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Merging Customers into Employee Volunteering Efforts

Merging Customers into Employee Volunteering Efforts

Just when you think you've seen everything in volunteerism, somebody comes along with something totally new.

And then you discover that other people are thinking about it as well.

Steve was sitting in the Washington Dulles International Airport over the holidays, engaging in the popular airport occupation of people watching. In front of him was a young couple en route to Vermont, laden with lots of bags of Christmas presents to take to friends and family.

It was the bags that caught his attention.

Two of them were from a familiar store - REI, or Recreational Equipment, Inc., an outdoor equipment supplier. The interesting part was the message blazoned on the side of the bags: "Volunteer with us!"

Edging closer to read the fine print, Steve discovered that each bag advertised an effort by REI to get its members (REI operates in a semi-co-op fashion and has over 2 million members) and customers to join with REI store employees in community volunteer projects. Each REI store has a "Store Events" section where you can sign up for local volunteer projects selected by REI employees. According to REI: "In 2002 more than 3,700 REI staff, co-op members, non-profit partners, and volunteers generously donated more than 17,400 hours of their time to 50 REI -coordinated service projects to improve local resources for outdoor recreation." You can see a list of some of the projects at

The sight of the REI shopping bags triggered a memory from a recent visit to Starbucks, where Steve had seen a large sign emblazoned "Make Your Mark!" - an invitation for Starbucks customers to join with Starbucks employees in volunteer projects. If you visit the Starbucks website (, this is what you learn about the effort:

Thank you for giving your time to work side-by-side with Starbucks employees in our communities. Together we volunteered for more than 100,000 hours, cleaning beaches, participating in AIDS walks, sorting donations at food banks and so much more. In support of this hands-on help, Starbucks will make more than $500,000 in financial contributions to non-profit organizations across the United States and Canada. To learn more about how we surpassed our goal of 50,000 volunteer hours, please search for events that happened in your neighborhood and view donation, hours and volunteer totals.

Make Your Mark was established in Spring 2000 as an ongoing, year-round program to support and encourage Starbucks employees to volunteer in their communities. Through this program, cash donations are granted to nonprofit organizations based upon hours volunteered. Since its inception, employees and customers have volunteered nearly 150,000 hours at more than 900 projects, resulting in donations totaling more than $750,000.

You can not only see a list of events on the Starbucks website, but, assisted by a partnership with Hewlett Packard, you can search for activities by location. And if you've got a fast Internet connection, you can watch a streaming video of Orin Smith, President and CEO of Starbucks, talking about the importance of volunteering in the community. In addition to prompting customers to volunteer, Starbucks donates $10 per volunteer hour to the recipient charity, up to $500,000.

A little searching on the Web discovered that the United States isn't the only country to be dabbling in this. In the UK , the Yell Group (, publishers of nationwide Yellow Pages directories, shows its environmental conscience by actively engaging customers in recycling their books through all sorts of promotion drives. The National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre in Singapore has a partnership with DBS Bank in which bank employees volunteer, along with DBS bank cardholders. The cardholders are also encouraged to make donations through their bankcards. See for details. ( A few more examples can be found at the end of this article.)

So, what to make of all this?

Some Ruminations

When we discussed this possible Points of View topic, neither Steve nor Susan could think of any place this "customer volunteering" has been identified as a trend and perhaps it is too soon to say that it is. On the other hand, it clearly has surfaced in a wide range of companies and locations. We want to make our colleagues aware of these initiatives and thoughtful about the possible implications.

It was probably inevitable - since building customer relationships is a major motivation for corporate community involvement programs - that some marketing genius would decide to marry the two. After all, if volunteering makes employees happy, why wouldn't it make customers equally happy? And if volunteering builds lasting relationships between individuals and organizations, why wouldn't that work as well for a business as for a nonprofit or government agency?

If nothing else, this is a good reminder that the world is a lot more complex than we tend to think. The neat distinctions between the profit sector, the charitable sector and the governmental sector continue to blur as we find interesting ways to form partnerships. The question relevant to customer volunteering is: does it matter and to whom? From the perspective of the volunteer, we know that people engage in service because they care about the cause, can see what their contribution will accomplish, and the activity fits into their busy lives (simplifying the long list of motivations, we know, but still on the mark). As long as they trust the sponsor to be honest in using their gift of time, goods or money as promised to help the cause, most volunteers do not care how the sponsor is incorporated. In fact, some of the corporate service projects make sense as a natural fit. Who else better to care that phone directories are recycled than those who produce them?

So, customer volunteering is probably a good thing. After all, whatever encourages companies to support volunteering with time, donations and marketing dollars is good for the community. And if they can direct a bit of Other People's Money to the same philanthropic causes as well, that's also good. Remember the early debates about cause-related marketing? Yes, there are pitfalls to associating a nonprofit with the financial success of a business, but the revenue benefits have largely proven to outweigh the cautions.

