Skip to main content

Does the Emperor Have Clothes? A Closer Look at Employee Volunteering

Does the Emperor Have Clothes? A Closer Look at Employee Volunteering


For quite some time the notion of “corporate social responsibility” has been discussed and demonstrated in various ways. The concept includes many things, from producing products in environmentally-safe ways to providing family-friendly working conditions, yet our field more narrowly looks for whether a company is philanthropic or charitable, both through financial donations and in offering the talents of its employees to the community.

American companies have led the way in corporate employee volunteer programs, just as they have in setting up corporate foundations and other giving. But the idea has caught on worldwide, spurred by multinational companies, and today there are efforts underway in many countries to increase business community involvement and teach best practices in this type of activity. By and large, the volunteer field has been uncritical of this development, welcoming whatever help we can get from any source without much analysis of the process. Here Susan and Steve take a stab at examining workplace volunteering more closely...and arrive at different conclusions.

Susan’s Point of View

I admit to some concern over corporate employee volunteering practices, though I hasten to note right away that nothing I say is meant to disparage the actual volunteers who come through such programs. Universally, the individual employee is delighted to have the company-sanctioned chance to do community service and we should neither discourage nor refuse such volunteering. My issues are with the employer and the often disproportionate praise we heap on companies for what is, essentially, the effort of their workers.

What exactly is “employee volunteering”? It’s nothing new that volunteers in one organization are also paid workers for someone else. That’s been true forever. In my opinion, if we are going to label something as employee or “workplace” volunteering, then the employing company must provide something substantive to add to the services of the individuals who do the work. This involvement by the company itself can range from consciously encouraging nonprofits/government to recruit volunteers through internal company channels, to providing cash or supplies to support an employee community work project, to paid time off while volunteering (which is "volunteering" only from the receiving agency’s perspective).

A company that holds an annual volunteer recognition event to celebrate employees who volunteer totally on their own time is not being charitable. In fact, this is taking a “halo effect” of goodwill from volunteer work the employees would have done anyway – the employer had no role and therefore deserves no credit.

On the other side of the coin, I also think we put too much emphasis on work-release time, in which the company allows employees to do a certain number of hours of community service each year during the work day and still be paid full salary. While it is generous (with stockholders’ money, of course) to offer this benefit, it obviously must be limited and therefore implies that a few hours is service “enough.” In my experience, what employees really want is flex time: the opportunity to take a long lunch break to complete some volunteer service or leave at noon on a Friday to take the youth group on a trip – and make up the lost work time later in the week.

Mixed Messages

Closer examination of many corporate employee volunteer programs reveals more lip service than reality. Rare is the company that allows the designated program leader more than a miniscule percentage of time to do the job right, or a budget realistic to the task. Even scarcer are businesses that approach this effort with any of the planning or follow through tactically given to any new product or service meant to generate profit. For example:

  • An articulated statement of purpose, desired outcomes, goals and objectives.

  • Clear criteria for how and why projects are selected or which organizations will be helped.

  • Training – or at least good information – for middle managers on how to support employees doing volunteer work. (Middle managers are always cited as the most resistant to this activity.)

  • Methods for monitoring and reporting what is being done.

  • A plan to assess the results or impact of the volunteering contributed (from the perspective of the receiving organization or the community at large), or the value to the company or the employees themselves for doing it.

Company employee program managers can be seen in training workshops taking copious notes when such recommendations are made. Shouldn’t these be obvious to a successful business?

Further, a company ought to think through whether it will have staying power over time to keep working on issues that cannot be “fixed” in quick bursts of energy (or money). Nonprofits often complain that businesses don’t understand how entrenched some problems are and lose interest after a year or so. In the same vein, corporate mergers too often result in cancellation of one of the company’s philanthropic efforts, regardless of the impact on the community sustaining this loss.

Our Side Is at Fault, Too

To be fair, our sector often doesn’t know how to work with the business world. We tend to seesaw between putting corporations on a pedestal, hungrily taking any resource they want to give, and resisting the perception of selling out if a company seeks to meet its needs as well as those of the community.

We have long accepted the principle that an individual will be most successful as a volunteer if there are mutual benefits at play – that the giver should benefit as well as the receiver. So why not apply this to a business, too? It’s valid for a company to wish commensurate recognition and good public relations for volunteering its employees provide. In fact, we ought to create the best promotion opportunities possible as a form of thanks.

Just last month, during a workshop I was conducting in Singapore for employee volunteer program leaders, one of the participants sought me out privately to say: “I kept leaving messages with different nonprofits, but I couldn’t find anyone to work with me.” We do not have to conduct our programs as if we were businesses, but operating in a business-like manner can only help us in everything we do. We need to respond to requests from corporations and be prepared to collaborate to meet both our needs and, when necessary, to educate them about the best way to be helpful.

We also must target which businesses have the greatest connection to us, not just go to the most obvious or largest companies in town. It makes the most sense to concentrate on companies with some vested interest in your service specialty, target client group, or specific geographic area.

