What Happens to Employees when They Start Volunteering?

Typical human resource theory and practice has suggested that the best way to strengthen employee commitment is through benefit packages that appeal to the individual’s self-interested motives to receive. New research is beginning to show that this is only half the story – and possibly not the most important half.

Turns out, the old familiar adage “it is better to give than to receive” is profoundly true when it comes to employee engagement.

By Chris Jarvis

Prosocial Sensemaking

As employees, we are continually trying to answer the question: Who am I within this organization? This is a natural process that all people use to make sense of their experiences within a given context or organization.

Prosocial behavior is defined as a “voluntary behavior intended to benefit another” and is usually expressed through acts of sharing, donating, and volunteering. These two concepts of prosocial behavior and sensemaking come together when companies launch employee giving and volunteering programs. Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School and author of the upcoming book “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success” suggests:

The act of giving to support programs strengthens employees’ affective commitment to their organization by enabling them to see themselves and the organization in more prosocial, caring terms.

This is a stunning assertion.

If Adam Grant and other researchers are correct, it means that the billions spent by corporations in typical HR benefit packages may not be enough. In fact, by comparison, the ROI of these benefits may be less than those of a robust workplace giving and volunteering program, and at a fraction of the cost.

It’s about the brain; not the wallet.

In a recent article published in the annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, “The Neuroevolution of Empathy” author Jean Decety conducted research demonstrating the following:

The fronto-mesolimbic reward network is engaged to the same extent when individuals receive monetary rewards and when they freely choose to donate money to charitable organizations.

Decety found through behavioral and functional neuroimaging studies that prosocial actions release dopamine and make us feel good (we’ve written about this effect). What is most fascinating about Decety’s work is that she is able to offer an explanation as to why our brains are hardwired to reinforce prosocial behaviors such as giving and volunteering.

As employees interpret these signals, they begin to form an identity that will contribute to the overall productivity and profitability of the company.

As it turns out, this has been a survival tactic among humans for millennium. Needless to say, we are instinctively set to look after our offspring and immediate family members, but the groups of people and cultures that thrived throughout history are those that expanded their caretaking beyond their own family unit. Those that stayed primarily focused on family at the expense of others in the immediate group failed.

This means that today we have evolved to the point where nearly all of us are capable of choosing prosocial behavior, even when it means our wallets take a hit.

The ROI of Prosocial Behavior

Given our predisposition to care for others, we value cultures and organizations where this (being valued) is our experience as well. Nobody wants to feel like they’re just a cog in the wheel. Instead, we desire to know that we matter and that we will be cared for in an ethical way. Equally importantly, we desire to be part of a group that allows us to demonstrate our commitment to care and act justly toward others.

When companies offer their employees space to act in a prosocial manner they began to “make sense” of the organization and their place within it in a positive manner. This is prosocial sensemaking.

Grant conducted multi-method research (not unlike our own) at a Fortune 500 retail corporation and found that offering employees the opportunity to give within the workplace:

“… strengthened affective organizational commitment by triggering prosocial sensemaking about the self — a process through which employees interpreted their personal actions and identities in more caring terms.”

Workplace giving and volunteering is a practical step companies can take to prove they care. With this they are “signaling that helping, giving, and contributing behaviors are valid, acceptable, and encouraged.” As employees interpret these signals, they begin to form an identity that will contribute to the overall productivity and profitability of the company.

So What Happens to Employees Involved in Workplace Giving & Volunteering? 

1. Their productivity increases

Giving triggers a “process of prosocial sensemaking about the self and the company that strengthens employees’ affective commitment to the company.” Affective commitment is key to driving down absenteeism, encouraging engagement, and facilitating teamwork.

2. Their ethics strengthen

When companies provide the opportunity to act in a prosocial manner they encourage employees to view themselves as ethical, prosocial people. This self identity creates value systems to support that identity and guide the decision making process.

3. They become grateful

When companies create opportunities for employees to give and volunteer, the employees develop strong emotional bonds with their employers. This is because when “employees engage in prosocial sensemaking about the self, their commitment is based on gratitude to their organization for facilitating their own giving behaviors and caring identities.”

4. They are proud

Similarly, when companies enable employees to gain a positive sense of themselves through volunteering and giving, the employee transfers a positive image back on to the organization. This positive image is expressed through feelings of pride resulting in stronger allegiance.

