6 Steps to a Transformative Employee Volunteering Program

Employee volunteering programs today face a paradox: employees want to volunteer, but when given the opportunity, most don’t.  

According to the latest CECP Giving in Numbers Report, 89% of surveyed companies had an employee volunteering program as of 2021. But the same report found that these programs only have a 17% participation rate. 

Contrast these data points with a report by Deloitte, which found that 77% of employees surveyed believe that volunteering is essential to employee well-being. 

Employees say they want to volunteer. But most aren’t showing up. What’s going on?

A big part of the disconnect is the way employers frame their employee volunteering programs. Too often, companies treat their volunteer programs as a one-off “box to check” in a larger corporate giving agenda. Corporate leaders aren’t considering the full end-to-end experience from the employees’ perspective, including the mental, emotional, and physical components of giving back. The experience becomes transactional. 

But it doesn’t have to be. 

Building an effective employee volunteering program is about meeting employees where they are, eliminating all the barriers that prevent them from getting involved, and creating a framework for thoughtful dialogue. Here’s how to build (or reshape) your program to make space for transformation.

A transformative employee volunteer program builds an inclusive company culture

Chris Jarvis, co-founder and chief strategy officer of Realized Worth advocates for a shift to a transformative approach to volunteer programs, rather than a transactional one. He defines transformation as three key changes for people: 

  • Psychological: Changes in understanding the self 
  • Convictional: Revision of belief systems
  • Behavioral: Changes in real-world actions

What is the difference between a transformative and transactional volunteer experience? Jarvis describes the intention behind the transformative approach as an effort to give participants “an experience that they carry with them for the rest of their lives.”

In a transactional volunteer experience:

  • Employees view the program in terms of input and output. 
  • The definition of success is the number of tasks completed (e.g., boxes of food packed).
  • There is no broader context about how the employees’ efforts make change.
  • The experience doesn’t prompt employees to interrogate their own assumptions or beliefs.
  • Participants’ perspectives do not change.

In a transformative volunteer experience:

  • The focus is on what change the employees make and for whom.
  • Empathy itself is the goal.
  • The experience encourages employees to rethink how they fit into and interact with the world.
  • Participants’ identities are an important aspect of the program.
  • Dialogue plays a pivotal role. 

A transformative volunteer experience can reshape how employees understand the world and how they behave. Many participants bring this new perspective back to their workplace with a fresh sense of purpose and a more empathetic approach to their colleagues and clients.  

6 steps to build an employee volunteering program that supports transformation 

You can’t force your employees to transform—that’s not the goal. 

Chris Jarvis, Co-Founder of Realized Worth

Building an effective employee volunteering program is about providing the structure and support so that participants have the space and capacity to transform if they choose. Not everyone will. But for those who do, the effect can be profound. 

Jarvis puts it like this: “We can create the space, hold the space and invite you in, and then create the conditions where transformation could happen if you’re open to it.”.

Here’s how to create these conditions for a transformational employee volunteering program.

1. Democratize the experience

Creating a meaningful experience for employees starts with giving them ownership over the process. 

Before you build out your program, seek input from employees. You can use an anonymous survey or create an in-person or virtual forum to share ideas. Not only will this help employees feel invested, but hearing their perspectives will help you shape a program around their priorities. 

If, from the outset, your employee volunteering program feels like a top-down initiative that doesn’t take their voices into account, you’ll likely lose some people before you even launch.

Think of it this way: program leaders are the engine, but employees should be at the steering wheel. 

Not only does democratizing the experience increase engagement, it also allows you to tap into any existing relationships employees have with nonprofits. Rather than creating all the volunteer activities yourself, you can empower employees to add opportunities as well. 

Say one of your employees already volunteers with a local shelter. Let them submit a volunteer activity that leverages the relationship they’ve built with the organization. Plus, they can directly invite their colleagues to join them, adding a social element that can help boost program engagement. 

2. Reduce the anxiety

It’s almost impossible to have a transformative experience if you’re worried about logistics. In fact, a recent study from the BBC found that adding any element of unpredictability to a situation “significantly increases people’s discomfort.” 

Though it may seem like a small thing, giving people detailed information about where to go, what to wear, and what’s expected of them goes a long way towards reducing their discomfort caused by unpredictability. In turn, this reduction in anxiety will increase participation and make space for transformation. 

How can tech support equity in your CSR program?

Watch our webinar with technologists Amy Sample Ward and Afua Bruce.

