Employee Volunteering is About Cultivating Identity, Not Just Participation

Employee Volunteering, Transformative Volunteering, Volunteer Leader Networks, Volunteer Leadership

Imagine you’re a CSR manager, tasked with the daunting challenge of creating an employee volunteering program that not only makes a real difference in the community but also becomes a self-sustaining, integral part of your company’s culture. You’ve tried incentives, you’ve tried encouragement from leadership, but somehow, the momentum always seems to fizzle out. What if the key to unlocking the full potential of your program has been hiding in plain sight all along?

Enter the “moral exemplar,” the unsung hero of the workplace who, through their quiet actions and unassuming influence, holds the power to transform the very fabric of your organization’s social impact. In a groundbreaking study published in the Journal of Management, researcher Michael J. Gill pulls back the curtain on the mysterious phenomenon of how employee volunteering spreads like wildfire through an organization, revealing the secret catalyst that CSR managers have been missing all along.

Get ready to have your assumptions challenged and your perspective shifted as we embark on a journey to uncover how these hidden influencers can be harnessed to create a tipping point of employee engagement that ripples throughout your company, creating a culture of volunteerism that is truly built to last.

The Power of Moral Exemplars

At the heart of Gill’s research is the idea that existing employee volunteers can serve as “moral exemplars” who subtly influence their coworkers to also become volunteers. This occurs through a social process the author terms “moral identity work.” As coworkers observe certain volunteers demonstrating prosocial behaviors, they come to identify those individuals as role models embodying the moral values and obligations associated with their shared professional identities.

This recognition triggers the coworkers to go through a series of “moral identity work experiences” such as moral reflection, feeling morally elevated or guilty, and tapping into moral traditions and resources related to their roles. Through this process, coworkers develop their own moral self-conception tied to volunteering and ultimately internalize a volunteer identity which they then symbolize through their own volunteering activities.

Why This May Be of Interest to Social Impact Professionals

As a CSR practitioner, understanding the powerful yet often unintentional influence existing volunteers can have on spreading a culture of volunteering is immensely valuable. Rather than relying solely on top-down encouragement or incentives, you can harness the organic social forces already at play.

By strategically supporting and spotlighting employee volunteers who embody the moral values you aim to cultivate, you can create a network of authentic exemplars who inspire others to follow suit. Importantly, this research suggests the influence of moral exemplars is most effective when it unfolds organically and subtly. Overt pressure or mandatory programs are less likely to yield the desired ripple effects.

Shaping a Transformative Environment

While the research highlights the significance of individual exemplars, the findings also hint at the importance of organizational context. Coworkers were more receptive to their peers’ prosocial modeling when the volunteering aligned with established professional traditions and moral obligations.

This insight underscores the value of grounding your CSR initiatives in the existing cultural fabric and ethical frameworks of your industry and organization. By framing volunteering as an expression of core professional values, you create an environment where it is seen not as a “nice to have” but an integral moral imperative.

Consider highlighting how your programs connect to your company’s mission, ethics codes, DE&I commitments, or ESG goals. Use Social REV‘s free Strategic Program Structure Framework to ensure you have all the pieces in place to make your program portfolio successful – including a shared mission and business-aligned goals!

Engage leaders as vocal champions to signal that volunteering is not just permitted but actively valued. Weave the theme of civic engagement and community care into onboarding, training, and leadership development. The more ubiquitous the message, the more naturally and rapidly volunteering identities are likely to spread.

Enabling Ongoing Identity Work

One of the most interesting aspects of Gill’s model is that it positions moral identity development as an ongoing, iterative process. The experiences of volunteering itself – the elevation of making a difference, the guilt of not doing more, the reflection on living out one’s values – become the fuel for further identity work and engagement.

As a CSR leader, you can lean into this insight by ensuring your programs create ample opportunities for reflection and social processing. Build in pre-departure workshops and post-event debriefs where volunteers can grapple with the emotional and moral weight of their experiences together.

Integrate individual journaling and group dialogue to help surface the cognitive and emotional journey. Share stories that showcase how volunteering connects to personal and company values. By carving out space for this identity work to unfold, you create the conditions for more employees to find resonance and resolve in a volunteer identity.

Cultivating Contagious Champions

Morally engaged employees don’t just do good themselves – they also actively recruit others to the cause. Gill’s research demonstrates how volunteers often unintentionally influence peers through modeling, but you can also equip them to be more proactive ambassadors.

Consider providing message training to help champions productively name the tensions and convictions driving their participation. Teach them to lead with vulnerability, sharing their own mixed emotions and identity evolution. Encourage them to draw explicit links to corporate and professional values to lend weight to their appeals.

