is on the rise and that the business world is learning to measure the benefits. RW’s Corey Diamond posted the following stats, among others, in a recent article:
87% of employees who volunteered with their companies reported an improved perception of their employer.
64% of employees who actively volunteer said that volunteering with colleagues has strengthened their work relationships.
Millennials who frequently participate in their company’s volunteer activities are twice as likely to rate their corporate culture as very positive.
Among employees who volunteered in the past year, 74% say that volunteering makes them feel healthier, 94% say that volunteering improves their mood, and 78% say that volunteering lowers their stress levels.
Despite these encouraging developments, great nonprofit/corporate partnerships are still few and far between. In fact, when I hear companies and their partner organizations share their successes on panels at conferences, even they seem surprised that things are going well. Why is this? Realized Worth would suggest the problem stems from a simple language barrier – and there are some relatively easy steps to getting on the same page.
Learn a few words of the language your potential partner is speaking. How do you define corporate volunteering? What are its business benefits? What are the latest trends and challenges in the corporate social responsibility space? Who are the main players.
Know Your Story.
There will be days so difficult and full of “to dos” that you lose sight of why you got into this in the first place. What’s your story? Why are you in this in the first place? What’s your fundamental why? Don’t even bother with the hard work of a partnership if you don’t have a strong grasp on who you are.
Create space …
… for your potential partner to fall in love. It doesn’t make sense to ask someone to commit to you before they’ve had a chance to get to know you. Woo your potential partner. Invite them into a space that highlights what you as a nonprofit or a company have to offer. Don’t expect anything from them. Just show them why they should choose you.
The world-changing potential of smart partnerships between companies and nonprofit organizations is nearly unlimited. Realized Worth and VolunteerMatch aim to provide the resources and expertise to help make that potential a reality. Ready to dig in to the topics above? The book is available here, but it would even more fun to discuss the issues live.
Join Chris Jarvis and me for a webinar on Thursday, June 11th, 2015 at 11 – 11:45 AM PDT (2 – 2:45 PM EDT). The webinar is titled Changing Corporate Perspective: Workplace Giving Programs and we’ll share some real-life stories in addition to discussing the trends and challenges we’re seeing, offering recommendations on how to inspire employees to volunteer, and getting some perspective on the corporation’s role in a higher calling.
We’d love for you to join the discussion! Register here.
Want to discuss the issues one on one? Feel free to shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also reach out to and connect with Realized Worth via our Facebook and Twitter profiles.
Today I’m in Chicago for the annual Cause Marketing Forum. While the content of this event’s sessions never fail to provide new information and provoke innovative thinking, it’s the people who motivate me to show up. In the hallways between breakouts and during the evening reception over wine, the Cause Marketing Forum brings together some of the smartest, most compassionate men and women in the CSR, marketing and PR fields. Yesterday, in a conversation with one of those brilliant people, I was told: You can’t affect corporate culture without a strong brand strategy. And that’s where things got interesting.
My forum friend may be right. I agree; a strong brand strategy is important, particularly when “cause” is part of that brand. I’ll use the banking industry as an example. Recently, an article was shared with me that’s written by a PR professional who gets it almost right. Almost right is good, but it’s not good enough. I don’t personally know the article’s author and I certainly don’t intend to offend him; I’m sure he is much smarter than I am along with being a great writer. The fact that his professional emphasis is PR may explain his particular perspective.
He lists the challenges the industry is facing clearly and accurately. Straight from the article, here are some salient points (click here to read more of the author’s thoughts on each):
Customers don’t want toasters, they want a relevant financial services partner that consistently proves it understands their needs and demonstrates a commitment to grow with them.
People want a personal relationship.
Trust needs to be central to a strategic marketing plan.
A strong brand always starts on the inside.
Showcasing your brand in everything you do “can mean the difference between customer attrition and lifetime loyalty.”
People put their faith in people, not companies.
53 percent of millennials don’t think their bank offers anything different than others.
What I don’t understand is how he can get through an entire article advocating connecting with customers in a new and meaningful way and fail to mention the the actual most valuable asset of the company, which is not in fact the brand, as the author states, but its employees.
OK, he does tack on the following:
This same principle applies for your employees — the people who should live and breathe your mission and who will subsequently become your brand ambassadors. They are the people who will promote your brand without even realizing it, and eventually, your customers will follow suit.
To me, though, it sounds like employees are barely an afterthought.
The responsibility of leadership is not to do all of these things, but to empower employees to do these things.
Instead of focusing on employees, the author focuses on brand strategy. He says:
Create a consistent message for your brand and talk about it, have a strong point of view, position leadership in the media to push for that point of view, hang out with reputable leaders, etc.
These are all good things, but they’re not nearly good enough. And more importantly, they won’t work. Culture will trump strategy every time (Peter Drucker said it first and I know many Realized Worth readers are believers, too). The responsibility of leadership is not to do all of these things, but to empower employees to do these things.
