Making Employee Volunteering Easier May Undermine Long-Term Interest in Participation

Motivation, Participation Rates

Most of the clients we’ve worked with over the past decade have asked the same question: “How can we make it easier for our people to volunteer?”  

This is a legitimate question. Average participation rates for employee volunteering are stubbornly fixed at 30% to 34% since 2013. According to CECP, only the top quartile of companies surveyed in 2018 (a total of 250 companies participated in the survey) achieved a participation rate of 49.5%. While this is a better participation rate, the number is also stagnant as the top quartile reported participation rates of 48.5% in 2013. 

There are obviously a number of factors that affect employee volunteering programs at a company. Discreet contextual and regional issues such as market changes, layoffs, mergers, social upheaval and pandemics should be accounted for in assessing the growth and success of employee volunteer programs. Yet, given the data collected over the past six years by one of the most comprehensive survey instruments in the field of corporate citizenship (The Annual Giving in Numbers Report) the undeniable truth is that employee volunteering is struggling to reach a tipping point. 

It’s easy to see why lowering the bar to getting involved in employee volunteering is the apparent solution. Especially as the number one complaint among employees who do not volunteer is the perception of a lack of time, leading managers of these programs to the immediate question, How can we make it easier to participate?” Meaning, how can we ask for less time and effort, so participation is not seen as a daunting contribution by the employee. 

According to the research, this question leads to erroneous conclusions. 

It is important to remove the ‘friction points’ that demotivate employees when considering whether to sign up to volunteer. Compelling invitations with consistent opportunities are key. So is the ability to find volunteering events that resonate with the employee’s values. Yet reducing potential barriers to getting involved does not speak to the single most important factor in increasing motivation 

The key elements of highly motivating experiences are identity and effort which lead to meaningful engagement. 

In 2011, the groundbreaking study ‘The IKEA Effect was published by Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business SchoolDaniel Mochon of Yale, and Dan Ariely of DukeThe study discovered that “We are strongly motivated by identity, the need for recognition, a sense of accomplishment and feeling of creation.”  

The report outlined a number of fascinating results based on three different experiments in which the participants built Lego items, folded origami figures and assembled IKEA boxes” (read more here).

I encourage you to read Dan Ariely’s article covering the research hereAs you read the article ask yourself the following questions: 

  • How much opportunity is given to our participating employees to tie their own identity to the results achieved through the employee volunteering activities 
  • Do we allow them to make the experience their own? – Or do employees see themselves as team players, helping the company, but not really discovering their own reasons to see the event as an expression of their own individual value. 
  • Have we packaged employee volunteering opportunities so tightly in our effort to make them easy” that we’ve removed the opportunity for employees to add their own value to the mix (I’m thinking of cake mixes here – which will make sense when you read Dan’s article)? 
  • Do we ever ask employees how they value their contributions to employee volunteering events? Is there any time to reflect on what ‘we’ve created together’? Or when it’s over, do employees just leave, left to their own devices to understand the meaning and impact of their efforts, if at all? 
  • How much responsibility can I, as a manager of the program, give away to other trained and experienced leaders? If this question seems like a non-starter for you, check out this option.

An employee volunteering program needs to account for the reality that we are all “strongly motivated by identity, the need for recognition, a sense of accomplishment and feeling of creation” (Dan Ariley). 

Chris Jarvis

CSO RW,
Exec. Director RWI

Realized Worth helps companies go beyond volunteering to do citizenship better. We work with companies to create impactful citizenship strategies and programs that empower and engage employees, that focus on empathy and inclusivity, and that align with your most important business objectives. Talk to us today to learn more!

MotivationParticipation Rates

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