Some Notes

A recent neuroimaging study sheds light on a possible biochemical explanation for the positive psychological effects of helping others. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, it was found that the brain’s mesolimbic system was active in participants when they chose to donate money. The mesolimbic system also shows activation in response to monetary rewards and other positive stimuli. Thus, choosing to donate to charity results in an activation of a brain region that produces “feel good” chemicals that promote social bonding, increases happiness, and promotes prosocial behaviour.

Moll, J., Krueger, F., Zahn, R., Pardini, M., de Oliveira-Souza, R., & Grafman, J. (2006). Human fronto-mesolimbic networks guide decision about charitable donation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 103, 15623-15628.

The reunification of Germany caused the collapse of much of former East Germany’s volunteer structure. Controlling for other variables, Meier and Stutzer found that reduced opportunities for volunteer work led to a decrease in happiness. More here.

Furthermore, prosocial motivation is a theoretically and practically significant phenomenon because it has a substantial influence on employees’ work behaviors and job performance. Recent research suggests that prosocial motivation can drive employees to take initiative (De Dreu & Nauta, 2009), help others (Rioux & Penner, 2001), persist in meaningful tasks (Grant et prosocial Motivation at Work 2 al., 2007), and accept negative feedback (Korsgaard, Meglino, & Lester, 1997).

Realized Worth works with companies to take corporate volunteering programs to the next level. Reach out to discuss how we can improve and increase the impact of your program!

Find us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Chris Jarvis
Realized Worth Co-Founder & CEO
Connect with Chris on LinkedIn
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LISTEN: Chris and Angela on Champions for Social Good Podcast

Realized Worth co-founders Chris Jarvis and Angela Parker recently sat down with Blackbaud‘s Jamie Serino for their Champions of Social Good podcast. In addition to a story about a failed undercover mission, the topics discussed include the usual RW staples such as transformative vs. transactional volunteering, disorienting dilemmas, and intrinsic motivation.

A few highlights:

On Empathy, In-Groups/Out-Groups

“Imagine that you’re sitting down with someone homeless, and find in your conversation with that person that their story is not so different from your own.”

“They weren’t saying to the community ‘we’re going to do something to help you.’ They’re saying ‘we are you.'”

On Measurement

“The biggest metric for us is that individuals who go to a transformative space have an experience and try to bring meaning to the experience, and in that process of sense making, they find that over a period of time there’s a psychological change (the way they think about the world), a convictional change (revisions of their belief system), and a behavioral change (they way they act within the world), and if those things happen, then we can get lasting effect, it’s not just people showing up to put in a couple hours to paint a wall.”

On Disorientation, Transformation, and “The Debrief”

“Once people have experienced that moment of disorientation … where their expectation of what was going to happen is not met, they can be lost in that feeling of shame … the purpose then of the person leading the event is to guide people through the process of transformation.”

There’s more. Listen here:

Realized Worth designs and implements corporate volunteer programs. Call us to discuss opportunities for your company, or email us via contact@realizedworth.com. You can also reach out to us on Facebook and Twitter.

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The Unexpected Benefit of Volunteering

Editor’s note: This blog was originally written by our very own Corey Diamond for YourWorkplace. See the original post here.

Everywhere you turn, someone is promising to cure your leadership blues. There are airport books, e-books, apps and tools. There are consultants who will train you, teach you, score you and bore you. There are conferences, workshops, webinars and retreats. A 2014 article in McKinsey Quarterly highlights that companies in the U.S. spend more than $14 billion annually on leadership development. Despite all this activity, according to the 2016 Gallup State of the American Workplace report, more than two thirds of employees are disengaged. Like many professionals, you are probably working hard to address this pressing challenge. Here’s a powerful leadership development opportunity that you may not have considered.

By Corey Diamond

Employee Volunteerism

An employee volunteering program will not only benefit your employees, your organization and your community, it can provide a great opportunity for leadership development.

Every employee who volunteers brings something different to the table. For some, it may be their first time at bat. Others may have decades of community service under their belt. You can divide your employees into three stages along the journey of volunteerism: tourists, travelers and guides. While your tourists and travelers have the potential to become great leaders, it’s your guides who can really lead the charge and help drive leadership development through volunteerism. By finding, elevating and training your guides to become official volunteer leaders, you can tap into a passion and enthusiasm unrivaled elsewhere in your company.

But, how can you tell the difference between a tourist, traveler, and guide?

