By Tina Vasquez

According to the 2010 Points of Light Institute’s Employee Volunteer Program Reporting Standards, an Employee Volunteer Program (EVP) is effective in developing employees, improving public perception of the company, and enhancing business operations. Research even suggests that volunteering is good for your health [PDF] and the Institute also reports that EVPs are a sensible, efficient method of achieving general HR objectives for recruiting, retaining, and developing employees. It wasn’t until very recently, however, that corporations began to take a more focused approach to their volunteer programs.

Employee volunteer programs have come a long way in a short amount of time. In a History of Americans as Volunteers, authors Susan Ellis and Katherine Noyes trace employee volunteer programs back to the 1970’s when corporate social responsibility programs began to emerge. At the time, most programs were grassroots efforts and were small in scope, but as of 2006, over 80 percent of corporations report having or sponsoring EVPs. According to Chris Jarvis, co-founder and senior consultant for Realized Worth, a leading employee volunteering and CSR consulting firm, despite their progress over the past 40 years, having a successful employee volunteer program is still something that eludes companies large and small.

“There are many challenges in getting these programs off the ground, but the biggest is usually figuring out who to talk to,” Jarvis said. “All major companies are fragmented – there’s HR, there’s communications, there’s marketing, etc. Each department has a different stake in the company and they’re like islands; they rarely interact with each other, so figuring out who to talk to and how to get everyone on board can be difficult.”

As another challenge, Jarvis cites a common mistake made by a company’s executive leadership: the failure to make volunteering a company mandate. “It’s one thing for a company’s leadership to say it supports employee volunteering, but it’s quite another to give a managers a mandate to make them understand that volunteering is part of their corporate culture,” Jarvis said. “Sometimes there’s interpersonal reasons why this isn’t done, but often it’s that very intentional volunteer programs that go beyond philanthropy are just too new and unfamiliar for them to know how to navigate.”

Brand Alignment and The Logic Model

Jarvis and his partner Angela Parker provide training and hands-on involvement in the design and implementation of sustainable employee volunteer programs for businesses interested in leveraging their CSR programs and differentiating their corporate culture. Some companies that Realized Worth worked with already had an EVP in place, but the problem was that it wasn’t integral to the operation or function of the business. Jarvis likes to share the example of the major pharmaceutical company that plants trees as its main employee volunteering activity. This service is good because it’s capable of turning some employees on to volunteering, but it’s not good enough because the company’s assets are not essential to the employee volunteering program. In other words, it’s not having the impact it could because anyone can plant trees and the pharmaceutical company isn’t adding anything to the equation. Jarvis uses a single question as a litmus test for whether or not a company has created a successful EVP: If you were to remove your company from the equation, would it matter? If not, you’ve got some reworking to do.

This is why Jarvis says that there has to be brand alignment with the type of volunteering the company chooses to incorporate into its program. With their clients, Jarvis and Parker also present the theory of change model, also known as the logic model, which sets out how a program is understood or intended to produce particular results. The model has four components that represent a flow: inputs (resources such as money, employees, equipment, etc.) to activities (work activities, programs, or processes) to outputs (the immediate outputs of the work that is delivered) to outcomes (results that are the long-term consequences of delivering outputs).

“The model basically requires companies to take stock of their resources. When creating a volunteer program you have to know what your assets are; this includes skill sets, knowledge, infrastructure, and connections,” Jarvis said. “Companies need to figure out what they want to do by factoring in what they’d be good at. There has to be alignment between key activities and what they do as a business. If companies figure out their brand alignment and follow the model, they are halfway there to creating a better program.”

What’s In It For Me?

The uncomfortable truth of volunteering is that many employees, already busy with work and family and other responsibilities, will wonder what’s in it for them, which is why companies must take their needs into account. Considering the interests of employees is key to creating a successful volunteer program, but it doesn’t hurt to offer incentives. Flex scheduling, tying donations to volunteer hours, and supporting organizations employees volunteer with are all popular options, but Jarvis also recommends simply making the experience fun.

“Create an outstanding experience for your employees. Don’t even call it volunteering, call it fun,” Jarvis said. “After digging ditches all day, why not have a BBQ where everyone can just hang out? If you’re successful at making it fun, you’ve already converted a third of your employees into volunteers. Others will get on board after finding out about the other incentives. Chances are you have employees already familiar with volunteering, you may have some who’ve been volunteering outside of work for over 20 years and those are the people you need to bring into leadership positions. They have the experience and knowledge needed to excel and motivate other employees, so take advantage of that. Don’t just lump them in with everyone else and give them a bumper sticker for their service.”

Companies may also find themselves asking, “What’s in it for us?” If they’re at all interested in attracting new talent off of college campuses, they should consider an employee volunteer program crucial.

According to research in a 2007 Deloitte Volunteer IMPACT Survey, companies that help employees volunteer with nonprofit organizations could have a leg up with recruiting millennial talent. Nearly two-thirds of the respondents in the survey said they would prefer to work for companies that give them opportunities to contribute their talents to nonprofit organizations. The Points of Light Institute also urges companies not to forget about Generation X.  Once believed to be apathetic and disengaged, Generation X stepped up their commitment to volunteering in 2010, giving 2.3 billion hours of service—an increase of almost 110 million hours since 2009.

At a level unlike previous generations, millennials want integration between their work and their life; they do not want their work to be separated from their passions. If companies can harness that desire in their employee volunteer programs and make employees feel as if they’re being productive and contributing to something bigger, they’ve done something very meaningful.

“The number one reason why companies should have volunteer programs is because it creates better people. When you are actively giving people a chance to be the best they can be and you’re filling your company with those kinds of people, it can be transformative,” Jarvis said. “Volunteering makes us more appreciative, more understanding; it helps us rediscover our humanity. When you’re at a soup kitchen, your degree, your job, your house, your car – none of that matters. You’re interacting with people who have found themselves in a situation you could very easily find yourself in. An employee volunteer program has the ability to knit together who we are as people with what we do on a daily basis and that’s very powerful.”