Matthieu Ricard, a French Buddhist monk who has dedicated his life to studying altruism, gave an excellent TED talk on the topic. Listening to it, I found myself thinking about how altruism relates to the work we do at Realized Worth. In particular, how helping others can make us less selfish and more caring, and not toward just those we are helping, but to every person we encounter in our lives, and to the world in general.
Dr. Ricard ends his talk by proposing the idea of caring economics:
We need caring economics. The Homo Economicus cannot deal with poverty in the midst of plenty, cannot deal with the problem of the common goods of the atmosphere, of the oceans […] If you say economics should be compassionate, they [organizations] say, “That’s not our job.” But if you say they don’t care, that looks bad. We need local commitment, global responsibility […] and, we need to dare altruism.
Before I continue, let me explain something about the word altruism, defined as the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. Volunteering should never be entirely disinterested or selfless. When we give expecting to receive, we are more trustworthy givers because we position ourselves as equals with the population being served. The use of the word “altruism” in this article assumes that the most selfless person is the one who expects to receive as much as they give when they engage in prosocial behaviors.
The brain says that if the business is to continue functioning, it has to pay attention to the bottom line.
This caveat is important because Realized Worth works with corporations to develop employee giving and volunteer programs. This will not be surprising to most, but corporations were not created to be altruistic.
This is how corporations often conceptualize corporate social responsibility (CSR) within the organization:
Especially among companies beholden to creating value for shareholders, decisions to invest the firm’s resources into CSR initiatives should be made with an eye toward using these initiatives to not only “do good” but also to increase competitiveness, improve reputation, attract and retain better employees, and enhance goodwill to, in turn, increase a firm’s financial performance. [ref]Caligiuri, P., Jiang, K., & Mencin, A. (2013). Win–win–win: The influence of company-sponsored volunteerism programs on employees, NGOs, and business units. Personnel Psychology, 66, 825-860.[/ref]
It’s not a bad thing to focus on profit. Profit is the brain of the corporation. But CSR is the heart. The brain says that if the business is to continue functioning, it has to pay attention to the bottom line. If money and time are to be available to invest in CSR, the business has to do business. But “business ethics” is not an oxymoron, and the brain can’t function without the heart. And, the best people to trust the heart of your business with are your employees.
A corporation as an entity might not be altruistic, but its employees, as individuals, can be. As Dr. Ricard says, every individual has “an extraordinary potential for goodness, but also an immense power to do harm. That all depends on our motivation. Therefore, it is all the more important to foster an altruistic motivation rather than a selfish one.”
The selfless concern for the well-being of others and what you do for a living are deeply connected. Did that sentence seem weird to you? If it did, it’s probably because you don’t work at a place that encourages that kind of thinking. At Realized Worth, we believe that it is up to employees and corporations to turn work into more than just a job that pays your bills. This is made possible by transformative employee volunteerism. If Realized Worth has a contribution to Dr. Ricard’s “caring economics,” it’s the role we play in bringing altruism and work together. But, how does a corporation, whose motivations are not altruistic, motivate employees toward altruism?
Here’s the thing: you can’t have a high-functioning employee volunteer program without engaged employees. Though there’s no standard definition of employee engagement, one common factor running throughout the literature I’ve been pouring over is that the most effective engagement is intrinsic.
What they [the definitions] tend to have in common is that they view engagement as an internal state of being. Engagement is something that the employee has to offer and cannot be ‘required’ as part of the employment contract or objective setting process. [ref]Bridger, Employee Engagement, 2013, p.4-5[/ref]
What does intrinsic engagement look like in practice when it comes to workplace volunteerism? It starts with the company aligning its values to those of its employees. It also starts with making volunteer work – and by extension, office work – meaningful.
… if your employees volunteer, it can have an immensely positive effect on your overall employee engagement.
A recent blog on the looming employee engagement crisis provides excellent data supporting how employee volunteerism can help you mitigate that crisis and align your company and employee values. It’s important to remember that overall engagement at your company and employee engagement with volunteer programs feed into one another. It’s not a one-way street; if your employees volunteer, it can have an immensely positive effect on your overall employee engagement. But, the same is true for the reverse: engaged employees volunteer. More than just a chicken or the egg dilemma, this can become a positive, self-perpetuating cycle. This is because individual change and cultural change complement each other.
A transformative employee volunteer program can be created with the understanding that these two pieces have the potential to create this cycle of engagement, motivation, and altruistic behavior. If we want to go a level deeper (which I always do), what should fuel the program is the understanding that volunteering can become a calling.
Yeah, let’s get cheesy.
When employees embrace volunteer work as a calling, they aspire to complete tasks on a voluntary basis to benefit society in accord with their calling orientation, which can be understood as a global and generalized perception that their [volunteer] work is their purpose in life. [ref]Fock, H., & Yim, F. (2013). Social responsibility climate as a double-edged sword. Journal of Business Ethics (Springer), 114, 665–674.[/ref]
Frederick Yim and Henry Fock conducted a study placing great weight on what they refer to as the social responsibility climate (SRC) at an organization. The examined the effect it has on the meaning employees can find in their work and how it can influence volunteering to become a calling. They say that pride in volunteer work is positively correlated with the meaningfulness of volunteer work, and that the relationship is more positive when the SRC is stronger. [ref]Fock & Yim, 2013, p. 668[/ref]
We conceptualize SRC as employees’ shared perceptions concerning organizational stakeholders’ values, expectations, and practices that emphasize the responsibility of individuals as a member in society. [ref]Fock & Yim, 2013, p. 667[/ref]
SRC is employee perceptions and sentiment around the values, expectations and practices of their co-workers, managers, and customers within the context of the organization and in relation to social responsibility. A company can build a positive SRC through many channels – corporate giving, transparent sustainability practices, investments in environment – but corporate volunteerism provides, “the potential to improve the firm’s perception within the community, to benefit society at large, to become an attractive employer to those interested in social concerns, to improve corporate culture, and to build a positive reputation for ‘doing good'”. [ref]Caligiuri, Mencin & Jiang, 2013, p. 827[/ref] And, a positive SRC is also an ecosystem where altruistic behavior and habits are given space to grow, and where those same habits loop back around and contribute to making SRC more robust.
When a corporation leverages its employee volunteer programs to make space for altruistic, prosocial habits … we start to see individual change affecting cultural change at work.
What this translates to in Realized Worth terms is meaningful employee engagement. When a corporation leverages its employee volunteer programs to make space for altruistic, prosocial habits to flourish, it is then that we start to see that self-perpetuating cycle – we start to see individual change affecting cultural change at work. If volunteer work offered through a corporation is structured to be meaningful, and if an employee feels pride by taking part in that meaningful volunteer work, that pride is a shift in engagement with the program itself. But if you have employees across the company experiencing this same shift, it becomes a cultural movement. It truly does make CSR the heart of the company.
Realized Worth designs and implements corporate volunteer programs. Call us to discuss opportunities for your company, or email us via firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also reach out to us on Facebook and Twitter.
Consultant, Project Manager