All Fun and Games: Welcome to Camp Philanthropy

04/08/2015 02:18 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2015

The holidays were approaching and a marketing team wanted to give back. But the standard company offerings just didn't float their boat. So they brainstormed and came up with the idea of a Virtual Giving Tree, encouraging a broad turnout of small donations to one of their favorite nonprofits. The team was excited about the idea and rumors about the plan started to swirl. The buzz built. Then, more momentum: their manager gave them permission to invite the customers they spoke to every day to give as well.

The team drafted a quick email with a cool Giving Tree graphic and invited customers to contribute $1 to this employee-led effort, noting that the company would match all donations. The result? This giving event wound up giving back to everyone. It inspired employees, fired up customers and delivered a surprise windfall to the charity of choice. Employees appreciated the chance to collaborate together, and everyone found themselves committed to doing even better the following year. Five years later, the Virtual Giving Tree tradition continues, producing more money than ever before, with nearly 100 percent participation by employees.

No conversation about the sustainable workplace is complete without addressing the importance of employee giving and volunteering programs. We now know that employee-driven corporate philanthropy is an essential component of creating a healthy and inspiring work culture and in driving employee engagement, recruitment and retention.

But simply offering these programs isn't enough. If you want high participation rates, you need to get hook your employees' interest through creative events that are team oriented, sometimes gamified, and always fun. Not every part of your program needs to have this criteria, but the first stage of volunteering should be inviting for employees, characterized by being a highly social, accessible, low barrier to entry experience. It should be well organized, feel "safe" -- meaning you can show up without needing anything and participate as a part of a group, and require no long-term commitment.

Many volunteer platforms offer individual searchable volunteer opportunities for employees. While these can be helpful for generating ideas, standard usage rate for this kind of warehoused data is poor -- usually hovering around 7 percent. Only group volunteering has high rates of participation, and of course one must schedule those sorts of events. After all, no nonprofit is sitting around waiting for 50 people to show up. As a company, you really don't get much -- if any -- employee engagement benefit from employees volunteering on their own. Engagement comes from engaging with other employees, not with a nonprofit alone, and certainly not with software.

While we'd like to think that pure altruism is enough to motivate employees, the truth is that people experience peaks and valleys in their volunteering interest, and competition and team spirit can offer a welcome jolt to sustain focus or even capture interest in the first place. One company we work with incentivized their volunteering campaign by offering a special one-time donation to the nonprofit if a certain number of volunteers were reached. Another client uses a point system to increase engagement; if an employee attends an event, they receive points that are redeemable for prizes. And we've had plenty of interest in our corporate crowdfunding competitions, where employees jockey for prizes by using their social networks to crowdfund for a cause.

Beyond engaging employees through fun opportunities, teamwork can be a big draw. That's why I encourage clients to "deputize" their own employees to be internal cause advocates and motivate others to volunteer. Sort of like camp counselors. After all, when my friend Kim from IT asks me to show up to an event because it is supporting a cause she has personal experience with, it's going to be harder for me to say no or cancel at the last minute. No one can argue with Kim; her energy, enthusiasm and excitement are the keys to getting others on board. And she isn't an email notice - she's the cubicle-buddy you share lattes with. "That's the secret of the social capital exchange," notes Chris Jarvis of corporate volunteer consulting firm Realized Worth. "If I flake on a volunteer opportunity, I make a withdrawal from the social bank account that I have with this other person."

Assigning employee counselors is one part of the ideal camp experience. Next is getting the camp director -- your CEO and other leaders -- to perform in some campfire skits. In other words, you engage employees in your program through fun experiences that are visibly supported at all levels of your company.

For example, run/walk races for health-related causes are always popular at companies, and often accompany other grant/donation/volunteer activities. They can play a large role in your company giving program, and are a great way to get new employees involved quickly. But over time, even these can lose steam and seem boring.

One company team had been doing the same charity running race as a premier sponsor for over 10 years. Their impact was never in question but employee engagement had started to decline. Scrambling for ideas, the company organizers invited the CEO to join them at the race. He agreed and they used this to help promote the event and re-energize participation.

The sudden presence of the CEO, his faith in what they were doing as demonstrated by his showing up and then giving a short but meaningful speech about how inspired he was by their ongoing commitment -- all of this refueled the team and participation once again swelled. The local leaders looked good and were also moved by the CEO's faith. Everyone was able to be more efficient and build on the brand of something that had worked and had a tradition, simply by infusing it with this new energy rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.

Engaging your employees through social, fun and sometimes competitive opportunities may seem a bit silly, but it's an important first step in getting your employees involved with your program and gearing them to move on to deeper levels of volunteerism. High volunteer participation rates can transform the whole dynamic of your workforce culture and reap dividends far beyond the satisfaction of doing good, so don't dismiss the importance of bringing camp to your corporate philanthropy.