Common Impact Blog

Let’s Give Volunteering A Facelift!

By Danielle Holly | Aug 22, 2014

(Originally posted to Business Doing Good, 4.10.14

What image comes to your mind when you think of employee volunteerism?

Perhaps a team of smiling people at a local shelter in branded t-shirts putting their hands together just before a “go team!” chant?  Or maybe it’s a cheerful woman standing on a ladder with a paintbrush in hand?  How about some slightly dirty but happy colleagues standing around the piles of bagged litter that they just spent a day cleaning up in a local park?  These are the prevailing images of employees engaging with their communities.  And while these images do reflect an important kind of volunteerism, they don’t come close to representing the full spectrum of innovative ways in which employees are now uniting with their companies, nonprofits, and each other to build and sustain healthy local communities.  The truth is, the term “volunteering” needs an image makeover to reflect the new paradigm of employee engagement taking hold across the country.

The past few years have brought us remarkable innovations in employee engagement across businesses of all sizes and industries — and has sparked an explosion in skills-based volunteerism, employee-driven giving programs, and intrapreneurship.  Deloitte’s 2013 Volunter Impact Survey shows us that businesses and employees are increasingly looking to volunteerism as a way to build skills, increase engagement, and strategically connect with their communities in deeper and more meaningful ways.  And more and more, businesses are paying attention to the fact that their employees are refusing to check their values at the door, are demanding a meaningful way to “give back” to their communities in their day-to-day work.

Sometimes that looks like the one-off opportunity to contribute to the kinds of things mentioned above: employees painting a house or ladling soup at a shelter.  But, increasingly, it looks like a group of business-attire clad teams, sitting around a table strategizing with a local nonprofit on how to extend the reach of its services on a shoestring budget.  Or it looks like a woman, brow furrowed in front of a laptop with a nearly empty coffee mug in hand, burning the midnight oil trying to get her colleagues excited about a sustainability program at her small business.  Those visuals in and of themselves might not be all that compelling.  They’re not going to make it to the website or the banner that will be used to recruit new employees into an engagement program.  But what’s behind those images are stories of people making a measureable and sustainable impact on their companies and communities.  And it’s a story that needs to be told.

How can we re-visualize volunteering?

Move beyond the pictures.  We all respond to meaningful images, but we often need more than a single snapshot to tell our engagement stories.  Using video is one way to bring those stories to life, to hear those individual and ambitious goals for change.  Quotes and testimonials peppered on top of still snapshots is another.  But more broadly, we need to move beyond the use of that single visual by allowing the results of that work to be the motivation for the inception and growth of these programs.  And those results are truly compelling.  Consider the value of a skills-based approach to volunteerism: the increased engagement level employees have with their companies, the amplified reach a nonprofit can have with sustained investment of a company’s time and talent, the “eye opening” experience employees have when they realize that a deep community challenge is right in their backyard and they can help address it.  We need to share those results before we share the pictures.  We need to work to get our colleagues, friends and family excited by them.  These impressive results shouldn’t need to fit on a postcard to grab our attention.

Focus on the ends, not the means.  Still, it’s true that we’ll always, at some point or another and in concent with meaningful results, need arresting visuals to share our ideas and initiatives.  In those cases, envision what the work will ultimately accomplish.  Create images of the middle-schooler in the afterschool program, who is now able to access services through an online curriculum that an employee helped a local nonprofit organization to develop.  Depict how a massive landfill will shrink because of the sustainability program you’re creating.  Link the visuals with the deeper change that skills-based vounteerism is helping to drive.  Because there’s no doubt that pictures of people at a table with laptops is not inspiring to anyone, no matter how meaningful the work.  So take a shapshot of the reason those people are at the table, typing furiously, engaging in new conversations.

It’s in our hands to give volunteerism the facelift it deserves, and it’ll take the support of every individual who starts, leads and participates in these efforts at their workplaces.  What are some of the ways you share the innovative engagement initiatives at your company?  How can we all reimagine volunteerism?