Yes, engagement numbers are down – but not for the reasons you think.

Strategy & Execution, , Volunteer Engagement

This holiday season? Take a nice, long break. Because if your plan is to join or remain in the Social Impact sector in 2023, the stakes are high. You will be asked to lift up your head, get out of the weeds, and become extremely strategic. We’re going to help you get there, but first, a reality check.

Are you worried about the decrease in your engagement numbers this year? Are you wondering if other companies are experiencing the same thing? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Companies across the board are welcoming employees back to the office, revamping volunteering and giving programs, and feeling their hearts drop when the numbers come in. Yes, engagement numbers are down. But it’s not for the reasons you think.

You may think it’s due to your matching program.

Come to think of it, there could be something here! Volunteering is down across the board, but actually, giving is not. In the cases where giving is down, there are a couple common reasons:

The most common reason is because the majority of increased giving during COVID was due to big donors. Do you have data that shows the amount each individual donor gave? If you’re seeing that there are fewer top-dollar donations (in the 10k or higher range), this is likely the issue. Between the sense-of-urgency related to COVID and the Trump-era tax incentives, charitable giving was temporarily way up for big donors. On this note, early Giving Tuesday data shows that total giving this year was similar to 2021 but the number of givers and smaller donations is up. Generally, more people are giving smaller amounts and biggest donors have dropped off. Depending on the data you’re seeing at your company and the behavior of givers, you could be a seeing a drop in total donation dollars for this reason.

Another reason giving may be down at your company is because many companies increased their match amount during COVID (for example, they matched at a 2:1 ratio on employee donations instead of 1:1) and saw a correlated increase in giving. Those same companies have since gone back to their previous match and giving numbers are down. The natural conclusion would be that people are less motivated by a lower match amount. But that’s not quite it.  A higher/different match does not increase participation because of the amount of the match; rather, it increases participation because it’s new and therefore noticeable. Human beings are wired to notice things that are either new or a threat. As such, Realized Worth recommends using a dynamic (as opposed to static) matching strategy that changes throughout the year for the purpose of catching people’s attention and motivating specific behaviors. You can also implement “nudges” to help manufacture that sense of newness for employees. (This is Chris Jarvis’ and Kostapanos Miliaresis’ area of passion and expertise! Please reach out to the RW Institute for more information.)

Having said that, ups and downs related to volunteering cannot be attributed to Dollars for Doers, matching, or other volunteer rewards programs. Dollars for Doers does not incentivize new behavior; rather, it rewards existing behavior – unless, of course, your match is absurdly high (in the $100/hour range) but we don’t recommend using your philanthropic dollars this way. You’ll run out of budget in months and long-term engagement will not increase.

You may think it’s because of COVID fears.

As our clients and our broader network of companies try to diagnose their decrease in engagement numbers, we’re hearing things like, “Our people are risk-averse. We think they’re still worried about in-person activities due to the ongoing risk of contracting COVID.” While this certainly could be the case for a selection of individuals, the data across the board says people are not afraid of group activities due to COVID anymore. In fact, according to ongoing survey data gathered by Ipsos:

  • More Americans now believe that out-of-home behaviors, such as attending in-person gatherings, dining at a restaurant, taking a vacation, and attending a sporting event pose, no risk to their health than in mid-August of this year.
  • The share of Americans who report being concerned about COVID-19 (57%) is among the lowest captured throughout the pandemic.
  • Nearly two in three (65%) say there is a small risk or no risk in returning to their normal, pre-COVID life.
  • More Americans now say they already have returned to their normal, pre-COVID life (46%) than at any point during the pandemic.

This data is consistent with the rapid rise in Realized Worth’s corporate clients who have engaged our team to facilitate on-site training events for Volunteer Ambassadors – and the eagerness of Ambassadors to participate.

Angela Parker

Co-Founder, CEO & Senior Advisor

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You may think it’s due to time constraints.

Yes, your volunteer survey says the top reason people don’t volunteer is because they don’t have time. Survey those same people after they volunteer for the first time and ask them, “Why didn’t you volunteer before?” They’ll tell you, “No one asked me.”

