Companies with paid volunteer time off struggle with underutilization: no one is actually taking time off to volunteer. Similarly, employers that offer "dollars for doers" or corporate matching programs also report less than stellar participation. Many companies have tried to make it easier to donate at work, offering things like payroll deductions for donations, yet they continue to struggle with widespread adoption.
There is a mystery here: Research shows that employees consistently ask for opportunities to give back, yet they are not taking advantage of donation and volunteer opportunities when offered. So what is going on?
Corporate giving programs—often part of broader Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and employee engagement strategies—are designed to benefit the company in a way that maximizes impact and reduces expense. While almost all companies intuitively believe that CSR is good for the business, calculating the ROI of these programs is incredibly challenging. As a result, companies tend to implement programs in ways that are the easiest and most economical to manage and measure, thereby entrenching CSR as a centralized function with very limited budget.
The mistaken belief that companies have is that people will volunteer and donate when given the opportunity, so the company should standardize the process for volunteering and donating as much as possible to cut costs and offer programs that are easiest to manage. But this does not work. Ask CSR professionals what the hardest part of their job is, and they will tell you it’s trying to convince enough people to participate in their programs, and then share stories and metrics. This is because companies think that all giving activities are equal, so the easier it is to offer any opportunity, the better—and this is exactly why it’s not working.
This is a classic example of the tension between employees and employers: Employees donate for deeply personal, often subconscious, reasons. On the other side, their employers are likely participating for largely commercial reasons. Beyond donations, people also give back through volunteering, and their motivations for giving their time are often more complex than donating dollars, involving deep social ties and personal relationships. Employers partially recognize this and attempt to use volunteering as a tool to generating happier and healthier employees. However, companies miss the boat by trying to capture the benefits of volunteering without understanding why their employees might actually want to volunteer on behalf of their company in the first place.
The tension behind employer and employee giving is further exaggerated by a company’s own processes. Because a company can only benefit from CSR if it can measure and report on its and its employees’ giving activities, it has even more incentives to standardize giving. This is done in a variety of ways, including trying to run more "efficient" day of giving campaigns, implementing technology platforms that limit volunteering and donations to pre-vetted causes, or launching incentive programs that give "dollars to doers" if done with verified organizations. However, the more a company standardizes its giving, the less giving occurs.
"We are finding out quite rapidly that to be successful long term we have to ask: what do we actually give to society to make it better? We’ve made it clear to the organization that it’s our business model, starting from the top."
—Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever
Corporate giving programs suffer from the same problems that affect their nonprofit partners: not understanding their "customers" and measuring the wrong thing on account of short-term thinking. The reality is that the benefits of CSR are recognized in the long-term, yet markets, corporate boards, and executives mandate short-term evaluation.
In lieu of measuring the true, long-terms benefits of these programs, CSR leaders are instead forced to measure things like the amount of money donated and the number of hours volunteered, the same forces that doom companies by forcing them to focus too much on short-term earnings. In fact, measurement is such a critical part of CSR that it prohibits its practitioners from actually making an impact. Nonprofits and corporations frequently complain that reporting on dollars and hours is so challenging, most don’t do it, or spend most of their time trying to get to accurate numbers instead of creating an impact. According to research from McKinsey: "Traditional corporate social responsibility is failing to deliver, for both companies and society. Executives need a new approach to engaging the external environment."
The Opportunity: Maximizing engagement by designing giving programs that focus on employee preferences
Study after study show that CSR is good for the bottom line, has a material impact, and that employee giving programs can create . In fact, more CEOs than ever before have reported that they will be increasing CSR investments in the coming year. As such, programs should be designed to maximize engagement, not to simplify reporting and management. A report from Deloitte’s monitor group highlights that doing so can engage and develop your purpose-driven professionals.
Simply put, when employees give, and truly feel empowered to give by their company, they build loyalty and engagement with their company. The more employees who give, and the more that each employee gives, the better for the world and for the bottom line.
This is why we see rapid adoption of programs that empower employees to give the way they want to give.
As research shows, employees that give more while being supported by their company become more engaged and more loyal. Simply put, employees are more likely to give even more when they decide how and when their time and dollars are given. As such, if companies want to engage their employees with giving campaigns, the best thing to do is let employees decide where they volunteer and where they give their money.
Companies can take it a step farther to make it a cultural approach by rewarding time off to actually engage in these causes. Instead of viewing time spent on social causes as time of work, companies—and the managers within—should recognize that giving activities are powerful business tools to increase engagement, provide stretch learning experiences, develop leadership skills, improve products, develop partnerships, and foster innovation. Simply put, managers should proactively encourage their employees to spend time on social good activities in the same way they might encourage their team to go to a conference, take an online course, or participate in training.
