Companies are adopting volunteer programs to attract and retain younger workers.
By Marta Chmielowicz
Every day, people become more conscious of their impact on the world and how they can shape it in their personal lives. Faced with global economic, political, and social instability and disruption, the millennial generation in particular is turning its attention to social causes that benefit the greater good. Whether it’s by supporting altruistic brands like TOMS or contributing to non-profit fundraising efforts on Facebook, it’s clear that young people today want to be socially responsible.
And this trend has immense implications for business. As both customers and employees, many millennials prefer to support businesses that give back to their communities and embrace corporate social responsibility. Companies looking to attract and engage this generation of workers need to adapt to these new priorities.
“It takes more than perks to attract, retain, and engage today’s diverse, socially-conscious workforce. Purpose, passion, and an ability to make an impact are important to employees—especially millennials, who will make up 50 percent of the global workforce in just two years,” says Vivian Farris, vice president of people at Benevity.
According to Cone Communications’ 2016 Employee Engagement Study, 79 percent of millennials consider a company’s social and environmental commitments when deciding where to work, compared to the U.S. average of 58 percent. In addition, 88 percent of millennials feel their jobs are more fulfilling when they are provided with opportunities to make a positive social impact, compared to 74 percent of U.S. employees on average.
In a tight labor market, organizations that are able to demonstrate an authentic commitment to corporate social responsibility by implementing a well-designed employee volunteer program are certain to gain an advantage.
“Employee volunteerism opens the doors to a vastly more productive, engaged, and satisfied workforce, not only allowing a company’s culture to flourish, but also allowing its bottom line to grow,” says VOMO Founder, Rob Peabody. “Employee engagement in volunteer efforts translates directly into a healthier, happier, and more skilled, committed, and loyal workforce that will work harder to improve business.”
The Key to Win-Win-Winning
Well-executed employee volunteer programs confer a number of business benefits, including stronger company culture and brand, higher employee engagement, and better recruitment and retention outcomes. And when these volunteer programs are promoted and implemented using a well-rounded recognition and rewards strategy, the benefits are even more pronounced.
According to Derek Irvine, vice president of client strategy and consulting at Globoforce, recognition programs complement employee volunteerism by creating a culture of collaboration in an organization. “At their core, employee reward systems work to encourage more human workplace cultures where collaboration and coaching is established and enforced within organizations. Human-driven approaches like employee recognition programs leave both managers and employees feeling more fulfilled and inspired to do the best work of their lives.”
This type of culture inspires employees and encourages them to become more involved in organizational initiatives. “A well-designed recognition program can increase the visibility of employee volunteer programs, increase participation, champion behaviors that are aligned with the company mission statement and culture, and ultimately increase the programs’ overall ROI,” says Chris Dornfeld, vice president and general manager of employee engagement solutions at Maritz Motivation Solutions.
Companies that can successfully deliver dynamic volunteer programs to engage millennial employees are likely to see benefits at both the company and community level.
Benefits to Employees
Employee volunteer programs are a perfect way to engage and motivate a generation of workers as idealistic, pragmatic, and eager to learn as millennials. “For employees, volunteering can help with lowering stress, providing a greater sense of purpose, increasing camaraderie with coworkers, and expanding perspectives,” says Dornfeld.
In addition to providing opportunities to help charitable causes, volunteering allows workers to develop their leadership, networking, and problem-solving skills. “A corporate volunteer program not only gives people opportunities to do good—it’s also good for them, as volunteering enables them to develop new and enhance existing skills, develop relationships with their co-workers across the company, and feel more connected to their employer and the communities in which they work,” Farris explains.
Benefits to Companies
Organizations that implement recognition-aided employee volunteer programs see added value in three key areas:
1. Stronger company culture. “A huge part of having a distinctive, compelling culture comes from leveraging a company’s most sustainable differentiator—its people— and connecting them with the causes and issues they are personally passionate about,” says Farris. “When companies embed easy ways to feel, interact, and experience these passions as part of their day-to-day work, their people feel more connected and purpose-driven.”
By creating opportunities for employees to do good together, companies can encourage a sense of connection and understanding that crosses the boundaries of teams and departments. “Volunteering builds on a company’s mission, vision, and values. Taking pride in helping the surrounding community has spillover effects within the corporation and serves to develop teamwork and cooperation,” says John Mills, executive vice president of business development at Rideau Recognition Solutions.
2. Greater employee loyalty. “Employee recognition programs alongside more human-centered practices have the power to not only strengthen relationships between employees, but also employees’ overall connections to the companies for which they work,” says Irvine.
Recognizing employees for their participation in employee volunteer initiatives instills a sense of pride in their own performance and the company that they work for, increasing loyalty to the organization.
“When employees volunteer together, job titles and company hierarchy lose their importance and achieving a common goal becomes priority,” says Peabody of VOMO. “When it comes time for everyone to return to work, employees are naturally more engaged in their tasks, as they feel a deeper purpose within and loyalty toward the company.”
