Are you responsible for engaging employees in your company’s volunteering or giving program? Are you being realistic about your employee’s perceptions of the program? Do they even know you have a program? Or are you ‘bending the map’?

The first step in any of our client engagements is to understand what employees think of the existing corporate citizenship or CSR programs. Employee perceptions provide essential information. Why? Because companies often make assumptions regarding what employees know and feel about the corporate citizenship programs. Most of the time, these assumptions are woefully wrong.

Managers responsible for CSR and corporate citizenship spend every waking moment (and many sleepy moments) getting the word out the company initiatives. The idea that there are thousands of employees who may not know about these initiatives is almost too hard to believe. Just the suggestion that two out of three employees have never even heard about the companies community investments, philanthropic efforts or CSR strategies seems absurd.

The problem is – it’s true. Most of your employees know little to nothing about your company’s corporate citizenship program. We know it’s true – because we ask them.

This misunderstanding will doom any program from the very beginning. Believing your one place and building an employee volunteering program based on that misinformation will get you lost in the woods. Very lost.

Oh no! I’m lost!

Each year, over seventy million Americans head out into the wilderness to reconnect with nature (or go hunting). Hiking into the woods is a great way to rediscover something about ourselves and to find our true selves. The problem is, in an effort to find our true selves, thousands of Americans get lost doing it. Literally lost. People may be finding their true selves and the meaning of life, but they have a hard time finding their way back to the car in the parking lot.

Being lost in the wilderness can be a frightening experience. It can also be quite deadly. William G. Syrotuck, a search-and-rescue (SAR) expert, conducted systematic research on 229 SAR cases. He was interested in a number of things, but focused on the behaviour of people who get lost. He discovered that 11% of those who had gotten lost ended up as a fatality. Out of all of the fatalities recorded in that group, almost 75% died within the first 48 hours. Most of the deaths were due to hypothermia.

Amazingly, most of those who died did so within 2 miles of their group or parked car. A 30 minute walk. How is that possible? How can someone, usually with a map, some sense of direction, and hiking gear forget where they are or not find their way back 30 minutes of travel?

Well for one thing, it’s easy to get lost. If you are having a great conversation on the trail or deep in thought, you are probably not paying close attention to the details that could act as markers to retrace your steps. Or, if you are a little inexperienced with being in the wilderness the terrain can look pretty similar, this tree or that tree, this rabbit trail or that one, they all look similar. Especially because of a normal human reaction we all have in moments of crises or panic. That reaction is called “bending the map.”

Bending the map

If you have ever done any traveling that involved looking at a map that did not have clear street names, highway numbers, or other indicators of your location you may have experienced “bending the map.” You look around and for whatever reason believe that you may not be where you thought you were. You grab the map, scrutinize it, look around again, and then stare back down at the map as if it were for the wrong city, state, province, region or even country. You look back up and mutter something under your breath (or at least that’s what I’ve been doing as I get lost in the maze of streets here in Rome).

Next, you begin to line up the landmarks with what is on the map. In a city, usually you can deduce your problem, or just ask someone walking by to make sure that the map in your hand isn’t some horrible practical joke by the printing company. They point out a couple simple misunderstandings in YOUR perspective and you suddenly make sense of everything.

Now, put yourself in the middle of nowhere, with 2 other guys who weren’t paying attention either (or worse, they were but their ideas on which way is north don’t agree). No one is going to walk by and help you with perspective. The bears are kinda glad you showed up, and now it is just a waiting game for the locals to open the buffet. You’re in a world of hurt and you know it. Problem is, you cannot quite believe it. So, we become ridiculous optimists. We look at the horizon, then back at the map, then at the trees and river next to us, then back to the map. We bend the map.

We tell ourselves, and the guys next to us, that that river shouldn’t be there, but maybe it’s the river that’s on the map just a few inches over. And that there isn’t a mountain on the map, but maybe it’s the mountain from over on the right a bit. ‘Yeah, yeah, that must be it. We must be right here (no where near where you actually are) so that means we go this direction for an hour (it will end up being five) and we’ll be back at the car before dark.’

