In the weeks following last November’s U.S. election, Americans engaged with nonprofit organizations and charitable causes in unprecedented numbers. Donations and volunteerism skyrocketed as people sought ways to make a positive impact after a divisive and demoralizing campaign season. And yet, post-election surge aside, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, volunteerism in our country has been on the decline in recent years. Experts are divided on the cause, blaming a host of potential factors—a lack of federal funding to nonprofits, the trend away from community involvement in favor of online communities, and the possibility that we’re more stretched for time (or lazier) than we used to be.
Where are we now
Within the flatlining stats on volunteering, however, there’s a glimmer of hope. Increasingly, individuals are putting in their volunteer time within the workday, sanctioned–and often facilitated–by their employer. According to America's Charities, approximately four billion dollars is raised through workplace giving annually. An annual survey of over 270 corporations conducted by CECP revealed that 56 percent offered employees paid release time for volunteering in 2016. Clearly, we’ve come a long way since the days when do-gooders had to find time at night or on weekends to work in a soup kitchen or sit on a nonprofit board.
The merging of our professional and private lives has forced new approaches to work-life fit and encourages greater freedom to pursue personal interests within working hours.
What gives? For starters, the merging of our professional and private lives has forced new approaches to work-life fit and encourages greater freedom to pursue personal interests within working hours. Suddenly, options for volunteering time on behalf of charities is a legitimate reason to request a longer lunch break or even a day off. Then, too, guided by shifting social and business norms, a growing number of companies are launching company-wide practices around charitable giving and volunteering, from payroll deductions and corporate matching to employer-supported service days and paid time off for volunteering.
A new business climate
Businesses these days are viewing service through a new lens. Motivated by the demands of a new generation of consumers, many organizations are adopting wide-reaching policies around corporate social responsibility (CSR). From environmental efforts and ethical labor practices to philanthropy and volunteering, CSR practices are becoming increasingly mainstream. These policies are not only attractive to potential customers, they can help companies attract the best and brightest employees as well.
The new business climate is also changing the way nonprofits are run. According to research conducted by America’s Charities, today’s nonprofits “see workplace giving and employee engagement programs as opportunities to promote their mission, programs and services, and identify and recruit new volunteers.”
America’s Charities reports that there are two important trends at play as nonprofit organizations and for-profit businesses forge deeper relationships. First, “Digital culture allows nonprofits to engage with key stakeholders. Technology and the digital culture are transforming the way nonprofit organizations interact and engage with companies and employees.” And, second, “Engagement is the new standard. Workplace giving is moving to a broader engagement model, and charities are providing greater opportunities for employees to learn about, interact and engage with them.”
Give where you work
Companies that are serious about implementing policies around giving need to take the time to do it well. According to Points of Light, a non-profit dedicated to volunteer service, effective Employee Volunteer Programs (EVPS) “provide a measurable benefit to the community, are employee-driven, and bring added strategic value to the business.” They should also outline “societal, employee and business goals with clear strategies, focused efforts and tactics to achieve them.” Another must-have? “…vocal and continual support from company leadership that specifically promotes and furthers the EVPs mission, goals, and plan.”
Helping companies develop strategies around volunteering is a business unto itself with organizations like Points of Light, Volunteer Match and America’s Charities stepping in to assist with connecting companies to charity partners, engaging internal teams and building customized EVP and Volunteer Time Off (VTO) policies.
Give and you shall receive
When companies prioritize volunteer activities, everybody wins. Service programs can forge a connection between a company and its local community, improve corporate image, and strengthen relations with key stakeholders. Group volunteer efforts offer colleagues the chance to relate in new ways, and can help develop professional and leadership skills. Many job seekers today pay close attention to a company’s approach to volunteering and service, meaning a strong program can foster a stronger and more loyal workforce.
As in any relationship, when it comes to working with a non-profit, communication is key. Well-meaning companies often do more harm than good by focusing too much on their own goals and not enough on their non-profit partner. Sure, that photo of your marketing team re-painting the animal shelter looks great on the company blog, but what if the shelter really needed less elbow grease and more cans of pet food?
Sure, that photo of your marketing team re-painting the animal shelter looks great on the company blog, but what if the shelter really needed less elbow grease and more cans of pet food?
It also goes without saying that a company can’t force its employees to volunteer. It’s important to strike the right tone when implementing a service program or encouraging staff to give money or time. Companies run the risk of appearing self-righteous and/or alienating staff who hold different values. San Francisco-based Volunteer Match outlines steps to successfully promote volunteer programs internally:
Give your employees PTO time for volunteering
Let them know about different volunteering opportunities
Listen to their input
Assign roles that are different to those in the workplace
Let them develop new skills
And for those who need more convincing that workplace volunteering is worth the investment, it turns out that giving back makes us better–and happier–at our jobs. 2014 research published in the Academy of Management Journal, reports that employee volunteering is linked to “greater workplace productivity and satisfaction.” According to Jessica Rodell, an assistant professor of management at the University of Georgia and author of the research, "Overwhelmingly, employees who volunteered gave more time and effort to their jobs, were more willing to help out their colleagues, talked more positively about their companies and were less likely to do detrimental things like cyber-loaf or waste time on the job.”
Volunteer time during the workday, reinforce core company values, and perform better at work? Now that’s a cause I think we can all get behind.
Laura Shear is a Bay Area-based freelance writer and consultant. She's addicted to home improvement projects and rescue puppies and firmly believes rosé should be enjoyed year-round. Find her on Twitter: @lmshear.