Corporate Volunteering in 2024: Societal Change or Participation Rates?

Participation Rates, Employee Volunteering, Volunteer Leadership

2023 sent two major waves across Corporate Social Impact.

From one side came the hard-earned expertise of veteran Social Impact professionals (you know who you are!) who sparked the Corporate Social Responsibility surge of the early 2000s. From the other side came new energy: those young professionals who bring renewed drive and welcome idealism. Each side is a force to be reckoned with, driven by passion and a tenacious belief that the world can change. Like tidal waves, we spent 2023 surging toward each other, aware of the other’s existence, but completely ignorant of what happens when we meet.  

But it’s really no mystery. 

When tidal waves meet, one of two outcomes will result. If the waves are unequal in size, they will simply disappear into each other, canceling the other out. This is called destructive interference. But when two waves of equal size meet, they form a single reinforced wave and then continue to travel in its original direction, with greater power and force. 

2024 is when we meet. And it is the responsibility of veteran professionals to ensure we meet face to face, and that we reinforce each other’s energy. So, how do we do that? What is the single most important issue that, when faced together, drives us forward with greater power and force? 

What will make or break this industry’s effort for impact?

You might say the most important issue is measurement and standardizing the industry’s definition of impact. You might say it’s trust-based philanthropy and the issue of community-centric giving and volunteering. Maybe it’s strategic planning and elevating Social Impact to a level that’s as legitimate as other business initiatives. What about providing opportunities for front-line employees? Or adjusting to the needs of employees post-COVID? What about burn-out and lack of resourcing on Social Impact teams? 

Each of these issues is as legitimate as the others and absolutely all of them must be addressed. Each require the knowledge and insight of veteran professionals, and each will benefit from the energy and ideas of young professionals. But none of these are the one thing that will make or break this industry’s effort for impact in the new era.

The one thing – the most important thing – is the way we do volunteering. Not the number of people who volunteer, not the hours dedicated to volunteering, not even skills-based versus hands-on volunteering. In the new era, we will make a choice: Is volunteering a mechanism for change or a mechanism for numbers? Is the overarching objective to drive societal impact or to report increased outputs? If young professionals choose to focus on one issue that will improve the status of every other issue, they’ll focus on the why that drives the way we do corporate volunteering. Why are we doing this? Why does volunteering matter and who does it matter for? Right now, in post-COVID workplaces where engagement and connection are uniquely complex, we are at risk of backsliding into a type of volunteering that not only lacks value, but that affronts the very definition of impact. 

What can you teach incoming Social Impact Professionals about volunteering – now?

Let’s use a potentially sensitive example. Kit-packing. Many companies are defaulting to kit-packing and other high-volume, convenient volunteer opportunities because they don’t know what else to do. And believe me, I get it. As demand for group volunteering increases, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find recurring high-quality, high-impact opportunities that non-profits actually need. While we’re waiting on this issue to be solved (don’t worry – there’s an industry-wide task force already working on it!), many companies are willing to take what they can get. And that includes kit-packing.

Let’s pause here for a minute. I’m not saying kit-packing and other “stop by for 15 minutes” volunteer opportunities are bad – and I adore providers of kits and other volunteer opps like Give to Get. I am saying (and I know Give to Get and others would agree with me) that the convenience and accessibility of kit-packing opportunities does not automatically make them good. Is kit-packing a mechanism for social change or a mechanism for higher participation numbers? If you answered with the latter, you may as well stop reading now. If the answer is both, great! Keep reading.

Here’s how to make kit-packing and every other type of volunteering better: 

1. Make sure it matters to someone – anyone.  

Can we admit that some volunteering efforts simply don’t matter? Honestly, the stories of volunteering efforts that didn’t matter are the ones I would love to hear! For example, can you imagine reading the following post on LinkedIn? “During this year’s Day of Service, our employees built 350 bikes for kids who would otherwise be unable to afford them! Amazing! But…then the bikes had to be unassembled and reassembled in order to avoid inevitable safety issues. Also, more than half of the bikes were stolen once donated. While our employees had fun, the cost of this effort was likely greater than the impact.” No one would knowingly organize a negative-impact Day of Service like this, but greater transparency around what doesn’t work could lead to better, smarter, more community-centric decision-making.