For example, the questions posed by the author could be asked this way:
Do employees feel free to connect with customersin a way that’s meaningful to them? Are they empowered to tweet, blog, and post photos? Take your employees through social media training and offer recognition for those who are highly engaged with customers.
Does your community know your brand? And if they do … why does it matter to them? Do they know your logo? If so, what does it mean to them? Does your logo represent the way you show up in the community when there’s an emergency? Have locals seen your employees out doing a habitat build or cleaning up the community park? Create pride in your employees and your community by enabling them to engage in pro-social behavior alongside community members – and then tell those stories!
Who are your employees seen with? Recognize and reward high performing employees by sending them (or bringing them along) to corporate or community events. Meeting them where they are will matter more to them than plaques or certificates every time.
Employees are the brand. Consumers and the broader community base their opinion and understanding of banks and other institutions on their observations of employees and their interactions with them. Of course, the other things listed in the article are relevant, but they’re not enough to make you the best and most engaging brand around. Your employees can do that – and honestly, they want to do that.
Personally, I will shop, invest, show up, or bank with companies who value what I value. I don’t have to feel seen on a personal level – although that’s a nice perk – I just have to think: I want to be associated with a company that enables me to be who I want to be. That’s why corporate social responsibility (especially employee volunteering) is an easy win. Get your employees to show up in the community alongside customers and you’ve got brand and culture showing up as one.
Wanna talk about it? Disagree with me? Shoot me an email at email@example.com, or reach out to Realized Worth on Facebook and/or Twitter. Employee engagement is the name of the game and I’d love to learn from you!
You may not have heard, but there’s a controversy brewing across the pond, as the re-elected Conservative UK government has mandated that all companies must provide at least 3 days of paid time off (PTO) to their employees to volunteer. UK Prime Minister David Cameron said during the campaign: “What I want to do here is help people who want to do more to help their communities, to help others to volunteer, to build a stronger society.”
The policy, which applies to both public and private sector companies with more than 250 people, is part of a broader conversation playing out in many countries around the world.
You can put the reactions to this policy into the following three categories:
You Can’t Make Volunteering Mandatory
On the surface, it would seem as if the policy is another example of the heavy hand of government forcing the private sector to become more benevolent. When you juxtapose the words volunteer and mandatory, the knee-jerk reaction is to scoff at the concept. You may even sing a few lines from an Alanis Morrissette song. But if you stop what you’re doing, put down your phone and think for 10 seconds, you realize that there is nothing mandatory about the policy. In fact, it could not be more voluntary – if you give enough space for people to get involved in the community, then you’re increasing the chance that they will voluntarily do something prosocial.
A well designed PTO policy sends a strong signal to employees that the company cares about the many causes those employees care about. It also helps to build what Mary Kunnenkeril of Three Hands (a leading UK company specializing in skills based volunteering) calls “a culture of volunteerism”. According to her, “getting business to a point where they acknowledge the key role they play in society is an important first step. Leveraging the policy to drive business is the next logical step.” In other words, without the key structural conditions, volunteer programs can’t succeed to their full potential.
OK, so let’s turn our attention to argument #2 …
The Policy Doesn’t Matter; No One Takes Time Off to Volunteer Anyway
Enter stage right: the clinic cynic. This argument actually holds more water than the first, but focusing on it too much can lead to those days when you’re ready to pull your best Pete Townshend (see how I kept with the UK theme, there?), but the trends don’t lie. According to the CECP, corporate leaders say that a PTO policy is the most effective socially motivated tactic to increasing employee satisfaction. In fact, 80% of the world’s largest companies offer it, representing the fastest growing engagement program.
Like so many things in the corporate world, a policy does not necessarily lead to participation, and even less so to engagement. The best programs in the world see volunteering participation rates hover around 30%, and most are well below 20%. Participation and engagement happen when a group of passionate individuals (what we call “Stage Three Volunteers“) are given the space to get their peers to fall in love with volunteering. Strong policies are key, but the cynics may be right on this one. The government’s utopian vision of a world of millions of new volunteers will not magically appear. Unfortunately, we’re not all Kevin Costner in the cornfield on this one. Which begs the question …
If it benefits employees, companies, and society, then why does the government need to be involved at all?
This is where psychology matters more than the stats. We live in a world of the all consuming Nudge. More often than not, we are unknowingly nudged to change our behavior. Companies around the world have legions of data scientists conceiving the perfect price point for our products, moving us up the consumer chain to evermore blissful purchases. And they do this regardless of the benefits of the product. Why do they do it? Because we as human beings typically ignore the benefits of things, and tend to choose the path of least resistance. It is quite simply just easier to not do it. While we inherently know about how great volunteering is – to the beneficiary of the cause, to ourselves – that next episode of your favourite show will win out every time. The nudge from governments, companies, or from your closest friend will always help.
Should the government be in the Nudge business as well? By extension, should they be nudging us to do things that we know are good anyway? And if they do, will they be successful? With the Conservative election win in the UK, we’re about to find out.