How to Build an Employee Volunteer Program That Works

How to Build an Employee Volunteer Program That Works

By Lindsay Morris, contributor of Underground Group
7-minute read

In short:

  • Company-wide volunteering comes with a host of potential benefits, including increased productivity and camaraderie, clout in recruiting and more brand loyalty.

  • Healthcare consulting company Nordic produces a week of volunteer opportunities for its employees every year, making it a leader in setting up service events.

  • If you’re looking to start an employee volunteer program at your company, follow Nordic’s example by starting small, framing service wisely to your teams and using a few more of the company’s hacks.

Doing good is good business, and not just for the bottom line. 

Firstly, it’s linked to increased productivity. Multiple surveys suggest that American workers who volunteer on their own are often more effective and productive on the job. Combine volunteering with the workplace itself, and the result is dynamite: 81% of employees who volunteered through their employer agreed that doing so strengthens relationships among colleagues, per a survey from UnitedHealth Group.

Indeed, “Volunteering connects team members with one another and their community,” said Samantha Tiller-Schenck. She’s the experiential marketing manager at Nordic, a healthcare consulting company based in Madison, Wisconsin.

Nordic knows this from experience. The company recently celebrated the completion of 350 service hours during an annual event it calls Community Giveback Week. In May, some 140 Nordic employees participated in at least one of 12 community service projects: nine in Madison (including serving meals at a local community center, gardening alongside seniors at a retirement community and setting up a triathlon that supports local schools) and one project each in Chicago (serving dinner at a women’s center); Neptune, N.J. (cleaning up a beach); San Diego, Calif. (sorting food at a food bank) and Los Angeles (rolling burritos for a mobile kitchen).  

Healthcare consulting company Nordic runs a Community Giveback Week each spring.

Outreach like this has helped the company stand apart from its competition and attract and retain top talent, Tiller-Schenck said. There’s precedent for this: According to Deloitte’s 2017 Volunteerism Survey, company-sponsored volunteering improves employee leadership, boosts well-being and morale and strengthens camaraderie among colleagues. Additionally, a 2018 study by research firm Povaddo found team members who believe their organization supports causes they care about are 71% more likely to stay on board longer and 74% more likely to recommend their company as a place to work.

Anecdotally, leaders of brands from retail to media report that giving back results in a sense of moral fulfillment, new partnership opportunities and more brand loyalty. As a clear leader in setting up service opportunities for employees, Nordic’s story yields seven tips on making employee volunteer programs work for your business.  

1. Start small.

Seven years ago, Nordic started its now-massive community service program with a single day of outreach in Madison serving Habitat for Humanity, Second Harvest Food Bank and the University of Wisconsin Arboretum.

The company now hosts Community Giveback Week each spring. Four years ago, it expanded to a full week and included hub cities (beyond Madison). Nordic also hosts monthly giveback opportunities at Madison’s River Food Pantry. 

Starting small in Madison helped Nordic drum up enthusiasm for its service program and allowed the program to grow alongside the company’s personnel and revenue growth. In other words, Nordic didn’t bite off more than it could chew. 

2. Redefine “we.”

Like many successful companies, Nordic considers giving back a part of its core operations. 

“Make it your business to be a part of your community,” Tiller-Schenck said. “One of our maxims is, ‘Make it about we.’ We strive to empower employees to give back to the communities we serve.”

Culturally speaking, community outreach also provides opportunities for team members to expand their definition of “we” by interacting with colleagues in other areas of the business, serving their communities and understanding the impact one company can make through recurring service. 

Nordic's volunteer program gives employees the change to meet colleagues from other teams.

3. Treat giving as its own perk.

At Nordic, prizes for giving back are welcome but not essential. Company leadership positions the feel-good nature of giving back as its own reward for participating in outreach, said Tiller-Schenck. 

Sure, participants in Community Giveback Week receive a free company T-shirt, but that’s probably not what drove so many of them to give back with Nordic this past May, she said. Rather, it was experiences like gardening alongside an appreciative senior or setting up a triathlon for local athletes that ultimately motivated them. As a company leader, consider crafting your communications to focus on the experience of giving back instead of the ancillary perks your employees might receive.