Of course our excuse for failing to do the things we should is that we don’t have time. What else are we supposed to say? We already feel so out of control and guilty that we can’t imagine making time for something so superfluous as volunteering? We’re already working overtime so why the !&%# should we put more time into volunteering with the company? People won’t say it, but that’s what they’re thinking. So, what could possibly motivate those people to volunteer? Only volunteering that appeals to their pre-existing values. When a colleague asks them to participate face to face, they have to be equipped to do so in a way that says, “There’s nothing superfluous about this. Volunteering with me will get you closer to becoming exactly who you want to be.” That’s when participation will begin to increase. This is the beautiful challenge of corporate volunteering. It must matter as much as all the things that matter in our lives in order to be worth our time – and the ask is where it starts. The secret is that it’s not an ask at all; it’s a solution.

Here’s what’s happening; with number one being the major culprit.

We Need a Minute.

It’s been a hell of a lifetime, these past two and half years. Your employees road the same roller coaster of uncertainty, isolation and exhaustion that you did. Like you, they challenged themselves at the beginning and perhaps gave a little bit too much. And like you, they learned to set boundaries, guard their energy, and carefully choose when and where to spend their time. Like you, they now lift their fingers in air quotes when they say, “back to normal”, (wondering the whole time what normal even is) unsure whether or not this return to work –hybrid, remote, in-office or otherwise – is trustworthy. Volunteering is not the first thing we sign up for when the wildly tilting ground beneath our feet begins to steady. We need a minute, and that’s to be expected.

Expectations are Higher.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that volunteering is not on the radar. Volunteering certainly is on the radar – alongside every other pre-COVID activity that we are cautiously re-introducing into our lives. Social activities, family visits, conferences, concerts, business travel, kids’ sports, weddings. The question is, “Which one merits my time and energy?” And more specifically, “Which activities feed rather than drain me?” Volunteering, at its best, is a life-affirming activity. But volunteering is not, in most cases, at its best.

Employees are less willing to participate in volunteer activities that are presented as “the right thing to do.” They’re less willing to participate in anything that doesn’t help meet a felt need in their lives. It’s not a selfish desire, necessarily. In fact, Realized Worth’s philosophy would say the most trustworthy form of giving is one which expects to receive. It’s a posture that distributes power to everyone involved – the “giver” and the “receiver.” And so, the Social Impact practitioners (and, let’s be honest, the technology providers too) who oversee these programs are held to a higher standard – and that’s a good thing. We should only ever have built programs that settle for no less than perspective transformation as an outcome – mindset shift. How do your programs invite people to challenge their assumptions about social issues? How do your volunteer activities lead intentionally toward a transformation of the way we perceive ourselves and others? Nothing less than this is good enough.

We’re Getting Smarter.

In addition to showing up with higher expectations, employees are getting smarter about social impact. Whether or not we are consciously aware of the public discourse related to ESG, trust-based philanthropy, pro bono volunteering, evidence-based learning, climate change and other pertinent topics, our collective intelligence related to these issues is on the rise. We already know we should do the right thing, but now we want to do it well. What does the data say? And which data points matter to me and the actions I take on a daily basis?

To put it simply, we now instinctually reconsider which social interventions are actually helpful versus those that are just noise. Noise sounds like, “We collected 1,000 coats for children.” Data like that is not smart enough. What information led to the decision to collect coats? Did the community ask for them? What is the collection and distribution process? How much intention was put into this? (On this note, why am I still getting notes from companies asking what to do with the donations they collected? Please, please do not collect donations unless you know exactly who needs them and what they need!) And, of course, what happened as a result of the collection and distribution?

Another factor in this rise of collective intelligence is the acceleration of Artificial Intelligence. As we enter a new era of technology, we naturally seek out indicators that give us permission to trust the advances in our environments that often feel threatening. Essentially, human beings are beginning to ask more about the intention behind experiences – every experience. What is the purpose of this experience? What does it mean for me? Volunteers, specifically, are far more informed than they’ve been in the past. Our ability to sniff out an authentic versus inauthentic volunteer experience is sharper than it was 10 years ago, and is becoming finely honed.

Step Back, Re-organize, Enjoy the Process

In 2023, you will be expected to raise your programs, your processes, and your metrics to higher standards. To do this well, we don’t necessarily have to hurry up, do more, or try harder. In fact, in many cases, we will slow down – way down. We will take a step back, re-organize our systems, and set and track smarter indicators. Doing so will result in the kind of numbers that allow us to unequivocally believe, maybe for the very first time, that Corporate Social Impact programs really are about impact – for the community, the company, and the employee.

Realized Worth helps you take a transformative approach to volunteering. We work with companies to create scalable and measurable volunteering programs that empower and engage employees, focus on empathy and inclusivity, and align with your most important business objectives. Talk to us today to learn more!

Strategy & ExecutionVolunteer Engagement

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