Does the Emperor Have Clothes? A Closer Look at Employee Volunteering
For quite some time the notion of “corporate social responsibility” has been discussed and demonstrated in various ways. The concept includes many things, from producing products in environmentally-safe ways to providing family-friendly working conditions, yet our field more narrowly looks for whether a company is philanthropic or charitable, both through financial donations and in offering the talents of its employees to the community.
American companies have led the way in corporate employee volunteer programs, just as they have in setting up corporate foundations and other giving. But the idea has caught on worldwide, spurred by multinational companies, and today there are efforts underway in many countries to increase business community involvement and teach best practices in this type of activity. By and large, the volunteer field has been uncritical of this development, welcoming whatever help we can get from any source without much analysis of the process. Here Susan and Steve take a stab at examining workplace volunteering more closely...and arrive at different conclusions.
The problem with being a perfectionist is that you have so many opportunities to be dissatisfied.
Sure, there are warts in corporate involvement:
- Not all companies provide adequate support for their volunteer program.
- Some companies probably influence the kind of volunteer projects chosen in ulterior ways
- Employees are sometimes coerced into “volunteering.”
- Many efforts are confused and muddled.
So, what else is new in the world of volunteering?
A Quick Look at Some Facts
The more you examine volunteering by corporate employees, the more you have to admire the true dedication of businesses to the concept of employee involvement in the community.
Note the following:
- Business in the Community’s ECI+ Survey 2000 in the UK found that 89% of its 700 members run some form of employee volunteering activity.
- In 1998, the Charities Aid Foundation found that a third of large UK companies had formal employer-supported volunteer programs.
- Business for Social Responsibility, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization, reports that one third of large US companies had formal time-off policies in support of employee volunteer involvement, and that 40% of medium and large size companies in the United States offered paid leave time policies as of 2003.
- A 1999 survey by the Points of Light Foundation in the US found 58% of companies have a formal employee volunteering program and 87% of companies encourage their employees to do community volunteer work in an informal way.
If this doesn’t meet Susan’s criteria for the employee’s company doing something formal to support involvement then I can’t imagine what would.
Similar data exists for Canada, Australia, European and Pacific Rim countries, South America and elsewhere, sometimes fueled by multi-nationals but often simply the adoption of the notion of corporate social responsibility by local businesses. In Korea, for example, Samsung has long had one of the more exciting corporate volunteer programs in the world.
Companies operate these programs partially for self-interest, partially to satisfy the demands of their employees for interesting things to do, but mostly because they actually think it’s the right thing to do.
For an interesting discussion of that last claim, take a look at the statements of some of the managers of US employee volunteer programs at the 2004 Business Leadership Forum on Workplace Volunteering, where companies such as GE, Levi Strauss, KPMG and others note the universal beliefs within their companies that working in and with the community is essential to the health of society.
Expanding Volunteering Through Workplace Involvement
Do corporate volunteer programs actually encourage more people to volunteer?
We know that many employees are being connected to volunteer opportunities through their workplace programs:
- 12% of those who volunteered were asked by someone at work and 24% learned about activity through workplace, according to a 1998 Gallup Survey (US).
- 67% of volunteers received support from employers (2000 NSGVP, Canada).
- 32% volunteered through places of work as opposed to on a personal basis, cites the MORI Poll of Employee Volunteering (UK).
And a recent study of the employee involvement program at Barclays Bank in the UK – by the inimitable Institute for Volunteering Research there – uncovered the interesting piece of information that: “ One in five (21%) employee volunteers had never volunteered before and just under half (47%) were not regularly taking part in volunteering.” ( http:// www.ivr.org.uk/barclays.pdf ).
Increasingly, as work becomes the place where many people spend the majority of their time, involvement through the workplace is essential, taking the place of many of the old institutions (churches and social clubs) that have heretofore provided the key nexus for volunteer involvement.
The Bottom Line
Is corporate volunteering the only way a company should be involved in the community? Absolutely not – and most of them are doing all those other things Susan mentions, quite often through the active instigation of their employees who, with the usual ingenuity of volunteers everywhere, are very good at finding interesting ways of getting things done.
Is corporate volunteering a paragon of effective program operation?
Probably not – it is as diverse as the voluntary sector, as individualistic as the whims and opinions of the employees who often run the program, and as subject to the demands and limitations of the outside world as any type of program in any type of organizational structure. And many corporate programs without any doubt do a muddled and inefficient job of involving and motivating volunteering employees.
But how many of those complaints are as true, if not more true, for charities who pride themselves on involving volunteers? Any quick scan of the recent surveys of the state of volunteer management will reveal far more disarray, far less institutional support, and far greater ineptitude in program management among nonprofit volunteer programs than you will find in the average corporate volunteering effort. One of my favorite examples of the British talent for understatement is the charming comment in the 1997 UK National Survey of Volunteering that 71% of volunteers felt that “things could be better organized.” And we won’t go into the US statistics because they are far too depressing.
Frankly, the biggest scandal in the world of employee volunteering is, that of the three sectors (corporate, government, and charitable), the charitable sector has done by far the poorest job of attempting to support the involvement of its own employees as volunteers in the community. Finding an organized and supported workplace volunteer effort among charities is a difficult exercise, even in the largest and wealthiest.
Rather than criticizing the clothes of the corporate empire I’d venture to say that they are, so to speak, extremely well-suited to the employee volunteering efforts they have undertaken.