GUEST BLOG POST: Alyson Genovese is a freelance consultant on issues related to sustainability, corporate social responsibility, public affairs, and employee engagement. She has over 15 years of experience in the private, nonprofit and academic sectors. Alyson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Corporate Volunteering continues to grow in popularity. But what makes an employee volunteer program successful? Participation rates? Stakeholder awareness? The number of walls painted? Want to reap the real benefits of employee volunteering? Alyson Genovese will tell you how.
By the Numbers
Today, it is the not the presence of a corporate Employee Volunteer Program (EVP) that is notable, but rather one’s absence. As of 2003, 33 percent of companies (or 85 percent of large companies) have implemented formal employee volunteer programs (Hitachi Foundation and The Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College). Hurray! We have evolved past the pitch for “why” employee volunteer programs are valuable. Now we find ourselves facing a new challenge: “how.” Have you ever been told during a job interview about a generous time-off schedule only to discover that no employee dares take the company up on the offer? Similarly, the employee’s value of a volunteer activity is not based on whether or not it simply exists, but rather, on how well the program is implemented.
Take a look at most CSR annual reports and you’ll find that companies define a successful EVP by the numbers: hours, bodies, nonprofits. These numbers are indicators. They are outputs. Measuring success by when people show up is like measuring sales by product manufactured rather than product sold. The prevalence of employee volunteer programs, tight resources, and desire to do things “higher, faster, better” has, unfortunately, created a transactional relationship between the nonprofit and corporation. “I give you 20 volunteers, and you give me 30 photos, one news article, a happy day.” One year I ran a corporate day of caring event with 2000 participants, which deemed it wildly successful. In reviewing the success factors, I was asked about numbers. Number of locations, number of media present, number of elected officials that attended. Not one person asked me what the employees accomplished, how they felt about their work or what value was added to communities, employees, nonprofits or the company. Often, in my role as employee volunteer manager, I selected nonprofits not for their effectiveness or mission, but whether or not they had capacity to “keep busy” my volunteers with physical service projects.
Employees can feel that. They know when they are being used. Simply put: How many times can a volunteer paint a wall before they ask, “What am I doing here? Why should I bother? What’s the value for me, my company and my community?” How long until an employee gets that they are part of a transaction?
Transactional Versus Transformational
Employee volunteer programs have the potential to increase employee satisfaction, productivity, and corporate reputation. I challenge whether or not companies that rely on short-term, transactional volunteer projects in fact reap such benefits.. It is time the corporate and nonprofit mindsets transition from transactional programs to transformational programs. Transformational EVPs create shared value among the nonprofit, community, corporation and employee. Everyone benefits from the investment in time, resources, talents and care.
I once created an EVP that focused on the skill-building of middle management employees, such as public speaking and project management. By placing employees in volunteer positions within the company’s nonprofit grantee organizations, the company deepened relationships with important community partners. In addition, the nonprofits received skilled support, created new champions within the company for their mission, and the employees felt empowered and valued by their company. This initiative, hardly a new concept, nevertheless allowed the space for a transformational experience.
Companies and employees know these types of transformational experiences are effective, as seen in Deloitte’s most recent Employee Volunteer study (2009), which states that 78% of grantmakers think that employee skills would be valuable to nonprofits, but only 50% offer any type of skilled support. The rub is within available resources. Volunteer and HR managers must be provided the appropriate resources to enable them to understand the program’s objectives, and then create robust, skills-based and transformational programs to meet those objectives. Transformational programs are rare, as they require greater oversight, resources and thoughtfulness. In an instant gratification society, it is easy to see why companies continue to put these programs aside in favor of the quick, easy volunteer days and referral programs.
Short-Term Wins or Long-Term Benefits
The blame cannot be placed wholly on corporations as nonprofits are equally responsible for this transactional culture of volunteerism. Nonprofits, despite dwindling donations and increased need, are hesitant to think differently as to how they can use volunteer support as a strategic tool to reach their mission. Deloitte’s survey revealed that more than 90% of nonprofits say they need more pro-bono support, but 24% have no plans to use skills-based volunteers or pro-bono support in any capacity this year. Using volunteers solely to paint a fence or send out a mailing is much easier than working to create a culture that uses volunteers as a critical value to the organization, which requires retraining staff, revamping volunteer policies and thinking differently about resources. For those nonprofits that are effectively placing value on the volunteer’s time, experience and presence, the results can be staggering. As a corporate contributions manager, I preferred working with nonprofits that offered creative and thoughtful ideas which could benefit my company, my employees and their organizations. In my experience, such organizations were highly sought after and ultimately better funded because the relationship and the experiences provided value to all parties.
Transformational volunteer experiences are “win-win” arrangements. If a corporation is willing to provide the financial support to help a nonprofit become more effective stewards of employee volunteers, then corporations will create a cadre of nonprofits that are prepared for and comfortable with using employee volunteers in thoughtful ways. As corporations, we must also consider long-term relationships with fewer nonprofit organizations. The opportunity to begin developing deeper partnerships with organizations that know your brand, culture, employees, and offerings is powerful.
Playing it safe and transactional is easy, feels risk-free, and offers short term wins. But investments into strategic and transformational EVPs is the only way to reap long-term benefits that create better employees, companies and communities for us all.