Professionals have identified five general stages of bending the map;

  1. You deny that you’re disoriented and press on with growing urgency.
  2. You admit you’re lost, you begin to panic.
  3. You calm down and form a strategy.
  4. You deteriorate both mentally and physically as your strategy fails to get you out.
  5. You become resigned to your plight as you run out of options.

This is a dangerous and fatal mistake. We try to make reality conform to our expectations rather than see what is actually there.

Bending the employee volunteering map

A similar process happens when managers responsible for employee engagement in sustainability programs, CSR, volunteering, and workplace giving find their best efforts are yielding minimal results.

  1. You deny that employee engagement in the program is all that bad. Instead, you press on with growing urgency believing that improved communication will raise awareness resulting in improved participation numbers.
  2. You admit it’s not working and you begin to panic. You reach out to other sources of information, mostly other company’s, and try to compare notes. There is a strong belief that somewhere out there is a ‘best practice’ that will solve your problems.
  3. You calm down and form a strategy based on what another company has claimed worked for them.
  4. You deteriorate both mentally and physically as your strategy fails to get you out. To your horror, you discover that most other companies are in exactly the same position. Low participation rates. Low awareness. Everyone is asking each other ‘What’s working?’.
  5. You become resigned to your plight as you run out of options. You decide to reset your expectations. Employee volunteering is never going to be very popular (beyond the one big day/week out of the office). This is the rest of your life.

Seeing things clearly

The reality check of knowing what your employees know and seeing what your employees see will save you and the corporate volunteering program from this depressing and fatal process. The best part? Gathering this information is not as difficult as might be imagined. Here are three actions that are relatively easy to perform:

1. Conduct a simple survey: Asking as few as six questions will offer some very important insight:

  • Do you volunteer in the community? Why or why not?
  • Have you ever participated in the company’s employee volunteering program? Why or why not?
  • Do you feel the company invests enough in the community? Why or why not?
  • How would you describe your neighbor’s or friend’s perception of the company’s community investment?
  • What could we do better in this regard?
  • Do you use the resources and online tools to help our employees volunteer in the community? Why or why not?

Make sure to ask enough people to get a decent response rate. You may want to limit your survey to a particular market or region. You can even attach the questions to other surveys going out – such as an HR survey (they may or may not like the idea). Survey Monkey is an easy and free tool if you’re sending it out on your own.

2. Hold a few focus groups: This takes a bit more time than sending around a simple survey. First you’ll want to get a good representation in the room. Make sure to include people who volunteer alongside those who do not. A good number is probably six to ten employees. (Although we’ve done larger groups and they’ve worked just as well). Ask questions similar to the ones above, but spend more time facilitating the discussion between employees. Make sure to take copious notes.

3. Conduct one on one interviews: This process yields very useful information but can be time consuming. We recommend spending most of your time interviewing people you know volunteer already. That’s because they have a lot of insight as to why their fellow employees do not volunteer (and this just saves a bit of time). Here are some ideas for putting together a list of people to interview:

  • Ask other senior managers in various departments to help you identify a sample of employees who they feel are active as volunteers in the community on behalf of the community or in their own personal time.
  • Make sure the sample includes a cross section of all company divisions, markets, regions and hierarchical levels
  • Conduct a limited number of phone and in person interviews to understand the employee’s volunteering experience and interest in community investment.

In each interview, be sure to explain you are interested in growing/improving the current employee volunteering programs. Following introductions, you might use two open-ended questions to invite responses. Follow your opening questions with additional questions focusing on more specific information about what the interviewee talked about. Here’s an example of how we do it:

  • Have you volunteered before? (With the company? In your personal time?)
  • What is your current perception and/or understanding of volunteerism (sustainability, workplace giving, CSR, or whatever the focus is) at the company?

Your follow-up questions might include:

  • In what ways does the company benefit when employees volunteer?
  • How have you (or have you) benefited from the employee volunteer program?
  • What barriers might be keeping employees from volunteering?
  • Do you have any suggestions for increasing volunteerism at the company?

Getting where you want to go

This is just one part of the process of starting or growing your employee volunteer program. Stay tuned – we’ll have more soon.

If you’d like to learn more about this, we’d love to talk to you. You can reach us here:

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