Employee Volunteering and DEI Go Hand in Hand

Over the past few years, many companies have set strong intentions around diversity, equity, and inclusion. The trouble is: they don’t always have the strategy in place to deliver on their promises.

Angela Parker, CEO and co-founder of Realized Worth

The good/bad news is that many companies already have an important component for DEI strategy in place, but it’s often overlooked. Done right, employee volunteering can be an integral part of a company’s DEI efforts. Angela Parker, CEO and co-founder of social impact consulting firm Realized Worth, explained during the Impact Studio conference, “There’s a necessary and very natural overlap between CSR and DEI.”

Unfortunately, many teams approach volunteering and DEI as two distinct and separate efforts. To capitalize on the natural overlap, CSR and HR leaders need to be proactive about aligning their volunteering strategy with their DEI intentions. 

Find the intersection between your CSR and DEI goals

The goals and outcomes of corporate social responsibility programs and DEI efforts aren’t exactly the same, but they’re closely related. Often what’s good for volunteering programs is good for DEI efforts and vice versa. 

That’s because corporate volunteering programs provide transformative experiences for employees—experiences that embed the goals of DEI in your culture in ways that handouts and lectures never could. Volunteering can boost DEI efforts in the following ways. 

Build and strengthen relationships between coworker

When an employee volunteers alongside coworkers from different backgrounds or levels of the organizational chart, they get to know them as people, not stereotypes. Socialized barriers break down as volunteer teams share ideas, solve problems, and make progress together.

Increase career opportunities for employees

Volunteering gives employees from underrepresented groups an opportunity to improve and acquire skills. For example, a member of the customer service department could plan volunteer activities or lead a volunteer project team. They may never have a chance to practice these skills in their regular job—skills that could qualify them for a promotion. 

Jen Carter, global head of technology and volunteering at Google.org

In particular, skills-based volunteering lets employees sharpen their professional skills as they volunteer. Jen Carter, global head of technology and volunteering at Google.org, explained during the Impact Studio conference that she and her team focus on providing skills-based volunteer opportunities. “When you can find that perfect match of [an employee’s] interests and their skill sets and their lived experience, it’s just really incredible.”

Attract and retain employees from diverse populations

A robust volunteer program goes hand in hand with employee resource groups (ERGs). ERGs often build relationships with nonprofits and organize volunteer events. ERGs are also instrumental in helping employees from all backgrounds feel supported and heard at work. 

Through volunteering and other ERG work, you can develop tutoring, mentoring, and training programs that help build talent pipelines for your company and other employers in the area. Train employees to provide coaching services to job seekers, new professionals, and small business owners.

Volunteering programs embed DEI in corporate culture

Through volunteering, DEI can become more than a topic of all-staff emails and press releases; it can be something experienced by employees. Volunteering programs take employees out of their usual sphere to work alongside people who come from all walks of life: different economic levels, ages, races, cultures, sexual orientations, religions, and other backgrounds.

Spending time with co-workers, nonprofit staff, and constituents from different demographics—people they normally don’t hang out with—raises employees’ individual and collective DEI EQ and IQ. Employees are exposed to diverse perspectives, which increases their understanding and empathy. The volunteering experience challenges existing beliefs and biases better than any training session could.

Angela Parker of Realized Worth says volunteering opportunities “guide people to a place where they change from the inside out. Where their actual biases are challenged. Where the assumptions that they have about people groups and social issues are called into question.”

Employees return to work with new insights and perspectives. They learn from fellow human beings how to think and talk about DEI issues, check their own biases, and be better allies. They live the experience instead of reading or watching something about it. Volunteering makes DEI personal, not a job requirement.

Enhance the volunteering experience for everyone involved

Aligning DEI and volunteering efforts benefits everyone. Employees get to be a part of meaningful projects that can transform their world view. And the teams responsible for these programs can work together to harness their collective power. Follow these steps to make it happen. 

1. Select diverse teams

An effective corporate volunteering program requires intentionality in decisions, even minor ones. When putting together a volunteer team, invite employees from across the company and at different levels of the organizational chart. Choose people who normally don’t work with each other. ERGs can help mobilize people so you don’t end up with the same few volunteers at every event. You want to reach those who haven’t raised their hand before.

2. Remove barriers

Identify and remove barriers that keep employees from volunteering. Make an effort to ensure that opportunities are accessible to all employees. Be cognizant of employees who can’t volunteer outside the workday. Many people can only volunteer during business hours because of personal responsibilities or transportation issues. 

Technology plays a big role here too. If the sign-up process is complicated or confusing, people will opt out. Use corporate volunteering software to give employees one place to view volunteer opportunities, sign up, and track their volunteer time off. 

3. Choose meaningful projects

Work with nonprofit partners to find projects with purpose. Projects must meet the primary needs of either the nonprofit or its constituents. They can’t be team-building or feel-good activities that were created especially for your company. The project must have the potential to make a real difference to the nonprofit and community.

4. Encourage a collaborative mindset

Volunteers must bring the right mindset and attitude. Angela Parker asks volunteers to “undo their saviorism. To stop seeing themselves as going to help the needy. But instead, to see themselves as entering a relationship.”

Choose projects where volunteers are doing work with a group or community rather than doing something to them.

5. Schedule longer assignments

Volunteers should have a regular assignment where they can develop relationships with people in the nonprofit or community. “To change [volunteers] from the inside out, you have to have experiences over time… [in] a respectful relationship where we are not going to objectify or save those whom we perceive as other, but where we are going to learn and receive from them, and be changed and transformed by them,” Parker says.

A longer assignment gives volunteers time to reflect upon the thoughts and feelings that rise up throughout their experience. This type of self-reflection is required for DEI awareness and allyship.

Angela said, “Being in spaces over repeated periods of time and forcing yourself to deal with your complicity in the issues. Where else is a better, safer, more accessible arena to do that in than the space that is volunteering?”

Make volunteering a pillar of your DEI efforts

In reality, if you’re spending too much time dealing with the administrative details of running a volunteer program, you likely won’t have the bandwidth to do high-level strategy work. And that’s what it takes to connect your volunteering and DEI efforts. 

With the right corporate volunteering software, you can free your team from the busywork while strengthening your volunteering program and your DEI values.

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.