Volunteering–Beyond the bottom line

When you’re building a relationship with a business who will potentially sponsor and otherwise help fund your operations, it’s a well-known fact that involving their employees as volunteers will create a much stronger, lasting bond between your two organizations.

Nonprofit professionals who study and pursue best practices in the process of recruiting, training, retaining, and rewarding volunteers have made tremendous strides in the last two decades. Involving volunteers effectively doesn’t just happen organically because it is a nice thing to do; it should not be taken for granted. This is the kind of professionalism and improved management that our sector must demonstrate for its credibility and long-term success.

Where the subject of developing volunteers gets more challenging, however, is looking at the issue not solely from our own lens but from the point of view of the corporate world. Obviously, companies exist to make money—we understand that—but it may be time for us to better understand the continuum of motives that affect how the for-profit sector responds to and, we hope, supports our need for volunteer capacity.

1. First-level thinking is about building profits and strengthening a brand. Internally, many companies recognize that involving employees in volunteer projects is a competitive recruiting tool, likely to attract talent; it can also increase employee engagement and performance, all of which in turn enhances the employer’s profitability.

2. Some consumers want to feel good about directing their purchasing dollars to a socially responsible company; seeing active volunteers is part of the equation. Out in the marketplace, demonstrating that a firm is “one of the good guys” is a marketing and positioning tactic to support sales. Not all consumers feel this way, sadly, but those who do are a coveted subset in the market.

3. Companies are also learning that volunteering can develop employees’ work skills, which benefits both employer and employee. Volunteering helps workers build communications, teamwork and time-management skills which foster stronger relationships with colleagues and support professional networking.

4. Second-level thinking finds that volunteering is linked to better physical, mental and emotional health. This argument for encouraging employee volunteerism is not merely altruistic, however–employers can expect lower health care costs, less absenteeism, and higher productivity from employees who volunteer.

5. This is the point on the continuum where business interests do actually support a greater good beyond the balance sheet: three-quarters of U.S. adults who volunteer say volunteering makes them feel physically healthier, and they report that volunteering lowers levels of stress, which results in greater well-being than adults who do not volunteer.

6. Notice how the shift can be on public health, not merely economic health in the workplace. There appears to be an element of proactive self-care for a person who volunteers, whether the role originated through an employer or by his or her own choosing. Volunteers are more likely to be informed health care consumers and more engaged and involved in managing their health overall.

7. Consider that it is uniquely our job as nonprofit leaders to move the conversation beyond the cost/benefit to the employer/employee into a deeper conversation about the cost/benefit to the community. So while it’s common now to see large firms that set aside one day each year of paid time where their employees work together to give back, is that really the best we as a society can do? Is it enough for the companies to post feel-good photos on their web sites for customers and investors to see, declare victory, and go home?

8. Only the nonprofit sector can shape the argument for volunteering in a more meaningful way. Volunteers can feel a deeper connection to their community and to others, a sense of purpose that transcends day-to-day life. We can better engage volunteers around the value of connections we can have with others who are outside of our networks, the interactions we can enjoy by engaging in opportunities outside of our comfort zones.

9. At its best, volunteering is a not a “day,” it’s a way of life. Consider the long-lasting impact that a single person can have on a community by modeling that behavior.

10. The argument for volunteering is more sophisticated than we imagine. On its own, the private sector is unlikely to move beyond its commercial motives, celebrating success only in low-level engagement. It falls to the strongest leaders in the nonprofit sector to consider volunteering more of an act of deeper engagement that is less about benefiting the individuals (the server and the servee) and further into how it strengthens communities in a more genuine and lasting way.