Workplace Volunteerism: Have We Thought this Through?

By Susan J. Ellis

The concept of employers stimulating and supporting community service by their employees has been accepted by our field almost as gospel. I am going to assume that everyone reading this Hot Topic knows the arguments in favor of recruiting volunteers through their place of employment, especially from large businesses but also from nonprofit and government workplaces. So, in the interest of provoking some rarely-done analysis of this practice, * I’d like to outline some of the issues that increasingly concern me about the way that workplace volunteering is evolving – and these issues crop up everywhere in the world.

Issue 1: How does employee volunteering fit into the larger picture of corporate social responsibility?

We have learned to be skeptical of politicians who systematically cut government budgets for social programs and then exhort citizens to volunteer for the very causes just underfunded. In the same vein, some corporations find employee volunteering to be an easy way to add a veneer of social conscience to their business practices – as long as the service is offered to causes removed from anything that might affect the company’s reputation.

It’s comparatively painless to urge employees to volunteer (particularly on their own time), but a whole lot harder to assure other forms of good citizenship as a company such as:

  • Acting both legally and ethically, and encouraging a culture in which employees are rewarded rather than punished for internal activism that uncovers illegal or unethical practices.
  • Showing concern for the environment, particularly in the production of goods in ways that do not pollute, affect fragile ecologies, or create waste that is not biodegradable.
  • Operate with fair labor practices in hiring, working conditions, and benefits – when possible beyond the bare minimums most governments require.

To me, a company that ignores these responsibilities but extols volunteering by its employees is attempting to deflect public (and employee) attention from its own shortcomings. It’s also possible to focus the energies of employees on solutions to problems the company creates or wishes to avoid – a form of community service many employees would truly welcome.

Efforts at developing a workplace volunteer program only make sense as a logical extension of a company’s culture and meets the following criteria:

  1. Volunteer projects directly relate to the businesses core mission (its areas of expertise). In fairness, this also put some responsibility on volunteer program managers not to request help for every cause under the sun from any business close at hand.

  2. The activities of employee volunteers directly affect the company’s consumers and/or the neighborhoods in closest proximity to company offices and plants – or help employees and their families themselves (such as scholarship fundraisers).

  3. There is tangible involvement of some kind from the company, beyond informing employees of what they can do in their spare time.

By the way, I happen to believe that paid “release time” is one of the least important aspects of employer-supported volunteering. Sure it’s nice to see, but it also becomes an excuse for the company to support only a minimal amount of community service time. Far more welcome is sincere flex time. For example, it is extremely valuable to allow employees to leave work at, say, 3 p.m. in order to tutor, coach, or be a troop leader after school, or to allow employees to extend their lunch hour in order to deliver Meals on Wheels. People don’t mind having to make up those two to three hours a week, they just hate begging for permission to take time off.

Issue 2: Who should be part of workplace volunteering?

For a long time I’ve found it humorous that business executives had to be “sold” on the benefits of employee volunteering when, in fact, it’s the management level that has been doing this all along. Top brass has been walking out of the building to attend community board or civic project planning committee meetings forever. This, however, is never labeled “volunteering.” It should trouble us that most employee volunteer programs focus on the lowest level employee and do not encourage middle management and higher to participate as well.

On a different topic, why do we, as volunteer program managers, focus our attention mainly on Fortune 500 companies? The bigger the corporation, the less direct concern it has for local communities. Really small corner businesses have always been involved in helping the community (just take a look at the backs of Little League baseball team uniforms). Where are mid-sized companies? Where are Chambers of Commerce when it comes to encouraging their members to consider volunteer efforts as community development?

Issue 3: What is the rationale for nonprofit and government agencies to jump on this bandwagon?

I’ve saved the best for last. In the past five years or so it’s become popular for larger nonprofits and various government employers (local, state, and federal) to proudly announce work-release options and days of service for their employees. Huh? What’s the justification for that?

Before everyone jumps on me, let me explain that I definitely welcome any employer offering flex time for those workers who volunteer and need to be able to adjust their work schedule to accommodate their commitment. This includes permitting employees to hold planning meetings during the day, if necessary. I also think that any support to volunteer recruitment is great: holding volunteer opportunity fairs, allowing recruitment notices on bulletin boards or intranets, and generally allowing the community to have access to employees to inform them of what the needs and possibilities are. And volunteering as a form of employee training, professional development, or orientation to the community works, too.

My problem is with paying the salaries of nonprofit or government employees to go out into the community and help some other cause. The very purpose of a nonprofit and of government is already to be doing socially-responsible work. Their mission is to serve the public, work paid for by donors or taxpayers.

I think we have gravitated to expanding what started as business employee volunteering to any “workplace” volunteering largely because we fear no one will be available to help our organizations during the typical work day unless we go to people already employed during those hours. This speaks more to our lack of creativity in recruitment than to justification to move past for-profit businesses. After all, there are still all those mid-size companies to tackle, as well as round-the-clock shifts no one seems to invite to volunteer. The most logical person to serve your organization at 9:00 a.m. on a workday is the one who just finished a work shift at 7:00 a.m. We routinely expect people to give us evening hours after a 9:00 to 5:00 day, why not after an 11 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. “day”? But this would require doing recruiting at 3:00 a.m. (to reach these folks), so instead we fight the work-release time battle on our own work schedule.

OK. I’m ready for the slings and arrows! And also your thoughtful reactions. Please share them all.


*Some readers might be interested in the last time I considered employer-supported volunteering in a Hot Topic, which was back in 1997: Redirecting Corporate Volunteering: Making Welfare Reform Work

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