Spotlight active volunteers not just for their one-time participation but for their ongoing development as purpose-driven professionals. Feature their stories in internal newsletters, videos, and events. Celebrate the contagious nature of their commitment.

The more your champions are seen journeying alongside their peers rather than preaching from above, the more magnetic their influence is likely to be. They become not just moral exemplars but relatable guides inviting others into the deeply human process of values alignment and identity growth.

Systems for Scalable Support

Of course, activated champions are only as impactful as the enabling environment around them, which is where your program design comes in. To fully leverage the potential of social influence, ensure you have structures in place to welcome and orient new volunteers recruited by their peers.

Create plug-and-play service opportunities that are accessible and well-suited to newcomers. Provide on-ramp workshops or online trainings to build comfort and commitment. Develop recognition systems that celebrate not just individual participation but also peer-to-peer recruitment.

Measure and spotlight the percentage of new volunteers who join due to a champion’s influence. By tracking this metric, you can better focus your efforts on the most magnetic champions and programs. Equipped with this social proof, you can also make the case for additional investment in ambassador development.

Speaking of ambassador development, don’t forget to take advantage of Social REV’s Volunteer Leadership Course (available to all Social REV members)! The course trains your volunteer leaders on how to find, scope, and lead Transformative Social Impact activities. By the end, learners should feel empowered, inspired, and equipped to find, scope, run, and facilitate Transformative Volunteering experiences! Catch a free preview here.

In parallel, continue expanding your portfolio of service opportunities to enable volunteers to find their best fit. The more diverse and developmentally-tiered your program, the more likely employees will be able to craft an ongoing volunteering identity.

From Participation to Transformation

Ultimately, the goal is not just to drive one-time involvement but to ignite lifelong community engagement. By embedding the insights from Gill’s research into your program design, you can create the conditions for employee volunteering to become not just an event but an identity – one that spreads and sustains itself through the everyday texture of peer influence and interaction.

As champions model moral courage, as coworkers process the purpose and obligation of their roles, as company cultures make space for this growth, a new kind of regenerative CSR emerges. One where doing good in the community becomes inextricably interwoven with what it means to work at a particular company or in a particular field. Where external impact and internal identity evolve in lockstep.

In this light, your role as a CSR leader becomes one of culture crafting above all – sparking and shaping the workplace conditions where volunteering stops feeling like a side hustle and starts feeling like the main event. Less like a box to check and more like an ongoing rite of passage that binds employees together in shared humanity and hope.

The ultimate prize? A company where volunteering becomes not just something people do but something people are. Where serving society becomes synonymous with professional excellence and growth. And where the question shifts from “How do I get people to show up?” to “How do I steward people’s innate capacity for care, contribution and moral becoming?”

That’s the kind of transformation Gill’s research invites – not just in what CSR looks like but in what corporate citizenship and leadership demand. If you’re up for the challenge, your champions await.

Chris Jarvis

CSO & Co-Founder

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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!

Additional Resources  

  1. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): The Sustainable Development Goals are a set of 17 global goals adopted by the United Nations in 2015 to address pressing social, economic, and environmental challenges. The SDGs cover a wide range of issues, including poverty, inequality, climate change, education, and health. Companies can align their CSR initiatives with the SDGs to contribute to global efforts in creating a more sustainable and equitable world.
  2. Behavioral Science: Behavioral science is the study of human behavior and decision-making, drawing insights from fields such as psychology, economics, and neuroscience. It explores how individuals make choices and respond to various stimuli in different contexts. In the context of CSR, behavioral science can inform the design of employee volunteering programs, communication strategies, and incentive structures to effectively engage and motivate employees.
  3. Moral Identity: Moral identity refers to an individual’s self-conception organized around a set of moral traits, such as being caring, compassionate, fair, or honest. It guides an individual’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in moral situations. In the context of employee volunteering, moral identity plays a crucial role in motivating employees to engage in prosocial behaviors and find meaning in their work.
  4. Transformative Learning: Transformative learning is a process that leads to a significant shift in an individual’s perspective, beliefs, or assumptions. It involves critical reflection, dialogue, and action, enabling individuals to develop new understandings and ways of being in the world. In the context of employee volunteering, transformative learning experiences can occur when employees engage in meaningful service activities that challenge their assumptions, broaden their perspectives, and inspire personal growth.
  5. Social Contagion: Social contagion refers to the spread of behaviors, attitudes, or emotions from one person to another through social interactions and influence. It highlights the power of social networks in shaping individual and collective behavior. In the context of employee volunteering, social contagion can occur when employees observe and are influenced by the volunteering behaviors and enthusiasm of their colleagues, leading to increased participation and a culture of giving back.
Employee VolunteeringTransformative VolunteeringVolunteer Leader NetworksVolunteer Leadership

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