Customer volunteering also meshes with the explosion in "one-shot deal" service opportunities, whether through United Way Days of Caring, City Cares organizations' monthly calendars of volunteer events, or hoopla dates such as Make a Difference Day or the Martin Luther King "Day On, Not Off." In the United States , at least, it is possible for a family to be in continuous, year-round service simply by volunteering for all the one-day events urged on them from all sides! The types of projects that businesses seem to be encouraging tend to be activities that individuals or groups can do in a short time frame (park clean ups), or can do independently at home or work (collecting food or recyclables) before coming together on the scheduled date to participate in the company campaign. The customer volunteer, therefore, is "today's volunteer."

Finally, this concept is closely connected to what we loosely refer to as "public/private partnerships." On an organizational level, businesses have long collaborated with units of government and with larger nonprofit agencies to encourage economic development, capital construction projects, and all sorts of neighborhood improvement. Customer volunteering moves such partnerships from the macro to the micro level. It validates the concept that the company is a full participant in community life, not only through its money and physical resources, but also through its people. And its "people" includes employees, their families, their friends, and their consumers - current and potential - who are instrumental to the company's success.

Management Implications (Theirs and Ours)

True to form, we find ourselves thinking about practical matters. How does one manage a project which involves employees, customers, and casual volunteers in a mix?

  • When, if ever, might the company try to screen customer volunteers or what they want to give - and how?
  • What do you do with a problem volunteer/customer?
  • Do you keep records on any of this so that volunteers can be thanked or recruited again for something else? Is this the company's role?
  • What kind of weird risk management and liability problems do you run into?
  • Is a customer who volunteers on a corporate project alongside corporate workers a quasi-employee of the corporation?

But let's not think as managers, but as social entrepreneurs. If attention to customer volunteering continues to grow, what might be the benefits? Maybe:

  • Identification of easy yet important ways that anyone might be of help to the community.
  • More sensible selection of corporate philanthropic projects, based on a natural outgrowth of the product or service provided by the company and the interests of its consumers, rather than by the status-seeking of the top executives (or their spouses).
  • An antidote to huge corporate mergers, in that most customer volunteering now is locally based, allowing both employees and consumers to feel supported by distant company headquarters for their concerns in their home community.
  • Less distinction of roles, labels, and other artificial categories. Who cares if we call it volunteering, cause-related marketing, customer relations, or philanthropy if the activity is accomplishing something and everyone involved is happy with it?

Perhaps the best reaction to this article is to look around. Is there a company nearby recruiting its customers to help a cause? How might you become that cause? Might you take the initiative and suggest the idea to a company?

A Few More Examples

Not sure this is percolating in many places? Here are some other Web finds:

Dell USA

The computer manufacturer "collected nearly 2 million pounds of computer waste from more than 7,500 consumers" through its 15-city Dell Recycling Tour in 2003.

Giant Foods LLC

Runs a "Good Neighbor Food and Fund Campaign" in which customers are given various ways to purchase food for charity or contribute food directly through local supermarkets in the chain.

Pax World Fund

This socially-responsible investment mutual fund is now allowing investors to aid in building Iraq through designated donations of interest earned.

Prudential Financial

Among other events, sponsors "Global Volunteer Day" to allow employees worldwide to volunteer for a day (see article at This Q&A appears on their Web site:

Q: Can people besides Prudential Financial employees participate in Global Volunteer Day 2003?

A: Yes. This year, the ninth annual Prudential Financial Global Volunteer Day, encourages family volunteerism throughout the day's service projects. Prudential Financial strongly encourages family, friends, neighbors and clients to join in and help out.

Standard Chartered Standard Chartered (UK) is the world's leading emerging markets bank. It employs 29,000 people in over 500 offices in more than 50 countries in the Asia Pacific Region, South Asia , the Middle East, Africa, United Kingdom and the Americas. Its "Community Partnership for Africa" program took unconnected, small, low-impact projects that did not involve staff and created a high-impact, sustainable community program involving staff, local partners and customers, and "ensured that these implemented projects produced direct and long-tem benefit to the community and at the same time supported Standard Chartered's business strategy."


Timberland, makers of workboots and outdoor apparel, devotes a full section of its website to encouraging service.  They say:

We started out as bootmakers, but we're about much more. Like you, we care about the strength of our neighborhoods, the well-being of our environment, and the quality of life in our communities.  We believe in making a difference and invite you to join us.

Wal-Mart Stores Good Works

Known for supporting many employee-volunteer efforts, the "Operation Dear Abby" project recently made it possible for any customer (not just family members) to send messages of greeting and cheer to American military personnel overseas.

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