If Volunteering Isn’t Personal, Employees Won’t Show Up

When it comes to employee volunteering, there’s rarely a shortage of good intentions. People want to volunteer. And companies want to help make it happen. But as anyone who’s set a goal knows: success is not measured by intentions. It’s all about follow-through. 

For the professionals responsible for managing a volunteer program, it’s important to remember that your role is not about convincing people to participate. Your goal is to make it easy to get involved and fulfilling when employees show up. 

The first step is to understand what really motivates people. In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, author Dan Pink describes three intrinsic motivators–autonomy, purpose, and mastery. Pink is focused on how to motivate employees within their job, but his insights apply to volunteering as well. 

By tapping into these motivators within your volunteering program, you can help employees feel more connected to the volunteering and inspired to show up.

Submittable employees volunteering at a local food kitchen packing food for Thanksgiving kits.
Submittable employees in Missoula volunteering at a local food kitchen this past November.

#1 Autonomy: Give employees a sense of ownership in volunteering

In many volunteering programs, the HR or senior leadership team often decides what values and causes are most important to the organization. This top-down approach doesn’t encourage employee engagement

Instead, invite employees to discuss and agree upon a set of staff values. These values will give you insights into what matters most to employees and will shape your volunteering program

After you establish values, create a space for employees to talk about the specific causes that interest them and any existing relationships they already have with nonprofits. You want employees to be able to deepen those relationships through your program. 

The key to autonomy is making employees directors of the program, where the HR and CSR teams are there to support, provide resources, and help employees fulfill their vision. The most effective way to do this is to give employees the ability to create new volunteer events within your corporate volunteering software, so they can take the initiative when they want to. Provide guidelines for adding new events and opportunities to ensure volunteering efforts align with organizational and staff values.

#2 Purpose: Connect corporate volunteerism to real impact

If volunteer activities feel like busywork, employees probably won’t keep showing up for them. Part of managing an employee volunteer program is helping employees understand how their contributions fit into a broader context

For instance, rather than just asking for employees to pack boxes of food, be sure to explain why packing those boxes is important. Draw out the connection to real people and give employees resources to understand how food insecurity impacts their community. 

This context work can happen in person when employees show up to volunteer. Or it can live on the volunteer platform, so employees can explore it on their own. 

Not all this work has to fall to the HR or CSR team. You can create an employee advisory group to oversee the employee volunteering program. The advisory group continually refines the organizational understanding of employee motivations and concerns, as well as barriers to participation. They’re responsible for ensuring staff have the information and training they need to participate in the program and use your volunteer platform. And they can be in charge of providing the broader context employees need to understand their impact.  

#3 Mastery: Provide plenty of options for volunteering

Employees should have the ability to suggest causes and organizations to support, and also choose how they want to spend their volunteer time. Offer corporate volunteering opportunities that appeal to different preferences, including:

  • Ad hoc activities (a one-time shift at a food bank or assisting at a nonprofit event)
  • Regular, long-term commitment (for example, tutoring or committee service) 
  • Opportunities during or outside work hours
  • In-person or virtual options

Think about how to balance activities that appeal to first-timers and opportunities that give employees the chance to deepen their commitment over time. One way to keep employees engaged in volunteering is to offer skills-based volunteering, which allows them to use their unique talents and expertise in service of a nonprofit. 

Submittable employees in Seattle volunteering in November 2023

Make volunteering stress-free

As important as it is to tap into employees’ innate desire to volunteer, you also need to make sure that getting involved is stress-free.  

Create clear communication about volunteering policies, procedures, and VTO, and make sure all managers are on board. With a personal dashboard, a platform like Submittable makes it easy for employees to browse and sign up for opportunities. Plus, employees can see who else is attending a volunteer event, adding a social component to inspire more participation. 

If you want employees to feel personally invested in volunteering, design a corporate volunteer program centered on their experience. Your volunteer program will be a success on both an organizational and a personal level

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.