This translates to improved retention rates, with Cone Communications reporting that 70 percent of employees stay loyal to an organization where they feel they can make a positive impact. The number is even higher for millennials at 83 percent.
3. Increased brand visibility. Volunteer programs provide companies with a unique opportunity to build their employer brand and portray themselves as philanthropic and socially responsible employers of choice.
“Volunteering can help companies recruit and retain new employees. There is a war for young talent and today’s pool of job seekers want to join organizations that offer the opportunity to give back,” says Mills.
Furthermore, by more deeply engaging existing employees, companies with employee volunteer programs create brand ambassadors who are willing to vouch for the company, building a corporate reputation that attracts potential candidates.
Benefits to Communities
At the community level, corporate employee volunteer programs confer obvious advantages. “The community gains more engaged citizens, additional resources, and more knowledge on how to approach problems,” says Maritz’s Dornfeld. In addition, local organizations gain the opportunity to develop fruitful external relationships with other community members, increasing the size of their network.
Creating a Top Employee Volunteer Program
In order to fully take advantage of these benefits, organizations have to ensure that their volunteer programs are authentic, accessible, and highly visible.
HR professionals should consider the following best practices when developing these types of programs:
1. Align the program with core company values. The most effective employee volunteer programs take into account business goals and company values as well as the needs of the community. By designing a program that aligns with company values, organizations can better utilize their strengths and assets to benefit the program, and can further reinforce these values through their recognition practices.
“Organizations should tie the employee volunteerism to the company’s core values to strengthen the employee’s ties to the company. This can be done by promoting all the volunteer opportunities and making sure management is on board and showing up at these opportunities,” says Mills.
For example, Maritz’s volunteer programs reflect a commitment to developing people. “Since we have a relentless focus on the development of people, we think the best way to have an impact on the communities in which we live and work is to invest in educational endeavors,” says Dornfeld.
2. Involve employees. According to Cone Communication, 78 percent of employees say that they want to be an active participant in helping their company improve its responsible business practices.
“When it comes to volunteering (as well as giving), employees participate more when they can choose how, where, and when to devote their time and talents,” says Benevity’s Farris. “They are also more likely to participate in a volunteer activity they or a coworker are passionate about, whether it is because it benefits a local organization in their own community, or the cause is near and dear to their hearts, or it gives them the opportunity to use a skill that they enjoy sharing.”
Dornfeld believes that the smartest move employers can make is simply listening to employees and involving them in the program’s design process and operation. “In most organizations, there’s already a great deal of volunteering taking place at the community level, so it just makes sense to leverage that energy and passion. People value things they put in the effort to help build, so look for opportunities to align this commitment with company culture and strategy,” he says.
3. Make volunteering easy and inclusive. “Not everyone can afford to volunteer off the clock, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to give back to their community,” says Mills. Including paid time off for volunteering—or the option to volunteer on company time—in benefit packages is a great way to show your staff that you care about them and the community.”
To encourage widespread volunteering across the organization, it is also important that companies offer flexibility in the types of volunteer projects that are available.
“Longer-term commitments may be attractive for some people, especially those who really want to connect deeply with a particular organization, but employers need to offer a range of volunteer opportunities so that workers who have time, travel, childcare, or other constraints can also participate,” says Farris.
4. Maintain high visibility. One of the most important practices in establishing an effective volunteering program is making sure that it is well communicated to employees. “You’ve got to maintain high visibility through consistent promotion, consistent recognition, and communication of the sorts of behaviors you want and expect to see,” says Dornfeld.
By promoting the volunteer program internally through social media channels, advertising upcoming service projects, and getting leadership involved in the initiatives, companies can demonstrate that they are serious about corporate responsibility and set an example for their employees.
“Make sure all employees are aware of the program and how it functions, and don’t forget to communicate employee volunteering stories across the company,” says Rideau’s Mills. “But most importantly, make sure to recognize employees for their volunteering contributions.”
While this recognition can occur internally, it should be conducted publically so that employees’ contributions can be celebrated across the organization. “To maximize the outcome and foster positive attitudes, it’s important to highlight volunteer superstars, not just internally, but externally as well. Photos, videos, and blog posts are key to showing prospective employees or new businesses that your company cares,” says Peabody.
5. Utilize technology. “Typically, employees aren’t partaking in a company’s volunteer program because either they don’t know about it or it’s too unorganized to get involved,” says Peabody. But technology can help.
Tech can make the act of planning, communicating, and tracking volunteering efforts easier and stress-free. With the right platform, “…you can easily announce upcoming events or donation goals, incentivize employees, and reward those who are volunteering rock stars, all with the click of a button,” he adds.
Recognition software in particular can be useful for highlighting volunteer program effectiveness and future opportunities to engage employees. “Recognition systems that capture the data around volunteer programs and the employee recognition based on these activities can provide key analytical information,” explains Mills. “When you combine this data with employee perceptions on how they feel about the company and their managers, organizations can overlay these findings with some of their key business drivers to determine program effectiveness.”
Monitoring this information can help HR professionals understand how employees are responding to programming, providing insights that are crucial for sustained program growth and success.