When you’re the head of your company’s CSR, finding transactional volunteer options is easy. But what about transformative volunteer 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

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Meet people at their highest level of contribution.
    It’s critical to engage employees based on their past experience and current level of understanding. Here are some practical steps you can take.
  3. 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?

Transactional Volunteerism

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:

      1. 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.
      2. 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.
      3. 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 contact@realizedworth.com, or just leave a comment below!

Ben Bisbee
Guest blogger, CSR nonprofit professional
Connect with Ben on LinkedIn

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