The Best Volunteer Programs Do This

06/14/2015 04:56 am ET | Updated Jun 13, 2016

Pop quiz: Which one of the following grabs your attention more?

1) A company-wide email announcing a volunteering opportunity for a charity championed by the CEO.

2) A Facebook post from your buddy, Ted, in IT, sharing his experience with a nonprofit he's passionate about and mentioning an upcoming volunteering opportunity at your company that supports this charity.

There's no wrong answer here, but chances are that #2 is going to feel more compelling to employees. That's because advocacy from peers seems more authentic and trustworthy than advocacy from senior leadership. While CEO involvement in volunteer and giving programs is critical, CEOs as a group are not widely trusted, as the the 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer attests. In the past year, trust in CEOs dropped 12 points to 38 percent, which is its biggest drop in the history of Edelman conducting this barometer.

Purpose-filled work is the mantra in smart HR offices these days. As Salesforce Foundation'sSuzanne DiBianca noted in a recent interview, "We're seeing companies competing based on who has the best CSR strategy and who makes their employees feel good on a community service level. It's becoming core to corporate company culture and ultimately, that's helping not-for-profits grow and achieve."

Good managers understand that what motivates employees more than ever is a sense that what they're doing matters, and that they're working for companies that prioritize giving back.

"The promising thing about today's CSR landscape is that it's growing and it's becoming a movement," says DiBianca. "It's moving away from the marketing department and entering HR. In Silicon Valley, young graduates and employees are accepting jobs depending upon whether a company has a CSR initiative in place."

But simply creating a volunteer and giving program isn't enough. You can have the best of intentions, your employees can express interest in giving back, and yet still find yourself with low participation rates. In fact, this is a common struggle I hear about from program managers.

The secret is to create a bottom-up approach that empowers your employees to have more of a voice in your program. Even DiBianca admits that she had initially been wary of Salesforce's CSR program, because "at the time there were a lot of corporates talking about philanthropy, but in reality they just wanted to be seen to be doing something."

It's also important to communicate with your employees where they're "living." A report by LinkedIn and Altimeter Group found that a majority of engaged employees -- 54 percent -- read content by their company through social media. The study, which focused on the behaviors of companies that were found to be the best at engaging their employees, concluded that the top performing companies build relationships with their employees through social media and leverage their core values to empower their employees to be brand ambassadors. "It all begins with authentic, meaningful engagement and content," the report noted.

If you're wondering why, despite all of your careful planning and grand volunteer and giving activities, your participation numbers are flat, you need to take a look at how you're hooking your employees into your program in the first place. Are you making general, one-size-fits-all announcements from on high and expecting the masses to just eagerly pour in? Is everything about your program top-down in nature, with an "If we build it they will come" mentality? Are you avoiding social media in favor of email and company intranets?

If so, grab a chair and have a seat. You'll be waiting a long time for your participation rates to tick up.

It's clear that social media is critical to creating and increasing employee engagement. What's equally clear is that a company's philanthropic work can play a starring role in its conversations with employees on social media.

When it comes to moving employees from interest to action, the corporate volunteer experts all recommend identifying and empowering team leads. These "deputized" leaders will engage fellow employees in company sponsored or supported volunteering activities, ensure that activities are well planned, and provide on site leadership to check that everything goes smoothly and employees have a friendly liaison to hold their hands.

The fact is that the best employee leads have the following in common:

  • Already volunteer somewhere -- or have in the past for significant periods of time.
  • Think everyone who gets into volunteering will love it. Volunteering is a way of life.
  • Have strong personal reasons for wanting to volunteer. It's not about doing something for others as much as it's about doing something for themselves.
  • Regularly invite other people to join their volunteer activities.
  • Understand the issues for which they volunteer and are eager -- but are not pushy -- to share their knowledge with others.
  • Have strong opinions about the issue for which they volunteer -- particularly regarding the use of resources and the types of activities.

"Philanthropy used to be very top down, depending on what the CEO liked, and it is not that way anymore," says DiBianca. "It's now more democratically driven."

Engaging employees in determining the direction of your program is one part of the important democratization process, as is engaging employees in leading the program. And throughout, it's important to communicate with employees through a wide range of channels -- including social media, where you're more likely to capture their attention. The result is a grassroots volunteer effort that feels accessible, attractive and authentic.

"If you want philanthropy to be real and not just something that's stamped on your marketing collateral," DiBianca agrees, "you've got to have the company's people own and drive it."

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