4. Remove barriers to entry.

“Some organizations require volunteers to have extensive training prior to giving back,” Tiller-Schenck said. As a leader, “look for opportunities that have minimal training or brief training that only requires early arrival [on the day of the project]. This eliminates a barrier that may discourage volunteering.” 

Tiller-Schenck pointed to generally-accessible opportunities such as serving food at a local soup kitchen. The project may require a brief tutorial on food safety and hygiene, after which employees are ready to start volunteering. An opportunity to serve at a crisis or women’s shelter, however, often requires multi-day training that, while worthwhile for dedicated employees, isn’t as helpful in getting newbies to participate, she added. 

Scheduling volunteer opportunities during work hours ups participation.

Offering several time slots for participation is another way to encourage employees to give back. According to Fortune, Bank of America’s 200,000 employees worldwide logged nearly 2 million volunteer service hours in 2017, in part because they could volunteer while getting paid.

Similarly, “our team members have the autonomy to give back during business hours, [though they’re] asked to ensure their workload is not affected,” said Tiller-Schenck. “If a last-minute work priority comes up, the volunteer will find a replacement.”

During Community Giveback Week, Nordic also offers nighttime opportunities for those who have commitments during business hours.

Smaller companies, like Hawaii-based bottled water brand Waiakea, also allow their employees to volunteer while on the clock. The financial angle encourages participation, sure, but the feeling of giving back is an even bigger driver, according to founder Ryan Emmons.

“I think the more events [employees] do though, the more they get excited and the more fulfilled they are in being a part of our team and with the day-to-day,” Emmons said.

5. Strategize.

Set some parameters around whom you’ll serve to ensure your employee hours are going toward organizations that both align with your company’s mission and use donations and resources responsibly.

As a healthcare consulting company, Nordic established three “service pillars” -- hunger, education and empowerment -- to determine where its employees will volunteer.

“We feel that hunger, education, and empowerment are all areas of focus that can advance healthcare,” said Tiller-Schenck. “If an organization’s mission aligns with serving others through one of those focus areas, we work with them to serve their community.” 

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Tiller-Schenck recommends finding mission-aligned organizations to work with via Charity Navigator, a well-respected online portal dedicated to ranking organizational effectiveness. She has used it while organizing Community Giveback Week and Nordic’s other volunteer days.

“These organizations are ranked based on their giving, financial health and overall impact,” she said. “If I determine that they align with [Nordic’s] goals, I will reach out via email. I outline our goals, the dates we’re interested [in volunteering], the anticipated number of people and requested follow-up.”

6. Elevate existing ties.

When researching potential philanthropies to work with, don’t overlook your employees’ and clients’ own partnerships and service activities. Nordic serves alongside clients in some cities: Recently, instead of taking a client out to dinner, the company helped him prepare a meal for the homeless population in his area. The evening deepened Nordic’s relationship with the client while directly impacting the community, Tiller-Schenck said. 

You don’t have to wait for your client to make the first move toward giving back together, she added.

“Do research on your client’s mission,” Tiller-Schenck said. “Often, they will align [with you]. Start the conversation [about giving back], and ask how they give. Then, determine if you can combine your efforts to make a greater impact.”

Nordic employees volunteer both with each other and, occasionally, with their clients.

7. Prepare for buzz.

Nordic’s size as a company translates to a broader ability to serve and, in some cases, excellent public relations opportunities. The company has received the lion’s share of praise for its efforts in the form of letters, emails and social media posts. 

While media mentions aren’t the motivation for giving back, of course, you can get the ball rolling on good press by distributing a press release and posting news of your outreach on your company website and social media. Tiller-Schenck also produces a follow-up video chronicling the successes of Community Giveback Week while highlighting individual employees’ experiences and endorsements. This not only helps spread buzz externally but also encourages participation company-wide. 

Additionally, companies might find motivation in knowing that PR around their give-back programs can positively influence recruitment, Tiller-Schenck said. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words, and volunteering shows prospective employees that your company is a fulfilling place to work. Thus, Nordic enjoys the press it receives.

“We strive to hire and retain the best and brightest within the industry,” Tiller-Schenck said. “We want them to know that giving back is an important part of our culture.”