When it comes to corporate volunteering and giving, what metrics matter most to executives?
Despite gains in understanding of the difference between the lead and lag indicators that contribute to long-term impacts (for the business, the community, and employee participants), executives still tend to lean on one key metric to measure success: participation or “engagement.” (Participation and engagement are not the same thing, but that’s a conversation for another day.) The CSR team knows which metrics really matter, but they still get pressured by executives to show that more people are showing up, giving more hours, and more money, more often.
There are two reasons “engagement” (or participation) in employee volunteering and giving is a key metric by which companies benchmark themselves:
- Tracking and reporting “engagement” is relatively easy in comparison to less automated metrics like “number of employees who remained with the company due to participating in the volunteer program” and “number of employees whose loyalty and commitment to the brand increased due to participating in the volunteer program.”
- CSR reports were originally modeled after financial reporting, which measures success by numbers. The higher the numbers, the better the results. Early corporate volunteering and giving programs did not yet have an understanding of how to measure impact, and therefore, defaulted to the familiar, numbers-based model.
Are there ways to get higher numbers in the short-term?
While it is now widely accepted that engagement is simply a lead indicator of longer-term results (meaning, it’s an important metric but not a sufficient indicator of impact on its own), executives still tend to depend on this number as reassurance that volunteer programs are generally successful. To provide this reassurance without sacrificing the long-term effectiveness of the program, higher engagement numbers can be manufactured through:
- Micro-actions (such as acts of kindness or short, turnkey charitable activities)
- Large-scale events (events curated and designed for large numbers of employees to volunteer multiple hours at once)
- Annual months of giving/volunteering (a designated timeframe per year when the company focuses on a push to volunteer or give – read more of our thoughts on Annual month of giving here).
What’s the cost?
These activities should never be considered a viable impact strategy on their own; they will simply help boost numbers while more effective methods drive longer term results. Results such as increasing positive brand sentiment, driving a culture of volunteerism, and increasing diverse, equitable, and inclusive practices require programmatic elements such as:
- Shared purpose through a clear program strategy: Giving and volunteering programs that articulate a consistent, compelling shared purpose (and empower employees to articulate that purpose in their own way) become a culture-driver as employees begin to see themselves, their colleagues, and their company as pro-social (positive) influencers.
- Shared identity through a Volunteer Leadership Network: Employees build a sense of shared identity and belonging when they’re invited to join a network of like-minded colleagues who contribute to the company’s impact in a clear and meaningful way .
- Autonomy to drive impact through tools, training, and support: In order to scale impact and expand the effectiveness of the Social Impact team, employees must be equipped with resources and support in order to understand the value of their role and execute it on their own within the parameters given by the company. (Social REV is a great option to equip your Social Impact team with ready-to-use resources and tools).
In all cases, while lead indicators such as engagement numbers should be tracked and reported consistently, the business benefits (the lag measures) of corporate volunteering and giving must be tracked and measured over 3-5 years in order to demonstrate true impact.
What about episodic volunteering versus sustained volunteer experiences?
Yes, episodic volunteering can increase numbers in the short-term, too! But when comparing sustained volunteer experiences to episodic actions, it’s important to note that episodic actions typically do not achieve the business benefits or community impacts these programs promise.
Depth of engagement: Sustained volunteer experiences involve a deeper level of engagement, requiring ongoing commitment, active participation, and immersion in meaningful activities. This depth of engagement leads to prolonged and repetitive neural activation, which is crucial for developing affective commitment to the company, pride in the brand, empathy for others, and key skills that contribute to the strength of the business. In contrast, episodic actions are often brief and sporadic, lacking the consistent and extended engagement necessary to achieve those same benefits.
Systemic impact: Engaging in sustained volunteer experiences provides opportunities to address complex social issues, requiring a systemic approach and engaging multiple cognitive processes. The comprehensive nature of sustained volunteerism stimulates the activation and coordination of various brain regions, fostering neuroplastic changes – which may seem crazy if you’ve never considered it before! But changes in the brain are a relatively accessible result of volunteering that leads to measurable impacts. Episodic actions, however, typically involve isolated and focused activities that may not engage a wide range of cognitive processes or activate brain regions associated with systemic thinking and problem-solving. As a result, the impacts of volunteering are limited to the timeframe of the event.
Want a little more on the changes that volunteering can trigger in the brain?
Cognitive processes involved: Sustained volunteer experiences involve various cognitive processes, such as empathy, perspective-taking, moral reasoning, and social cognition. These cognitive processes rely on the activation and modulation of specific brain regions and their connections. Episodic actions, by their nature, may not engage these cognitive processes consistently or in a manner that triggers significant neuroplasticity. The infrequency and lack of repetition in episodic actions limit the opportunity for sustained, meaningful activation and reinforcement of the cultural changes the company hopes to see.
Habit formation: Neuroplasticity is closely tied to habit formation, and sustained volunteer experiences provide repeated opportunities for the formation and consolidation of prosocial habits. The consistent engagement in volunteer activities reinforces the neural connections associated with prosocial behavior, promoting habit formation. Episodic actions, on the other hand, lack the frequency and regularity required to establish strong habit loops in the brain. The sporadic nature of episodic actions may not provide enough reinforcement to trigger significant neuroplastic changes associated with habit formation. Hear Chris Jarvis chat about it here.
I know, it’s a lot. But if you’re a nerd like we are, it’s also pretty cool!
The fundamental question is, what do you want to see your company to achieve through volunteering? It’s not bad to be able to say, “A lot of our employees volunteer a lot of hours!” but it’s not enough. Realized Worth exists to help you make your programs meaningful, measurable and scalable. Let us help! You can check out our consulting services, workshops, and self-serve products – or send us a note. We’d love to chat!