Give volunteers all the information they’ll need up front, including:

  • A brief description of the activity
  • A detailed schedule with clear start and stop times
  • Directions or transportation information
  • Physical requirements 
  • Clothing or footwear suggestions
  • Whether food and drinks will be provided

Make it easy to access this information. Don’t bury it in an email thread. 

Instead, use a volunteering platform that gives employees one place to sign up for opportunities, track voluntary time off (VTO), and get all this essential information. Even better if the platform allows participants to see who else is signed up. Nothing puts participants at ease like knowing who they’ll be working with. 

Submittable’s volunteering platform provides a single, easy-to-use dashboard for employees to find and sign up for opportunities as well as track their VTO and impact.

3. Make time for dialogue

What separates a transformative volunteering experience from a transactional one isn’t the activity itself, but the framework built around the activity. Dialogue is an important piece of this framework. 

Instead of jumping right into the activity, be sure to include a few minutes at the beginning to chat as a group. Ask employees what they hope to get out of volunteering. Don’t force anyone to share, but make space for them to explore emotions, past experiences, and biases.

Set aside time at the end of the day to regroup. Ask employees to share what surprised them about volunteering or what they struggled with. You can also use this time as an opportunity to get their feedback on the process. Is there anything they would change for the future? 

Do your best to address any issues they bring up and incorporate suggestions that make sense. If your program is responsive to feedback, employees are much more likely to stay invested and engaged. 

4. Explain the “why”

When it comes to fostering transformation, the “what” of volunteering is much less important than the “why”. It doesn’t matter if participants are packing boxes, cooking meals, painting classrooms, or working directly with people. They need to know the reason behind their actions and the impact they’ll have.

When program organizers center the impact of volunteering in their communication and planning, participants will understand more fully how their actions make a difference. Without this focus, employees’ efforts might make an impact, but they won’t feel connected to those outcomes. 

Set aside time to explain how the volunteer activity helps specific people. Statistics can be useful, but they’re not enough. Connect employees to the humanity of the people they’re helping. Doing so taps into the positive feelings almost everyone experiences from giving back—the helper’s high

As much as you want to connect the work to the impact, you want to be careful not to drift into persuasion tactics. “It’s very, very important that we don’t wander into overjustification theory space here where we tell somebody why they should care about it,” Jarvis cautions. Instead, he advises framing the experience with conversation. 

These conversations don’t need to take up much time. Just a few minutes of dialogue can help turn a transactional experience into a transformative one. 

5. Embrace complexity and focus on connection

As you explore thoughts and feelings around volunteering and meaning, remember you’re not trying to give employees an experience that oversimplifies or sanitizes the world. Instead, volunteering can be a way into a more complex understanding of society. 

Engaged employees might reassess past assumptions, explore their biases, or confront inequality they’ve not had to acknowledge before. Tackling these subjects might be difficult, but it’s important. Make space for this complexity. 

You also want to be mindful how you frame the relationship between employees and those in need. Be careful not to cast volunteers as saviors and beneficiaries as victims. Instead, focus on interconnectedness. Remind participants that the categories of “helper” and “helpee” are not fixed. They’re fluid. At some point almost everyone will be in a position where they need help of some kind—whether financial, physical, or emotional. 

Ready to transform your volunteer program?

Submittable can help you create a meaningful experience for all your employees.

6. Choose the right tools

You don’t have many chances to get your employees excited about volunteering. If they try to get involved and find the process too confusing or frustrating, there’s a good chance they’ll give up. 

Choose a volunteering platform that is engaging and easy to use. Employees should be able to log into one place to see available opportunities, sign up, get the essential info they need, and track their VTO. If they have to search through email threads or bounce between HR platforms and spreadsheets, the likelihood of them staying engaged goes way down.

Pick a tool that makes the process enjoyable for both you and your employees. As with most software, the more you like it, the more you’ll use it. And the more you use it, the likelier you are to build a program that lasts. 

Give employees a volunteer experience that will last a lifetime 

When you build your program to support transformation, you help employees reimagine their place in the world. Not only can that shift in perspective help them approach their work with more empathy, it can alter their worldview on a grand scale. 

To Chris Jarvis, the impact of CSR can’t be overstated. “Take the time to understand that you’re playing a critical role in the future of the species,” he says. “You need to come with that intention, and then get the right tech to support it.”

Whether you’re launching a new employee volunteering program or retooling an existing one, Submittable can help you build the framework you need to support a meaningful experience. Get in touch today.

Laura Steele

Laura Steele is a social impact writer and editor at Submittable focused on the world of grantmaking and corporate giving. Her work often explores the connection between technology, equity, and social good. She also writes fiction and nonfiction. You can read some of her stories and essays at laurapricesteele.com.