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User: Ryan Scott
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Occupation: CEO, Causecast
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Interests: Employee engagement in corporate philanthropy and workplace giving
Latest Blog Entry: Increasing Participation in Your Volunteer Program

iStock 000037115406SmallA question that corporate philanthropy leaders and volunteer program managers ask me all the time is this: ?How can we increase and improve volunteer participation in our program??

Ensuring that your company has a high volunteer participation rate is one of the missions of my company, Causecast.  So we make it a priority to help our clients get to the promised land of high employee buy-in.

Sometimes getting started is the hardest part.  That?s why we encourage our clients to make the first steps of volunteering as inviting as possible.  

What does that look like, exactly?  My friend Chris Jarvis, of Realized Worth, recommends a first stage of volunteering that is a highly social, accessible, low barrier to entry event or experience.  This is something that?s well organized, feels ?safe? (you can show up without needing anything and do it as a part of a group), and requires no long-term commitment.  

Above all else, spend time on the front-end explaining why your company is participating in this event and why it matters, and time on the back-end gathering feedback.  ?A lot of folks spend so much time making sure the event is well organized that they shortchange the why,? Jarvis notes.  ?We value ourselves on our productivity, so clearly outlining the why is essential.?

The brief and debrief (e.g., Was the event what you expected?  What did you get out of it?) is important for your employees and for your own information gathering.   One company I spoke with recently reflected on an event they had recently hosted to celebrate their two-year relationship with a nonprofit.  Their goal was to connect their employees to the social impact of their giving, thus increasing their engagement and involvement.  Their event is the culmination of a process where they take inventory of the skills-based assets their employees bring to the table and figure out where the best matches are to cause opportunities, above all making sure to connect their employees? passions to the organizations that can best leverage that passion.  Going through the process of intentional reflection helps you steer future events and your program overall in a direction that leads to high participation and impact.

But let?s also talk about the kinds of volunteer opportunities that are available to your employees. 

Make sure that any volunteer opportunities you offer spring from carefully nurtured relationships with nonprofits across the country.  And verify that your online platform is populated with all of the information needed to sign up for fresh volunteer opportunities, and that it?s easy for employees to search and secure the volunteer initiatives that best suit their interests.

While searchable opportunities are important, you should be aware that standard usage rate for this kind of warehoused data is poor - usually hovering around 7%.  Only group volunteering has high rates of participation, and of course one must schedule those sorts of events.  After all, no nonprofit is sitting around waiting for 50 people to show up.  As a company, you really don?t get much if any employee engagement benefit from employees volunteering on their own.  Engagement comes from engagement with other employees, not with a nonprofit alone, and certainly not with software. Your best bet is to work with a vendor that offers concierge-style service, with ongoing support that helps employees and companies build on their volunteer work and deepen and broaden it over time.  

Beyond that, I encourage our clients to ?deputize? their own employees to be internal cause advocates and motivate others to volunteer.  As with the rules of storytelling, which I discussed in a previous post, your employees are going to be the best advocates for getting involved.  When Kim from IT asks me to show up to an event because it is supporting a cause she has personal experience supporting, it?s going to be harder for me to say no or cancel at the last minute.  No one can argue with Kim; her energy, enthusiasm and excitement - what Jarvis refers to as ?the 3 Es? - are the keys to getting others on board.  ?That?s the secret of the social capital exchange,? notes Jarvis.  ?If I flake on a volunteer opportunity, I make a withdrawal from the social bank account that I have with this other person.?        

While most companies don?t utilize their employees in this way, we admire the companies that do.  For example, one corporate giant assigns ?community impact leads,? employees passionate about causes that serve as visionaries on the front line.  We find this to be excellent nourishment for volunteer programs and a perfect pairing with the kinds of tools that Causecast offers.

A client that works with both Causecast and Realized Worth, Canadian-based energy company Emera, offers another example of how to create a volunteer network of empowered employees. It starts with their Community Engagement Council, manned by employees who manage the governance strategy around the company?s volunteering program. The council interfaces with Community Engagement Team Leads who are out in the community acting as liaisons with signature nonprofits and other community organizations with whom employees may volunteer. Meanwhile, the company?s community leaders are tasked with overseeing quarterly events around these nonprofits and mobilizing engagement amongst Emera employees.

?We?re excited to have created a formal structure that organizes the engagement process around volunteering at Emera,? notes Marley MacDonald, Emera?s Communications Assistant. ?By developing a broad base of responsibility, we?ve removed the pressure from one person to manage the process of community engagement, we?ve created a trigger mechanism to ignite further engagement amongst our employees, and we?ve bolstered support to employees already involved with our volunteer program.?

Emera further increases volunteer participation by offering a Dollars for Doers program as well as Fundraising Matching. These funds can be used towards any charitable activity that employees are involved with, which works wonders for engagement. ?Most employees are surprised that they can donate their dollars for doers and matching funds towards their child?s soccer team to help purchase new jerseys, for example,? says MacDonald. ?Employees really appreciate this support.?

Support the Kims of your company - give them all of the resources that they need.  Regardless of whether Kim?s cause is the company?s main cause, get behind the Kims with programs like Dollars for Doers and with tools like robust volunteer management platforms so that she feels that her passions are honored and will be more likely to get behind the bigger initiatives of the company.   

In short, think less about quick hits for one-time volunteer opportunities and more about creating a culture of reinforcement that doubles down on your employees? passions and keeps the momentum of their initiative going.  Jarvis calls this a ?gardening effect,? where you continuously feed and water your existing efforts, checking in with your employees, nurturing what?s working and weeding out what isn?t.  

I call it sustainable volunteering.  It?s the antidote to sputtering efforts that take promising shape but die a quick death.  And it?s the key to igniting engagement and keeping the momentum going.

In short, keep these tips in mind to supercharge your volunteering program:

1. Create sustainable volunteer programs.  Understand the who, what and how - and make sure your employees do, too.  Brief, debrief and repeat as needed.

2. Focus on effective vs. efficient communication.  Good stories are your volunteer program?s best friend, so encourage a culture of shared volunteer experiences.

3. Deputize the Kims of your company.  Make sure your evangelists feel supported and empowered.

Also read:

Your Company is Socially Engaged, But Do Your Employees Even Know?

A Fallen Hero's Legacy Endures Through Corporate Philanthropy

The Secret to Losing Your CSR Job

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