“Together, ABC Corporation employees cleaned 115 parks, planted 425 trees, and served 6,230 cans of soup to the needy.”
We’ve all seen a similar byline in our annual report – showing clients and shareholders that our company cares about giving back to the community. Each year in the US, millions of employees check the “volunteer” box – participating in what is essentially a company-sponsored day of manual labor. We all enjoy the short-lived buzz of a good deed, but do we really have anything else to show for it besides a picture for the company website?
According to the US Department of Labor, the number of volunteers in the US has dropped more than 14% over the past decade. This drop is even more staggering when you consider the rise of the millennial generation, who according to The Associated Press, is more likely than any other generation to believe it has a “very important obligation” to volunteer.
As the largest source of all volunteers in the US, it's time for Corporate America to take a hard look at how our employees are volunteering and understand what we’re doing wrong. Let’s explore the four biggest mistakes companies make when volunteering:
1. We spend too much time organizing.
A Deloitte research study found that 75% of employees who do not volunteer claim they have no time to participate, and frankly, it’s tough to blame them. To organize an event, you’ll start with an overwhelming search to find a non-profit that can handle your team’s needs. In hopes of getting your donation, most non-profits will happily throw together an event, despite usually being ill-equipped to execute. You’ll eventually be forced to pick up the slack – between invitations, timing, transportation, ordering lunch, convincing (i.e., begging) co-workers to show up, you’ll waste time and resources before you’ve even left the office.
2. We choose boring volunteer events.
Only 14% of US volunteer projects are skills-based – according to the TapRoot Foundation – meaning volunteers actually use their college education in the activity. So once you complete the painful task of setting this event up, you then get to go pick up garbage all day. Sure, it’s nice to get out of the office, but cleaning a park falls very short of an inspiring activity for ambitious professionals. It’s no surprise busy professionals have minimal motivation to attend.
3. We overestimate our impact.
While some good comes from our manual labor projects, we often confuse effort with results. We build houses and serve soup, but do we really help solve homelessness in our area? We clean up a park, but do we actually build a sustainable solution to stop pollution or control waste management in our community? If we’re lucky enough to get a team of motivated college-educated employees from a great company to commit a day of their time, it’s a waste not to make a tangible social impact.
4. We discourage other employees from volunteering.
Poorly executed volunteer days discourage repeat and new volunteers, both of which are necessary to create a culture of volunteering in a company. Do we honestly expect positive employee testimonials after a sweaty day of park bench construction? The CECP stated that the average employee participation rate in volunteer programs has stayed flat (~30%) since 2012 and will remain flat unless companies start thinking differently.
It’s time to flip the traditional corporate volunteering model. Instead of asking our communities what help they need, let’s ask companies how’d they’d like to help. Giving our employees simple, exciting and impactful volunteer events will give them incentive to show up and keep showing up for years to come.
Here are four ways for companies to run better volunteer days:
1. Partner with organizations that do the planning for you.
By using non-profits with robust corporate volunteer programs or social enterprises that specialize in servicing your needs, you’ll spend your time volunteering, not planning.
2. Find more exciting events.
If you want employees to show up, organize something worth showing up for. Skills-based activities that require thoughtful employee collaboration, insert a competitive element to traditional volunteer events or involve local students typically attract more volunteers than manual labor or outdoor projects.
3. Ask non-profits the right questions.
Determine the explicit social impact of your activity and use that as a selling point to your co-workers. A Deloitte social impact study found that “alleviating social issues” is the number one reason employees volunteer – so let people know when they do.[vi]
4. Remember you get what you pay for.
Paid events will give non-profits the incentive to keep you happy – so be prepared to pay a small fee to ensure your event is run smoothly and your team is satisfied.
We all share the collective responsibility of helping those less fortunate, and Corporate America should be leading that charge. Organizing complicated, boring, and low-impact volunteer activities is far from leading. Let's stop "checking-the-box", and start running simple, exciting, and impactful volunteer activities to build a better culture of volunteering across the country.