What does it take to get managers on board to support employee volunteering?

By Peter Dudley, Wells Fargo

The lament is common among managers who are asked to support employee volunteerism: “I would love to get my employees out to volunteer events, but how can I hit my goals if my workers aren’t working?”

As program managers, we respond by talking about the societal benefits of employee volunteerism. We talk about the team building that volunteer events can provide. We talk about how people feel really good after helping others. These arguments often result in patient nodding from the managers but rarely get them to change their tune. “Volunteerism is great for the company culture, and I support it 100%,” they say, “but my employees are too busy.”

It seems a hard attitude to tackle head-on. It’s easy to write off this manager as someone who “doesn’t get it” and is only focused on the bottom line. Especially in big, data-driven companies, we often talk about “middle management” as an obstacle, an opaque section of the company between the CEO and the front line, serving some important yet ambiguous purpose. The reality is that middle managers are people too, just like us. (It’s true; you can look it up.) This manager that “doesn’t get it” is likely to become one of our best supporters if we learn to use the right data and talk about it in the right way.

Some prerequisites

First, though, before we can convince middle managers of anything, we have to have three obvious conditions in place.

  • The C-Suite needs to support volunteerism.
    If the people in charge aren’t on board, you’re not likely to get much traction with middle management. Corporate culture is influenced by many things, but ultimately it is driven by the CEO.
  • Your employees need to demand it.
    Employees rarely say, “We demand a volunteer program!” If yours do, then congratulations—you’ve got some built-in leverage. In most cases, however, demand shows up disguised as disengagement. Employee surveys often highlight issues like feeling that the job isn’t fulfilling, or that employees see insufficient opportunities to learn and grow—issues that volunteerism can help solve.
  • You need to have a supply of opportunities that match your workplace.
    This is rarely a problem given the challenges of today’s economy, but some companies may have to get creative in presenting opportunities to their employees. Not every work group is able or willing to do a park cleanup, prepare someone’s taxes, build a house, or help kids in a classroom.

I’ve Got Those… Now What?

If you’re good on the prerequisites, then it’s time to change the discussion with those managers who “don’t get it.” They are focused on their business goals, as they should be. Without business success, there will be no employees to go volunteering.

We don’t want to change their business goals. I am not a fan of making “volunteer hours” or “volunteer participation” part of a manager’s performance objectives. I am much more interested in getting away from the hours metric altogether.

Tell managers they need to give their employees two hours a month to volunteer, and they’ll see it as lost time. They’re only following linear logic: Goals are met by work. Work is done by employees. Employees get work done during work time. Thus, goals are met by hours spent at work, and every hour spent volunteering would therefore be an hour spent not meeting goals. You’ve turned a potential ally into an adversary before you even start.

Change the discussion.

But frame the conversation around productivity, and you’ll likely find a willing ear. Cite easily accessible data that show a more engaged workforce is a more productive workforce, and you’re speaking the manager’s language.

A Google search on “productivity studies” yields over 82 million hits, including a Washington Post article summarizing a study that proves that looking at pictures of kittens dramatically increases productivity. I like kittens, but I don’t have time to sift through 82 million articles to find data to support volunteerism’s role in employee productivity. So I went and got the data myself.

Tie productivity to engagement.

I’ve talked before about the correlation between community involvement and employee engagement. Data from our own programs and our own engagement surveys showed an undeniable and consistent correlation between volunteering and higher engagement scores. Recently, my team, with the help of our HR engagement group, looked deeper into that correlation.

First, we reproduced the conclusions from our initial research. In all categories, employees who volunteered returned higher engagement levels than employees who did not. This alone should be enough to get most middle managers thinking about volunteerism as more than just hours spent.

Next, we looked at whether employees who volunteered more hours were also more engaged in their jobs. We actually found that the number of hours volunteered did not matter at all (see chart). Employees who volunteered 40 or more hours in a year were not significantly more engaged than employees who volunteered only one hour. The involvement itself, not the scope or type of involvement, appears to be the important factor.

Further investigation showed that team members who volunteer have stronger social connections at work and feel more positive about those connections. Our old “team building” argument is proven by the engagement data. Employees who volunteered, and especially those who were members of one of our volunteer chapters (a kind of community of practice focused on employee volunteerism), returned significantly higher results on engagement questions related to social connections in the workplace. These particular questions are very strong indicators of engagement overall, pointing to a strong, direct correlation between participating in employee volunteerism and high engagement at work.

This will get my managers to jump on board?

We’ve only really just begun to explore the relationship between community involvement programs like volunteerism and overall job engagement. There’s a lot left to learn, but a Google search on “corporate volunteer programs and productivity” yields over 112 million hits, so there are a lot of people hypothesizing and pontificating on the topic already. I hope to see some interesting studies in the next few years.

The job we have as program managers is to take the existing data, which is compelling, and present it in a way that managers can understand. We need to show how volunteer programs help a manager meet his or her business goals—through improved engagement and productivity—and not try to force new volunteerism goals onto them as so many companies seem to be doing these days.

Finally, once we’ve shown our reluctant managers that corporate volunteerism isn’t about hours spent but is about employee engagement, we can get them to help guide us in finding the best way to use that fact to engage their workgroups. And, once we’ve helped a few managers see successful results (for successful results are critical to growth), other managers will be eager to replicate those results and will soon be seeking us out, asking how they can provide volunteer opportunities to their teams.

It’s happened in my programs, and there’s no magic to it. We’ve just learned how to present the right data in a way that shows managers how supporting corporate volunteerism can actually help them achieve their own business objectives.