The Three Stages of the Volunteer Journey

  • STAGE 1: Tourists
    Tourists are not hard to spot. Many of them are volunteering for the first time. They are at the stage of casual curiosity. Representing approximately 70% of your employees, tourists need a great first volunteer experience. You need them to fall in love with volunteering so they come back again. Your travelers and guides can help with this.
  • STAGE 2: Travelers 
    Travelers make up approximately 25% of your volunteers. At this stage of meaningful discovery, travelers are intrinsically motivated to volunteer. They will continue to come back, because they feel a sense of belonging. They will shine and be on their way to becoming future leaders — future guides.
  • STAGE 3: Guides
    You can identify guides by their behaviour. They are the organizers and the do-gooders. They show up early, stay late, pick up all the supplies, invite their entire department or function to attend and constantly talk about why volunteering matters. This group of ambassadors usually makes up 5–10% of your employees. Guides are intentionally aligned and intrinsically motivated. They get it! And they want everyone else to get it too.

Develop Your Guides as Leaders

Your program should be built to support your guides. Supported and empowered guides contribute at their highest level and become strong leaders, not only of your program, but of your company. They show others how to access new opportunities and to become leaders themselves. They are confident in their abilities at work, especially as they develop new skills and connect with the purpose and impact of their community work.

With the right kind of training, volunteerism can be more than the simple provision of a service. Volunteerism can transform our values and how we perceive ourselves in new and challenging contexts; it can also expand how we perceive and empathize with others — some of the most fundamental qualities of an excellent leader.

Realized Worth designs and implements corporate volunteer programs. Call us to discuss opportunities for your company, or email us via contact@realizedworth.com. You can also reach out to us on Facebook and Twitter.

Corey Diamond
Chief Operating Officer
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Discover the Motivation: Exploring the Empathy Map

With numerous competing priorities, how do you motivate employees to place volunteering at the top of their list … over and over again? Getting your volunteers to “just show up” is not an easy task. Some would argue it’s the biggest challenge that CSR practitioners face. Understanding what is competing at a situational level for the employees we would like to motivate is fundamental to the success of a corporate volunteer program. Instead of starting with “what is of interest to the company,” practitioners should answer the question all employees are asking themselves: What’s in it for me (WIIFM)?

By Sabrina Viva

Motivation is Complicated

There are Different Types (Intrinsic, Extrinsic) …

If you recall our Three Stages Of The Volunteer blog, Tourists, or stage 1 volunteers, begin their volunteer journey with casual curiosity. They have not intrinsically aligned to volunteering or a specific cause area the way that Travelers (stage 2 volunteers) and Guides (stage 3 volunteers) have. Extrinsic motivation is when individuals are motivated to perform a behavior that leads to a reward. A paycheck, for example, is a reward. Tourists will attend a volunteer event because they are motivated by extrinsic factors, like being asked to come along by a co-worker or boss. By providing continuous opportunities for your tourists to volunteer, we create the space and opportunity for them to fall in love with volunteering and be transformed by their experience. This is the root of intrinsic motivation – engaging in a behavior that is personally rewarding.

The Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is concerned with “supporting our natural or intrinsic tendencies to behave in effective and healthy ways.” This is a theory about motivation. In a psychological study called Reciprocal Relationships Between Contextual and Situational Motivation In A Sport Setting, the authors made an interesting discovery:

Intrinsically motivated behaviors are performed for their own sake, to experience pleasure and satisfaction inherent in the activity. On the other hand, extrinsically motivated behaviors are performed as a means to an end. When people’s reasons for engaging in their activities emanate from their true authentic selves, their resulting behavior regulations are characterized by self-determination. By contrast, when people feel pressured to participate in an activity, they experience little self-determination or autonomy.

… and Different Levels (Global, Contextual, and Situational)

We lead busy lives. Between work, family, hobbies, and well … life, we are constantly being pulled in different directions and have a multitude of responsibilities that we carry. We may have every intention to get around to volunteering, but we tend to prioritize our regular obligations, leaving little to no time for it. So how do we make it work? We can start by examining our motivation on three levels. These levels often tell the story of why an individual did or did not end up becoming a volunteer. 

“Experiences encountered while volunteering are the primary determinants of whether people decide to continue volunteering.” – Adam Grant

  1. Global motivation. This can be regarded as an individual’s orientation towards their environment. Think large-scale, big picture. Think broad interests. Let’s take a typical volunteer; we’ll call him Tommy. From our empathy map exercise (more on that later) we’ll learn that Tommy, like most “regular” guys, loves sports. He may be interested in a more athletic centered volunteer event.