This really is a win-win. Not only does a human centered design approach to giving increase engagement and bottom-line benefits, but it’s also easier to manage, requiring less centralized program management when the right tools and processes are used.
Shifting your organization’s mindset is not an easy task, but there is one thing going in your favor: you don’t have to change employee behavior, you just have to appeal to them in the right way—remember, the majority are already interested in giving. The biggest challenge is not trying to change hundreds or thousands of employees’ actions, it’s simply aligning your company’s leadership to believe in this approach. Here are 8 tips to help you do exactly that:
1: Build the business case
There are at least seven research-backed reasons that companies should engage in more social good activities, and five science-backed reasons why giving is good for people. Choose the imperative that is most likely to appeal to your company’s management, build a business case, and earn a budget. Reviewing Deloitte’s research on social impact corporate archetypes can further help you establish a case.
2: Get executive support
One of the most important elements of any social responsibility program is executive support, and this is as true for giving as it is for volunteering. Not only should executives promote these programs, but they should actively participate in them whenever possible. Lastly, they should personally and publicly recognize top contributors. Salesforce’s Mark Benioff provides an excellent example of this, and is even known for stopping employees in the hall to show their latest status of volunteer hours. And once enough hours are volunteered, Salesforce gives the employees $1,000 to donate to the cause of their choice.
3. Engage mid-level managers
Regardless of your company’s policies, mid-level managers are a key stakeholder that needs to be engaged. They’ll feel the true impact of people engaging in social good activities, and usually not in a good way as this audience is most likely to feel the pains of a loss of hours. To overcome this, managers should be encouraged to promote giving activities, celebrated when they do it, and be consistently educated on the long-term benefits of engaging their team and individual employees in social good activities. Most importantly, company leaders should seek to engage this population in social good activities so that they can see the benefits first-hand.
4: Be authentic
The bigger the company, the more likely it is to have skeptical employees. It’s important that companies be open and honest about the strategic intent of their social responsibility programs. MySkills4Afrika, a program by Microsoft, places Microsoft volunteers across Africa to support startups, schools, governments, nonprofits, and even Microsoft partners with skill and capacity building efforts. Microsoft is honest that this program has a triple-bottom line: benefiting social causes, employee desires, and also its own business.
5: Provide your employees with the right tools
People will leverage their volunteering and giving activities for different reasons, and they won’t use tools that are hard to find or complex. At a minimum, the technology powering your giving and volunteerism programs should be simple to use and flexible so that every employee can give money and time the way they want, and to the causes they want.
6: Think transformationally, not transactionally
Processing a match and cutting a check? That’s transactional. Showing people the true impact of their work and getting them to reflect on what they’ve learned? That’s transformational. As Chris Jarvis of Realized Worth shares, "You know that quote ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ It’s the same with transactional and transformational giving. Ask employees to give and you’ll see a handful of one-off transactions, but empower employees to learn about, connect with and give to the causes that interest them, and you’ll have yourself a team of employees championing your company’s community involvement and cause initiatives." By designing programs that truly empower employees, you will inspire people to reach their full potential, creating more meaningful experiences that also benefit the company.
7: Go all-in on communication
All too often, companies introduce programs only to find that employees aren’t aware they exist. A well-planned communication strategy that involves executives and enthusiastic employees from all levels will massively increase awareness of your company’s programs. The right tool will also ensure that you capture the necessary stories and triple-bottom-line impact data to maintain top-down marketing and PR efforts, while also giving you plenty of content for social media.
8: Close the feedback loop
One of the biggest changes to fully embrace a HCD approach to corporate giving is the feedback loop. For their own benefits, companies typically will brag about the hours and dollars they gave, rather than hero the employees that actually made those donations. To fully embrace these programs, companies must show that the giving efforts actually made an impact by showing personal stories, and highlight the giver as the hero, not the company. According to Tim Mohin, CSR leader at AMD, "While it may be more difficult, CSR Leaders are far better off measuring results than activities. When it comes to volunteerism and philanthropy, the results we need to measure are employee engagement and the benefits the company provides to communities."
With all the buzz around the benefits of corporate responsibility, it’s easy to understand why companies have implemented programs without enough due process—just like nonprofits are notorious for not operating like businesses, businesses are notorious for not factoring in the human-elements of their products and people. However, new research, data, and case studies now prove the business value of human centered initiatives the benefits their own businesses, their people, and the world at large.
Ty Walrod is the co-founder and CEO of Bright Funds, a giving, matching, and volunteering program He previously worked for Deloitte, with the partnership's venture capital, private equity and technology clients.