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Volunteer Programs Can Build Morale and Improve Retention

They also require time, resources and money.

Employee volunteer programs

Employer-sponsored volunteer programs can build goodwill within the local community and boost a company’s image. They also can help retain employees by teaching them new skills and improving their morale, according to a 2023 global study conducted for investment company Ares Management by Edge Research.

In a survey of more than 5,000 full-time workers, researchers found that 79 percent of employees who volunteer through work-sponsored programs are satisfied with their jobs, compared to 55 percent who don’t volunteer this way.

However, developing a workplace volunteer program requires time, resources and usually some financing, all of which may be scarce at small companies.

At DailyRemote, a New York City-based online board for remote job hunters, HR talent acquisition specialist Daniel Wolken recalls that creating a volunteer program in 2019 “with just three of us in HR and a $5,000 budget wasn’t easy.”

“For other companies starting out, especially small ones, my advice would be to take it gradually,” Wolken says. “Rolling it out step by step lets you better organize and adapt as needed. In our case, with 50-plus employees worldwide, the program has been really rewarding for morale.”

Getting Started

Looking to create a volunteer program? Experts recommend taking the following steps.

Pick a cause. The focus of an employee volunteer program could be homelessness, climate change or racial equity. However, make sure to choose a cause that interests employees and isn’t just the CEO’s pet project.

“Volunteer programs may fizzle despite executive buy-in if employees feel like they don’t have ownership and the ability to decide on the nonprofits and causes that their organizations support,” says Lee Fabiaschi, vice president for employee engagement and community impact at Ares Management in New York City.

Another factor to consider is the range of generations in your workforce. In many of the workplaces discussed in Ares’ survey findings and interviews, there are four generations: Generation Z (born 1997-2012), Millennials (born 1981-1996), Generation X (born 1965-1980) and Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964).

“With that comes different priorities and desires,” Fabiaschi says. “A workplace volunteer program that addresses all employees’ needs and interests might not be possible, so employers should consider a variety of options to engage workers in volunteer activities.”

Find out what interests your employees and how they want the program to work. You should also get input from different departments.

Learn your workers’ skills. Match them with organizations that could use their expertise.

For example, Common Impact is a small, New York City-based organization of 25 remote workers who run virtual and in-person volunteer events. Common Impact’s team recently worked with America Needs You, a local nonprofit that provides first-generation college students with interviewing and resume advice.

“We did the project while we were [on an] annual retreat, and it was a deeply rewarding team-building experience in support of an exceptional group of young people whose futures look bright,” says Leila Saad, Common Impact’s CEO. “Volunteer programs don’t have to be big or flashy. Something as simple as reviewing a resume can create a profound and lasting impact on a person.”

Develop a plan. Decide whether the volunteer program will be in person or virtual, how many volunteers will be needed, and how much time they must commit. Present the plan to senior leaders to ensure they’re on board and will fund the program. Companies can spend as little as $2,000 to $5,000 to start a program, Saad says, although larger corporations typically invest more.

Provide appropriate training. Work with the volunteer organization to ensure that it provides appropriate guidelines and safety rules to protect the company and its employees.

“Oftentimes, [nonprofits] assume that working with volunteers is as easy as having them walk in and get them working, no paperwork involved,” says Michelle D. Jimenez, SHRM-SCP, HR director at Settlement Housing Fund, which creates affordable-housing programs in New York City. “That’s far from the truth. There are many factors you need to consider—labor laws, documentation, creating volunteers’ job descriptions, spelling out the work they’ll do and supervising them.”

This, she says, may require ­collaboration between the employer and the nonprofit.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has strict guidelines for what constitutes a volunteer at a nonprofit and what doesn’t. Take this into account or you could be setting your organization—and the nonprofit—up for lawsuits. Work with nonprofit managers to develop volunteer job descriptions in line with DOL standards.

Implement the program. Share the volunteer opportunity with workers. Strongly encourage senior leaders and managers to participate.

“Our research points out how important it is for corporate leaders to model volunteerism,” says Michelle Armstrong, managing director and head of philanthropy at Ares. “More than half of those surveyed for our global study [53 percent] say that they might not participate in a workplace volunteer program if those senior to them don’t make it a priority. They make clear that standing shoulder to shoulder with executives at a volunteer site makes the program feel more authentic.”

Monitor the program. Once the program is up and running, track participation, costs, compliance, time commitments, rewards and challenges. Tweak the program as needed.

“It’s important to note that some of these steps may run simultaneously, especially once the program gets rolling,” Jimenez says.

Acknowledge the volunteers’ efforts. This might include a small gift, such as a company coffee mug or a simple “thank you” in the company newsletter. But make sure employees don’t feel they’re forced to volunteer or they’ll disengage, according to the Ares study.

Tackling Challenges

Solo HR practitioners have limited time and funding for nonessential efforts such as volunteer programs. As a result, they might need to lean on other employees within the company to help.

In developing a volunteer program for a previous employer, Ricky Torres, SHRM-CP, HR operations manager at 3M in Michigan and Ohio, created a committee of employees representing different departments.

Torres says the committee met at least once a month to plan service projects for employees throughout the year, including collecting holiday gifts for needy families and allowing employees to help serve food to homeless people during work hours.

By giving everyone a voice, the committee helped increase engagement. In addition to providing extra hands to assist with the work, it also opened the door to new ideas.

“There may be different ways to contribute, different ways to volunteer, that you may not know exist,” Torres says. “But by getting other people involved, you get different perspectives.”

Large companies can simply write a check to a local charity. But community groups also need hands-on volunteers.

“If you’re a small employer, you can incentivize employees by giving them four hours of time off every quarter so they can go and volunteer,” Torres says. “There’s a lot of ways to help out.”

He offers one final piece of advice: Don’t think you have to do it alone.

“Just because you’re an HR department of one,” he says, “doesn’t mean you can’t find other stakeholders to help you.”  


Dana Wilkie is a freelance writer in Panama City, Panama.


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