2. Contextual motivation. This starts to take the shape of a specific context. Let’s look at Tommy’s love for sports through a different lens: Tommy has kids, and one of his great joys in life is attending their soccer games. That’s it! Seems like Tommy would be pretty motivated to participate in a youth sports program, right?

3. Situational motivation. This is the main competing motivator to which we should all be paying attention. Since we’ve got Tommy so figured out, let’s go ahead and ask him to commit to volunteering with an educational youth sports program every Saturday for the next 6 months and see what he says. If you think this approach is a bit much, you might be right. In his mind, this is already competing with other priorities, and becomes overwhelming (and motivation-killing) as he pictures the commitment costing him a seat on the bleachers at his own kids’ events.

But this is not a sad story with a sad ending. We absolutely can motivate Tommy and tourists like him to participate in ongoing corporate volunteer activities. It begins by taking the perspective of the employee and determining their WIIFM. Understanding their point of view will allow practitioners to shape the volunteer program and opportunities around what matters to them the most. Using an empathy map will help you chart your course to that understanding.

Who are You Trying to Motivate?

Here at Realized Worth,we rely on the empathy map activity to help practitioners we’re working with think about how to build a volunteer program differently. The exercise was adapted from Business Model Generation developed by XPlane. It is a valuable tool to ensure change is implemented in a people centered way, using Human Centered Design (HCD). The basic principle here is to start with the people who will directly experience change (stage 1 volunteers) and design a program with their needs in mind.

To get started, ask yourself:

Who is Your “Average” Employee?

The empathy map is not meant to be exhaustive. Companies usually have a diverse demographic of employees, but for the sake of this exercise, we want to identify the prototypical employee we’re attempting to motivate. In marketing, this step is similar to identifying a target consumer for the product you are selling. In corporate volunteering terms, understanding the average volunteer – so that we can uncover what is important to (read: what motivates) them – will help to build a compelling value bundle and speak to their WIIFM.

Are You Asking – and Answering – the Right Question?

Once you’ve drawn up your basic employee, let’s use our friend Tommy, choose a single orienting question:

Why would Tommy want to participate in our volunteer activity?

– OR –

What is the most important benefit for Tommy when it comes to volunteering?

How Accurate is this Picture?

Use the empathy map diagram pictured above as your guide this activity. Your team will work together to learn more about what Tommy’s life is like so that they can determine what kind of program he might get involved with.

Here are the six quadrants:

  1. What do they see?
  2. What do they hear?
  3. What do they really think and feel?
  4. What do they say and do?
  5. What is the volunteer’s pain?
  6. What does the volunteer gain?

Connecting to the WIIFM & Value Bundle

Having completed the empathy map exercise, the team now has a clearer understanding of what motivates Tommy. We know he is a middle manager; he is in his mid 30s to mid 40s; he has kids, he exercises, he travels. He wants to be noticed by his boss and works hard, long hours to advance in his career. And, as we’ve mentioned, he loves sports.

A volunteer program tailored for Tommy may include opportunities to volunteer on the weekend for example, where he can bring his kids. It may be somewhere close to home and preferably with his boss participating. Including the extrinsic motivators that matter to him in his everyday life will connect to his WIIFM and outshine all of his competing priorities at a situational level.

The extrinsic motivators that were listed in the exercise create Tommy’s value bundle and WIIFM. If practitioners can take his extrinsic motivators and “bundle” them in with the volunteer opportunity, Tommy will not only be likely to participate, but he’ll do so on a regular basis.

Not that Tommy.

To summarize:

Start by understanding what motivates your employees at a situational level through the empathy map exercise. Then, create a volunteer program and specific volunteer opportunities around the POV of your prototypical employee and their value bundle. Allow the time and space for volunteers to become intrinsically connected to volunteering. You will begin to experience a shift, a transformation, not only in your program and those hard to reach participation rates, but within your employees as well.

We can help! Realized Worth can guide your team through a program design workshop which includes an empathy map exercise to help you identify your prototypical volunteer. If you’d like our help please feel free to drop us a line at contact@realizedworth.com or call us at 855-926-4678. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Sabrina Viva
Director of Account Management &
Latin American Initiatives
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