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Nonprofits Speak: 7 Steps to Creating a Successful Employee Volunteer Program

Volunteering can improve employee health, reduce stress and boost loyalty

Three people in yellow hats working in a warehouse.

​There's no question that employee volunteer programs are beneficial. Studies such as the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship's Community Involvement Study 2019, America's Charities Snapshot Employer Research, and UnitedHealthcare's Doing Good is Good for You Study detail  improvements in employee mood and health, workplace morale, and employee recruitment and retention. Still, as with every employee benefit, there are right ways and wrong ways to execute an employee volunteer program. Below, learn best practices (and things to avoid) directly from nonprofits that work with employers every day. 

1. Give Employees a Say

Volunteerism works better when people have a personal connection to what they are doing. This is why companies should bring employees into the volunteering process in the early planning stages.

Survey employees about their charitable interests, and compile a short list based on that information. Let employees say if they want to donate cash, time or both. Once you've whittled down employee suggestions, add nonprofits to the list that align with your company's mission. Choose between three and seven options in total.  

"One of the biggest mistakes an organization can make is to give [employees] too many choices [or] not enough choices, or make choices for employees that they don't actually want to do," said Chad Royal-Pascoe, national vice president, Corporate & Cause Partnerships for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

2. Make Volunteering a Benefit

Once you've created a list of volunteer programs, it's important to give employees the means and time to do so. After all, it's much easier for employees to volunteer if they don't have to take time out of their own schedules. (Today, only 26 percent of employers give paid volunteer time off.)

If you can't provide entire days off, consider extended lunches, in-house fundraising or skill-sharing programs that bring volunteerism into the office. The Book Fairies, a nonprofit organization that collects new and like-new books to distribute to under-served communities, welcomes company groups into its warehouse for sorting. It also has partnerships with many employers who help out by holding book drives and fundraisers instead.

"There are many ways to partner with a nonprofit even if your employees can't commit a lot of time [to a cause]," said Eileen Minogue, executive director of The Book Fairies. "We suggest asking the charity what you can do for them and telling them exactly what you are looking to get out of the program, too."

3. Build Your Teams

It takes more than a poster in the break room to get people excited and involved with a volunteer program, said Aaron Mills, senior director of marketing and communications at Special Olympics Michigan. The most successful volunteers are often people who have a personal connection to their cause, so once you've planned an event, ask for one or more employees to volunteer as "champions." These employees will disseminate information and help publicize the program—often with a personal message, he said.

A program is more successful if you get executive buy-in, too. Ask managers to give employees information about volunteer programs and encourage them to work side-by-side with their staffers, suggested Mei Cobb, senior director, Volunteer and Employee Engagement at United Way Worldwide. "The CEO must convey they see the value of it," she said. "It doesn't mean the CEO has to be at every event, but employees see rewards of interacting with leadership as well as their colleagues."

4. Document Your Progress

Putting a value on a volunteer program isn't easy. Sure, most organizations know how many people sign up for a program, the costs and what the associated salary or productivity loss might be, but figuring out the actual dollar benefits takes some work.

It will help if you set goals for your program. Are you looking to boost brand awareness via sponsorship or social media mentions? Are you more interested in employee retention or recruitment? Is employee interaction and collaboration your main concern? Once you know what you're looking to measure, you can track corresponding metrics just as you normally would.

5. Prep Your Workers

When companies such as JPMorgan Chase & Co. and PSEG Long Island go out to volunteer at The Book Fairies Inc., they have to dress correctly and bring the right supplies, Minogue said. Volunteers spend the day sorting books in a warehouse that has no heat or air conditioning. "It's a physical six hours," she said, "and we don't provide lunch."

If employees arrive unprepared, it's a waste of everyone's time. Minogue said HR managers should ask the volunteer organization for videos or written guides so employees can visualize what they're getting into. "Where and how they should arrive, how they should be dressed, and what they should bring."

6. Include Remote Workers

United Way Worldwide's Cobb said her organization fields lots of questions on how to include remote workers and employees who can't leave their workspace. "There are many requests from people asking us, 'How do we engage people who work outside of our headquarters or are in a union or call center?' " she said. "It's a challenge to come up with programs that people can do without leaving the office."

Ask remote workers or those who can't leave the office if they'd like to be involved and make opportunities available to them. Most nonprofits will have ways that people can make a difference without having to spend a lot of money or take time off, Cobb said. For instance, employees who can't leave the office can help the United Way by assembling financial literacy kits. Those same employees are also welcome to help deliver the kits at a later date.

7. Follow Through with Commitments

The most disappointing and difficult thing a nonprofit deals with is no-shows. The Book Fairies warehouse holds only a certain number of people, so, if a large group commits to a volunteer session, the organization will often funnel other volunteers to a different day of the week.

Special Olympics Michigan, which can't run its events without volunteers, has a similar story. "Every one of the volunteer roles is crucial. You really want to make sure you're not overpromising and under-delivering," he said. "It doesn't happen often, but it does happen."  

Karen J. Bannan is a freelance writer based in New York.


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