Have you noticed that lately you can’t go online without getting unsolicited advice from, well … everyone? Usually in list form, there is no shortage of helpful tips for how to solve life’s challenges and achieve success. The Huffington Post wants you to sleep better; Jillian Michaels offers 5 secrets to a better workout; Oprah tells you how to deal with a difficult co-worker. How many times have you bookmarked an online article, fully intending to apply its recommendations to your daily routine, only to remember it three weeks later when you realize nothing has changed? We’ve all been there. Advice often looks good on paper, but it can be difficult to apply to the realities of every day life.
The same can be true for corporate volunteering programs. Again and again, we see practitioners launch programs that seem to cover all the requirements for a successful outcome. They take into account what employees want; they align with business initiatives; they provide multiple opportunities; they launch a cohesive communications plan; they provide paid time off. But months later, these brilliant programs typically suffer from lack of awareness and low participation.
There are a few reasons companies run into these challenges, but this article is not one of those aforementioned lists of advice. This is a real-life example of what actually worked on the ground for a large company’s recently launched volunteer program. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the story … (or just skip to the summary at the end).
” …since the start of the program we’ve seen an engagement bump of 12% … absenteeism has dropped by 22%.”
Realized Worth co-founder Chris Jarvis and I often conduct ad hoc research for our clients whenever possible. So when we found ourselves in the retail store of a client for whom we had just completed a long series of trainings for their Volunteer Champions, we were curious to see if the program was working as well as we hoped. So we asked a store associate, “Does your company support employees who want to volunteer?” (Had she said no, we would have been devastated.) She said yes and looked at us quizzically as if to say, “Are you a nonprofit? Do you need help?” We quickly explained that we work with their corporate team to support the program and she jumped with excitement. “Oh! Let me introduce you to our store manager and our Volunteer Champion!” She literally skipped to the back of the store and led us through the employee door.
Back in the staff room, the associate asked us to wait while she went to get the manager and Volunteer Champion. The room was full of other associates and so we continued with our research.
”Hey, do you guys know about dollars for doers? When you volunteer, your company will donate money for every hour you volunteered.” They looked at us dully.
“Of course we know that.”
We were surprised. “Really?” We pointed at someone else. “Do you know?” He nodded.
“Well … have you actually used the online tool to record your hours and donate money?”
Again, all 9 people in the room answered affirmatively.
We were amazed. We had hoped the strategy was working this well, but we weren’t sure. “How did you all learn to use the tool?” They pointed to the computers in the back of the room. “Our store manager and the store’s volunteer champion gave everyone a demo on those computers.” At that point, the associate we had spoken with earlier came back in the room followed by two colleagues.
We introduced ourselves and the store manager proceeded to tell us the story of their store’s local implementation of the company’s volunteer program.
“A prevalent issue in this city is mental health. Some of our staff have dealt closely with tragic results of mental health issues and so we decided it would make sense to focus our volunteer efforts on something close to home. The first step was education. We spoke to some local partners who have expertise in mental health and work directly with the local community. Then, we invited all of our staff, customers, and business partners to come to the store before opening hours on Sunday mornings, once a month, to hear from an expert and talk openly about mental health. And while we were expecting maybe 20 people to show, the room quickly filled up with ten times that number, incredibly. Then, during the month, we would volunteer with one of those organizations in order to transfer our knowledge to the kind of understanding that comes from direct experience.
But we didn’t want to focus on only the outside community. Mental health is everyone’s issue; it’s a conversation that’s difficult to have even though it affects us all. We decided to inform our associates that anxiety, depression, and other conditions of mental health legitimately qualify for sick days, the same way as the flu or strep throat. This created a new freedom to acknowledge the feelings and difficulties that many of us face.”
Chris and I took turns expressing how impressed we were with the store’s program, but we did have one question: “When you started allowing time off for mental health issues, did your associates abuse the privilege?” The store manager smiled, “You’re going to love this,” he said. “We didn’t intentionally measure the business results of the program, but once we started, we noticed distinct changes in the results of two of our regular surveys. The first was our employee engagement survey. We don’t have a problem with engagement – most of our employees are excited to be here – but nonetheless, since the start of the program we’ve seen an engagement bump of 12%. But even better than that? Since allowing time off for mental health, our absenteeism has dropped by 22%. We believe that giving permission to openly talk about mental health made people who struggle feel more comfortable coming to work.”
The store manager and Volunteer Champion continued to share stories of their amazing program results while Chris and I listened in awe. In hindsight, I can see four distinct elements that not only look good on paper, but in this real-life example, led to meaningful impact – and all of them are easily applied to volunteer programs globally.
Identify a relevant, local issue.
What matters in your community matters to your employees. Look into what they face when they go home, what they hear about on the local news, what is discussed at their community groups or churches. Identifying a relevant, local issue is the first step to addressing a real problem and achieving meaningful impact.
Offer information and experience.
Humans love learning. Provide the opportunity to glean information, facts, statistics, and stories about the issue, but then take it one step farther. Experience takes us beyond knowledge to understanding. By providing both information and experience, employees are able to internalize the issue and make it part of their own personal story.
Make it real by bringing it home.
Focusing too externally when volunteering and giving can – in its most negative iterations – lead to objectification. When we acknowledge that the men and women we work with every day may have experienced some of the challenges facing our local communities, our posture often becomes more respectful.
Embrace partnerships of multiple types. Allow nonprofit organizations who are focused on your cause provide the expertise and community connection necessary for impactful programming. Partner with employee volunteers to direct your cause and lead their colleagues in transformative volunteer activities. Partner with other managers (like the store manager and Volunteer Champion in the story) to set an example and share responsibility.
Not a bad story, right? If you’d like to discuss how to make your employee volunteer program work at retail stores, drop us a note! You can get ahold of us via email (email@example.com), or reach out to us on Facebook or Twitter. We design and implement employee volunteer programs all over the world – we’d love to help with yours.