My Final Thoughts

In the last analysis, since I know that employees are going to do volunteer work on their own time anyway, I personally wish that we could focus more on corporate social responsibility that truly engages the company itself in the effort. What might this mean? Here are a few ideas:

  • Hiring ten under-skilled new employees and truly training them for employability (nonprofits could even send volunteers into the company to support the new workers).
  • Rewarding employees for creative ways to recycle by-products and trash, including identifying community agencies where the company’s throw-aways might be seen as new-found treasures.
  • Sharing the company’s training resources by allowing nonprofits to sit in on skill-building courses already being run for employees.
  • Providing quality, affordable child care and adult respite care for employee families.

To me, a company that builds and sustains its workforce, and serves its consumers ethically and responsibly, is indeed a great “corporate neighbor.” Employee volunteering is icing on the cake, but not enough.

Steve's Point of View

And Steve Counters

The problem with being a perfectionist is that you have so many opportunities to be dissatisfied.

Sure, there are warts in corporate involvement:

  • Not all companies provide adequate support for their volunteer program.
  • Some companies probably influence the kind of volunteer projects chosen in ulterior ways
  • Employees are sometimes coerced into “volunteering.”
  • Many efforts are confused and muddled.

So, what else is new in the world of volunteering?

A Quick Look at Some Facts

The more you examine volunteering by corporate employees, the more you have to admire the true dedication of businesses to the concept of employee involvement in the community.

Note the following:

  • Business in the Community’s ECI+ Survey 2000 in the UK found that 89% of its 700 members run some form of employee volunteering activity.
  • In 1998, the Charities Aid Foundation found that a third of large UK companies had formal employer-supported volunteer programs.
  • Business for Social Responsibility, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization, reports that one third of large US companies had formal time-off policies in support of employee volunteer involvement, and that 40% of medium and large size companies in the United States offered paid leave time policies as of 2003.
  • A 1999 survey by the Points of Light Foundation in the US found 58% of companies have a formal employee volunteering program and 87% of companies encourage their employees to do community volunteer work in an informal way.

If this doesn’t meet Susan’s criteria for the employee’s company doing something formal to support involvement then I can’t imagine what would.

Similar data exists for Canada, Australia, European and Pacific Rim countries, South America and elsewhere, sometimes fueled by multi-nationals but often simply the adoption of the notion of corporate social responsibility by local businesses. In Korea, for example, Samsung has long had one of the more exciting corporate volunteer programs in the world.

Companies operate these programs partially for self-interest, partially to satisfy the demands of their employees for interesting things to do, but mostly because they actually think it’s the right thing to do.

For an interesting discussion of that last claim, take a look at the statements of some of the managers of US employee volunteer programs at the 2004 Business Leadership Forum on Workplace Volunteering, where companies such as GE, Levi Strauss, KPMG and others note the universal beliefs within their companies that working in and with the community is essential to the health of society.

Expanding Volunteering Through Workplace Involvement

Do corporate volunteer programs actually encourage more people to volunteer?


We know that many employees are being connected to volunteer opportunities through their workplace programs:

  • 12% of those who volunteered were asked by someone at work and 24% learned about activity through workplace, according to a 1998 Gallup Survey (US).
  • 67% of volunteers received support from employers (2000 NSGVP, Canada).
  • 32% volunteered through places of work as opposed to on a personal basis, cites the MORI Poll of Employee Volunteering (UK).

And a recent study of the employee involvement program at Barclays Bank in the UK – by the inimitable Institute for Volunteering Research there – uncovered the interesting piece of information that: One in five (21%) employee volunteers had never volunteered before and just under half (47%) were not regularly taking part in volunteering.” ( http:// ).

Increasingly, as work becomes the place where many people spend the majority of their time, involvement through the workplace is essential, taking the place of many of the old institutions (churches and social clubs) that have heretofore provided the key nexus for volunteer involvement.

The Bottom Line

Is corporate volunteering the only way a company should be involved in the community? Absolutely not – and most of them are doing all those other things Susan mentions, quite often through the active instigation of their employees who, with the usual ingenuity of volunteers everywhere, are very good at finding interesting ways of getting things done.

Is corporate volunteering a paragon of effective program operation?

Probably not – it is as diverse as the voluntary sector, as individualistic as the whims and opinions of the employees who often run the program, and as subject to the demands and limitations of the outside world as any type of program in any type of organizational structure. And many corporate programs without any doubt do a muddled and inefficient job of involving and motivating volunteering employees.

But how many of those complaints are as true, if not more true, for charities who pride themselves on involving volunteers? Any quick scan of the recent surveys of the state of volunteer management will reveal far more disarray, far less institutional support, and far greater ineptitude in program management among nonprofit volunteer programs than you will find in the average corporate volunteering effort. One of my favorite examples of the British talent for understatement is the charming comment in the 1997 UK National Survey of Volunteering that 71% of volunteers felt that “things could be better organized.” And we won’t go into the US statistics because they are far too depressing.

Frankly, the biggest scandal in the world of employee volunteering is, that of the three sectors (corporate, government, and charitable), the charitable sector has done by far the poorest job of attempting to support the involvement of its own employees as volunteers in the community. Finding an organized and supported workplace volunteer effort among charities is a difficult exercise, even in the largest and wealthiest.

Rather than criticizing the clothes of the corporate empire I’d venture to say that they are, so to speak, extremely well-suited to the employee volunteering efforts they have undertaken.

Susan's Point of View

To add or view comments