New Workplace Trend Lets Employees Volunteer from Anywhere

By Eytan Hirsch Jun 25, 2012
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A new type of volunteering is growing in popularity in the workplace, providing employees who lack substantial free time with the opportunity to still give back to the community.

Many employers are pursuing this new national trend of skills-based “micro-volunteering” to help better serve their communities and improve employee engagement. Projects are broken up into small pieces, with time commitments typically ranging from 15 minutes to several hours.

The purpose is for employees to contribute their job-related skills to nonprofit organizations in need of assistance in areas such as marketing, finance, communications and graphic design. These nonprofits are taking advantage of the opportunity as an efficient and cost-effective way to seek expertise.

According to Mike Bright, founder of U.K.-based micro-volunteering website Help From Home, micro-volunteering consists of “easy, low or no commitment online and offline actions that benefit a worthy cause, where the main bulk of the task can be completed on demand in one or more sessions of up to 30 minutes, either from a person’s home, work or on the go.”

Bright believes that a major benefit of micro-volunteering is the flexibility that it provides by allowing people to volunteer wherever they want and whenever they want. “Micro-actions can be conducted anywhere, at any time,” Bright said. “You can do them while watching television, riding on the bus, or even reclined in bed.”

The flexibility in scheduling and time commitment required with micro-volunteering, he said, can be a great help to people who might only be able to volunteer sporadically. “Most micro-actions do not require commitment, which strips away one of the barriers that inhibits people from performing traditional volunteering,” he said. “You can dip in and dip out whenever you want.”

In addition, tasks typically require no specific training or vetting and simply rely on the employee’s unique interests or skills. Micro-volunteering can also provide the opportunity to develop new skills or explore additional challenges.

Examples of skills-based micro-volunteering tasks might include designing logos or websites, brainstorming fundraising ideas or business strategies, and identifying conferences in the upcoming year devoted to HR management. While employees usually work on these tasks for very small intervals of time, their contributions can lead to thousands of dollars in service for the nonprofits they help, experts said. is one of the most prominent skilled micro-volunteering catalysts, providing people with the opportunity to search for and choose projects that they are interested in and that relate to their individual talents and experience.

According to Online Community Manager Toby Childs, the website is “a useful way for nonprofits to divide larger tasks into smaller ones and hand those out to a large group of people in order to get as many responses as possible to find the best possible solution.”

Because systems like Sparked are generally completely automated, it is very easy for HR to implement these volunteer projects. Volunteers simply select the causes they are interested in and the skills they can offer and the website then provides them with “challenges” to complete.

Small Acts, Big Impacts

Kate Rubin, vice president of social responsibility for Minnesota-based UnitedHealth Group and president of the United Health Foundation, used Sparked to launch an online micro-volunteering platform for her organization, one of the first major U.S. companies to use micro-volunteering to connect employees with nonprofits.

UnitedHealth Group is the nation’s largest health insurance company, employing more than 99,000 people around the globe. Its mission is to help people live healthier lives, and Rubin believes that volunteering plays a critical role in fulfilling that mission.

“So far, we have helped 187 nonprofits in 17 different countries through the micro-volunteering program,” she said.

Rubin said that in 2011, more than 79 percent of UnitedHealth Group employees and 97 percent of executives volunteered, contributing more than 381,000 hours of service through United Volunteers, the company’s comprehensive volunteer program. She said her employees will contribute an estimated $2 million worth of volunteer services through June 2013, proving how much growth this trend is experiencing.

Volunteers for the organization generally use skills such as design, marketing and research to help causes related to health, youth, environment, poverty and education.

“We have only gotten positive feedback from our employees,” Rubin said. “The most wonderful and most prolific volunteer is [Dianna Hamilton] a mother of five in Denver who had never been able before to go and give four hours at a time of volunteering, but who can now do it in a short amount of time.”

“I love the idea of doing these small, short-burst projects, especially if you can do them online and at work,” said Hamilton, UnitedHealth Group data analyst, in an interview about micro-volunteering with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Hamilton has become the organization’s leading micro-volunteering participant, partaking in projects ranging from building an Excel spreadsheet to tally scores for a fencing club to creating a database of children’s cancer facilities in Denver and New Mexico for another nonprofit.

Volunteers Benefit, Too

Rubin believes that the positive feedback she has received from Hamilton and many other employees suggests that micro-volunteering is a powerful employee engagement tool in the workplace.

A study released by UnitedHealthcare and VolunteerMatch in 2010 found that 68 percent of those who volunteered in the previous year reported that volunteering makes them feel physically healthier, and 95 percent agreed that volunteering improves emotional health.

One way that UnitedHealth aims to improve employee engagement is by incentivizing participation in micro-volunteering through rewarding those who have worked 30 or more volunteer hours per year with a $200 donation to the charity of their choice.

By delivering services that are badly wanted and needed, employees who micro-volunteer develop a true sense of satisfaction in giving back. Rubin said the tasks that they complete support professional development by enabling them to contribute to the causes they care about while simultaneously enhancing their business and leadership skills.

Eytan Hirsch is a staff writer for SHRM.

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