Many companies hold an annual Month of Giving during which they enjoy a 60-80% boost in participation in volunteering, giving, and other corporate citizenship activities due to increased communication and awareness. We support annual events like this (within certain parameters, which we’ll talk about later) because they provide an opportunity for employees to see and discover corporate citizenship opportunities – sometimes for the very first time. Additionally, since everyone across the company is participating at the same time, annual events allow employees to “see and discover” as part of a group, which appeals to a universal aspect of human psychology called Social Identity Theory. Social Identity Theory basically says: “People want to belong.” Annual, intentional pushes toward volunteering and giving, give employees a chance to act on their desire to belong.
But there’s one, big problem.
Following Month of Giving, participation drops back to an average of 7% for the rest of the year – and that’s among the highest-level givers and volunteers! If your company’s Month of Giving (or Day of Service or Volunteer Week) is not tied to a broader, year-long strategy, it is already failing to achieve meaningful impact. While nonprofits still benefit from these activities and employees generally enjoy themselves, the company does not receive the cultural benefits of ongoing volunteering – and society does not receive the benefits of the positive change that takes place in individuals through ongoing volunteering.
These short-term, transactional events or activities have the potential to achieve meaningful results when they are framed for long-term impact within a broader strategy. Transformative Learning Theory, as well as recent findings in neuroscience, show how we grow new neural pathways when we have continuous exposure to new ideas and experiences – and when we’re guided to bring meaning to those experiences through critical reflection. Those new neural pathways change attitudes and behaviors, leading to social movements within companies. When it’s transformative, it sticks.
Note: Transformative experiences are not limited to traditional volunteering! These can be other types of civic engagement, learning opportunities, fundraising, team activities, and more.
Why isn’t your Month of Giving working? (Hint: It’s about the people.)
We were recently engaged by a global logistics company that wanted to understand why their participation numbers are high during their annual Day of Volunteering, but almost completely drop off the rest of the year. Our first question: How do you select your Day of Volunteering leaders? They said, “We ask managers to find people in each of their groups and then assign them the role.” The problem with this is they chose people who had the time and the mandate but lacked the experience and – most importantly – the intrinsic motivation.
Most Americans don’t volunteer. In fact, only one out of five Americans volunteer on a regular basis. When you ask most people why they don’t volunteer, they will say, “I don’t have time.” On the other hand, most people who volunteer for the first time this year will do so through their place of work – and it will be because someone they know asked them to participate. It’s a social capital thing. When a colleague asks you to volunteer, it triggers a desire to increase your social capital so you’re more likely to say yes. Interestingly, if you ask people who recently started volunteering, “Why didn’t you volunteer before?” most will say, “Nobody asked me.” The reasons we do or don’t volunteer are a matter of perspective.
Being asked to participate by a friend or colleague is a great way to get started, but it’s not enough to sustain interest. When it comes to our client and their Day of Volunteering, it turned out their mandated leaders were mostly people who had never volunteered before. They were event planners, project managers, and schedule coordinators. They were efficient, effective people, but they did not know how to manage volunteer events in a way that appealed to the participants’ WIIFM – what’s in it for me. They were stage 1 volunteers.
STAGE 1: TOURIST
The first stage on the journey of the volunteer is one of casual curiosity. Like a tourist visiting a new place for the first time, a first stage volunteer is not yet sure if this experience is the right fit for them. They cannot be forced or coerced into liking it; instead, they must be given basic, experiential tasks that allow them to look, see and discover. If they’re ready, they’ll return to the space and continue through the stages. Tourists consistently make up approximately 70-80% of any group of employee volunteers.
STAGE 2: TRAVELER
The second stage is one of meaningful discovery. Like a traveler who has begun to feel a sense of belonging to the place they visit, second stage volunteers internalize their motivation for returning. As they own the experience for themselves, they are ready to take on leadership responsibility and tasks that require increased commitment. Travelers can be difficult to recognize, but they’re worth looking for. Travelers make up about 15-20% of employee volunteers. They’re on their way to becoming advocates and leaders for the volunteer program.
STAGE 3: GUIDE
The third stage in the journey of the volunteer is one of intentional alignment. Like a guide who introduces others to his favorite country, third stage volunteers are motivated by personal, intrinsic reasons. Guides can be trusted to run the program when no other leader is around and recruit new volunteers without being asked. Guides make up only 5-10% of any group of employee volunteers and should receive the greatest percentage of time and energy from their managers.
When working with the consulting firm, we discovered that it was Tourists who were leading events. Unfortunately, events led by Tourists were reviewed so poorly that employees decided to never volunteer with the company again. Stage 3 volunteers – and high-level stage 2 volunteers – are the right people to lead events. They just need to be equipped and empowered to do so effectively.
So, if the goal is to achieve high-level, year-round participation, the solution is to focus on the 5% of participants who are “Guides” and the additional 10% who are high-level “Travelers”. Finding them and putting 90% of efforts into them will multiply the program’s effect and achieve participation numbers that increase exponentially throughout the year. All you have to do is elevate their leadership and empower them to give everyone else a great experience. They will activate the broad employee base in a way that can be sustained and grow. Instead of finding people to fill roles, equip the right people to lead.
For greater impact, empower employees to frame volunteer experiences
When corporations train employee volunteer leaders to frame volunteer experiences and create space where transformation can occur, it becomes possible to measure psychological, convictional, and behavioral changes in participants. Over time, people become more productive, demonstrate greater loyalty to their companies, treat their families better, vote differently, and drive social movements. Companies, for better or worse, are in positions of overwhelming power. They have a rare opportunity to offer hundreds of thousands of people the opportunity to experience transformation through volunteering, develop new synaptic pathways, and become the kind of people who make decisions based on empathy and compassion.