Extending Employee Volunteer Impact Beyond Kits and Numbers

Transformative Volunteering, Volunteering Experience

As a society, we can agree that volunteering is good. In response to a community need, an individual or group steps in to help meet that need. Simple, right?

What happens when the group that steps in to fill that need is a corporation? What happens to volunteerism? Does that dynamic stay the same? Are we still working to meet a true community need?

In theory, the answer should be, “of course”.

In practice, however, the answer is, “it’s complicated.”

Companies have a societal responsibility to direct some of their power and influence toward impact in their communities – that’s the core premise behind “Corporate Social Responsibility”, right? Marked, lasting, positive impact.

But sometimes, amidst the corporate focus on measurement and our drive to track and report “the numbers” of our corporate volunteering efforts, the original intent of volunteerism can get lost. The dynamic starts to shift and can become…problematic.

If we’re driven primarily by the numbers and we’re looking to achieve more volunteers, more hours, more engagement, we are in dangerous territory and we need to pay very close attention.

In our recent Real Talk webinar Extending Employee Volunteer Impact Beyond Kits and Numbers, we had a robust discussion about this topic and outlined three problems with focusing solely on numbers, or “outputs” of corporate volunteer programs.


RealTalk: Extending Employee Volunteer Impact Beyond Kits and Numbers

This RealTalk Webinar takes a deep dive into enhancing the value of “transactional” volunteer events and creating space for transformation in your volunteer programs.

Problem #1: We could be undermining our intended impact.

If your key impact metric is a number – an output – it’s possible that the volunteering your company is doing on behalf of a community does not account for the work already being done in that community.

Ask yourself:

  • Does your work center the people already leading change in the community?
  • Does your planned corporate activity require your community partner to contribute extra time and effort on your behalf? And, if so, are you compensating your community partner specifically for this time?

These conditions may undermine your intended impact – either by getting in the community’s way or reinforcing dangerous ideas to your employees (see Problem #3, below).

Sometimes these are lessons we need to learn the hard way, but luckily, there are plenty of fantastic resources that can help us reorient toward community-focused impact, including:

Remember, your job as a Social Impact professional isn’t simply to engage employees around volunteering and giving. You are the subject matter expert in all things “community” and part of your job is to educate others – including leaders – about approaches and principles that go beyond outputs to create real impact and outcomes.

I go into those conversations with leaders and employees sharing that my job is to make sure the things we are doing are meeting a community need. If the nonprofit doesn’t get value it shouldn’t be done.
– RealTalk guest

Problem #2: We could be reinforcing old (and boring) ideas about volunteering.

Volunteering that prioritizes numbers (or outputs) is often really nice. It’s often convenient, doesn’t take up a ton of time, it’s accessible to everyone, it’s fun! In a word, it’s transactional. In transactional volunteering our focus is the task: getting the most backpacks filled, painting the wall the quickest, planting the most trees.

And when we engage leaders in transactional volunteering, they may have a good time. They may think it’s fun and nice. They may see lots of employees participating. But they won’t devote resources to it.

Why? Because “nice” does not equal “impact” for anyone – not for our employees, not for our companies and certainly not for our communities.

Numbers on their own will not lead to culture change.

Numbers on their own will not lead to business results.

Numbers on their own will not move the needle on societal issues.

T. Rowe Price’s John Brothers sums it up perfectly in this SSIR article, “Strategic philanthropy also mirrors corporate practices with its overreliance on predetermined metrics, top-down strategies, cultures of compliance, and outcome-centric evaluation.”

The good news is that almost any type of volunteering – even the typically transactional kind (and, yes, even kit-building!) – can be re-framed to create the conditions where transformation can occur.  (Listen to the webinar recording to hear a specific example).

When we apply the “Transformative approach” to volunteering, we’re not simply tacking on a popular buzzword. Transformative volunteering is a tactical approach, grounded in neuroscience, behavioral science and adult learning theory that creates space for personal transformation to occur. (Read more about it here, here and here).

I always give the leaders a good, best, better option for volunteer events. I find when they see how we can make it better (education on issue, employee connections, invite the nonprofit in, give them an additional donation (on top of kits and paying for their staff to be on site, have a reflection).”
– RealTalk guest

Problem #3: No, really. We could be reinforcing old, boring – and potentially dangerous – ideas about volunteering.

If your company says it stands for inclusion, anti-racism, equity, making the world a better place for everyone, your company stands for the principles behind Transformative Volunteering.

But when you say you stand for these principles, and then choose to engage in transactional volunteerism, you are perpetuating an old idea of volunteering that sets the “helper” up as the one in power over the other, dividing people into the “haves” and “have nots” and reinforcing systems of oppression. Unless it’s specifically what the community requests, transactional volunteerism has the potential to cause harm.

This may feel harsh. And just so we’re clear: this approach to corporate volunteering may not be something everyone or every company is ready for. It may feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar. That’s okay!

Remember: Transformation and discomfort go hand in hand. If you’re feeling that discomfort – you’re doing great. Stay with it. You’re on the right track.  This is where deep learning can happen.

I imagine that it takes time and can be uncomfortable, but such conversations/debriefs lead to the meaningful and lasting change that you were discussing. Change requires discomfort – YES!”
– RealTalk guest

And for those of you who do deeply believe in the principles of Transformative Volunteering and are still beholden to the numbers? We know it’s not because you don’t care. It’s not because you want to undermine your intended impact or reinforce bad ideas about volunteering. It’s not because you don’t genuinely believe in the power of volunteering to change the way we perceive ourselves and others and to change the way we show up in the world.

It may be because you face pressures to focus on the numbers and you haven’t yet figured out how to hold both of those things – numbers and impact – in equal importance.

We have a few ideas about how to do that in this blog post (or watch the recording of the Real Talk webinar – it’s free!).

Additional Resources shared in the Real Talk Chat:

Megan Strand

Director of Strategic Consulting

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!

Transformative VolunteeringVolunteering Experience

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