While we’re waiting on that refreshingly honest storytelling, here’s how to make sure your volunteering matters now. While I’d love to encourage everyone to speak to their non-profit directly before agreeing to volunteer with them, I know that’s not always realistic. At the very least, ask yourself a simple question: Does the non-profit or beneficiary really need this? 

The organization you’re working with almost always knows how to use your money more than it knows how to use your time – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t volunteer with them.* Instead, find a way to bundle impact – a.k.a. have your cake and eat it, too. For example, RW is currently consulting with an organization that does not need additional volunteers, but companies love to volunteer with them. So, we’re helping the organization and their corporate partner have their cake and eat it too by transitioning their volunteer opportunities into Community Advocacy Programs. Employees will volunteer while learning how to become personal, civic, and corporate advocates for the cause – which all serve the reason the organization exists. Employees will also learn how this program contributes to the ESG efforts of the company. In the end, everyone benefits: the org, the company, and employees. This example can be applied to most types of volunteering with most non-profit organizations.

Once you’re speaking directly with a potential non-profit partner, start the conversation by asking, “Where are volunteers providing the best value to your mission right now and how can my group plug in and help in a way that does not require a lot of your resources?” (Thanks to Leah Hay, Community Engagement Officer at Portland Rescue Mission, for this!)

*Please note that you should always compensate nonprofit staff for their time and materials. But that’s already understood, right? 

2. Extend the impact beyond the timeframe of the event.  

Corporate volunteering is not always going to make a difference in communities, and that’s to be expected. Kits are helpful, encouraging, and often meaningful, but let’s not pretend they address society’s systemic issues on their own. You know what does address systemic issues? Individual transformation. The greatest impact you can have is on the hearts and minds of employees because individual change is what translates to societal change. Your job as a Social Impact Professional is to create space where transformation can occur. It won’t happen for everyone every time, and that’s okay. Your job is not to make transformation happen, it’s just to make sure it’s possible.

Access our animated video from Social REV’s Volunteer Leadership Course to learn more the essential role of creating space for transformation in corporate volunteering. 

If you’re a Social REV member, access Volunteer Leadership Lesson 1 here to track your progress.

3. Make it worth a story.

You know why it’s so hard to collect impact stories? Because most corporate volunteering is not story-worthy. Employees are happy they participated, they like that their company cares about doing good things, and they’re glad that hundreds of people will benefit from the work they did. But the stories human beings love to tell are the ones that increase our social capital with others. Meaning, people like us and they want to hear more!  

Stories worth telling have drama, tension, and an unexpected turn. This is why the impact stories you hear (without having to beg for them) usually fit into one of three categories: 1. The volunteer experience was expensive and included travel; 2. The CEO or someone famous showed up; 3. The experience was entirely different than expected – for better or for worse. The first two can be tough to make happen, but the third is completely accessible to anyone on any budget. Make the experience different than expected (for better!) by challenging assumptions and inviting people to become better versions of themselves.

Learn more about how to do that by watching this animated video from Social REV’s Corporate Social Impact 101 Course.

If you’re a Social REV member, access Corporate Social Impact 101 here to track your progress.

What will your message be? 

It’s easy to think that volunteering is just…volunteering. It’s nice! It’s easy! It’s free! And maybe that’s true in some cases, especially if your model of volunteering comes from your personal experiences. But corporate volunteering is not personal volunteering. The standard is higher. The influence is broader. The responsibility is unquestionable.  

With that in mind, what will your message to up and coming professionals be? Is our work a mechanism for change or a mechanism for numbers? Is the overarching objective to drive societal impact or to report increased outputs? Let’s ask the hard questions now and refuse to let ourselves off the hook.

Wanna learn more about the risks? Watch “The Problem with Transactional Volunteering” from Social REV’s Corporate Social Impact 101 Course.   

If you’re a Social REV member, access Corporate Social Impact 101 here to track your progress.

Want to educate the young professionals on your team?

Send up to 2 of your team members to Social REV LIVE (May 1-2, 2024) for an intensive exploration of the most effective practices and implementation methods for Transformative corporate volunteering and giving programs. Social REV LIVE is an exclusive two-day immersive learning experience for Social REV members, Social Impact practitioners and their volunteer leaders looking to level up their careers and programs using the Transformative Approach. We can’t wait to learn with you!

Angela Parker

Co-Founder, CEO

Recent Blogs:

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!

Participation RatesEmployee VolunteeringVolunteer Leadership

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