Do recognition programs really incentivize employees to give or volunteer? How can we know?

People donate their time or money for many reasons. Some do it for the good feeling they get from helping others; some are repaying a kindness they received in the past. But in my twelve years in corporate philanthropy and employee engagement, I have never heard a single person say they volunteered or donated because of the reward they’d get through an employer’s recognition program.

That doesn’t mean that people don’t crave recognition, however. It just means that formal recognition programs are not their primary driver for getting involved.

Saying “thank you” matters.

Experts in the field of engagement know that thanking people for a job well done is critical to keeping them motivated and productive. Engagement surveys such as Gallup’s Q12 ask employees, among other things, if they’ve been recognized for their work recently. Employees that are recognized regularly tend to be more engaged in their work, and a more engaged workforce correlates with higher productivity and, ultimately, higher profitability.

Remember that volunteer who got involved back in the first paragraph? He didn’t start volunteering because he wanted to be recognized, but he’ll certainly stop volunteering if he thinks no one cares.

Fortunately, recognition can take many forms. Those of us who run workplace giving and volunteerism programs turn to the obvious: rewards for time spent. “Dollars for Doers” grants are the easiest. For every X hours spent volunteering, the employee earns a grant of $Y for that nonprofit. The employee gets recognized, the nonprofit gets a grant, and the program manager gets to claim success. But ask the employee volunteer, and he’ll probably say, “The grant makes me feel good about my company, but I’d still volunteer if I didn’t get it.”

As program managers, we can spend money on other recognition programs, too: Matching gifts , receptions for top donors, retreats for top volunteers, trinkets and lapel pins and plaques. All of these are different ways of saying “thank you” to people for giving their own time and money to a worthy cause. And none of which will convince a non-involved employee to become a community champion.

Are recognition programs a waste of money, then?

No doubt many of you are hiding this article from your Finance managers right now. But don’t worry—the money you’re spending on recognition is probably returning far more than you think it is, if you’re using it right.

The problem is that all too often, we ask our recognition programs to double as incentive programs. On the surface, that seems fine—it works in sales, where performance is incentivized by big rewards, and it works with children, where dessert is promised if vegetables get eaten.

But we’re in a catch-22 here. The words “donate” and “volunteer” mean that the employee gets to choose whether they participate or not. It’s their time and their money, and they’re giving it of their own free will. As program managers, we educate them on the community’s needs and we ask them to give, but we must stop short of actually paying them to do it. (Pro Bono can be a powerful way to engage employees, but that’s a different type of program with different considerations.)


Then what value do recognition programs have?

People don’t get involved for the recognition. But they do get more involved if recognition programs are structured properly.

Analysis of workplace giving campaign results show plateaus at the primary recognition levels. In my campaign, we see donors elevating their giving to hit those levels so they can get invitations to presentations from senior management, participate in nonprofits’ recognition programs, even (in some cases) enjoy casual days or group events. The recognition programs don’t get people to donate, but they do get people to donate more.

Similarly, we send an ecard thank-you note to every employee who records eight hours of volunteerism in any given month, with a copy sent to their manager. When we implemented this program, we didn’t see an increase in number of employees volunteering right away, but we did see an increase in hours recorded from those employees who were already volunteering.


So that’s it? 

Not so fast. As I pointed out in an earlier blog post about measuring corporate culture, we need to focus on the right metrics. Judging recognition programs by measuring how many new volunteers they recruit is like judging a school’s educational effectiveness by how many new students it enrolls. While the two are certainly related, they are not as directly connected as most assume.

Saying “thank you,” as I said at the beginning, is important. It’s not just important for retaining the volunteers and donors you already have, but it’s important for creating a culture that promotes, supports, and celebrates volunteerism. Having a formal recognition program is a strong statement that the company recognizes the value of community involvement and wants to celebrate and support that.

We know from our own employee engagement surveys that employees who donate and volunteer are far more engaged at work than those that don’t. We also know that employees who participate in company sponsored volunteer events are more engaged in their jobs than those who just volunteer on their own time.

Recognition programs create a bond between the employee’s community involvement and the company’s culture. It’s a positive cycle that, over time, creates a culture of involvement that does indeed result in more employees volunteering.

When we started our Cash For My Cause sweepstakes several years ago, we did not see a dramatic increase in new volunteers; our system usage was steady at about 16% of our employees recording volunteer hours. Four years later, over 21% of our team members are recording volunteer hours. That’s not because we created the sweepstakes; it’s because we focused on a culture that promotes, supports, and celebrates community involvement.

Recognition programs are a critical component of that culture. But don’t expect a recognition program alone to drive up your volunteerism or donations. No one has ever volunteered or donated expressly because they got thanked, though they certainly have stopped volunteering or donating because no one seemed to care.