If we work for a company of a certain size, chances are that we have some form of employee volunteering program. And, in general, the objectives of these programs seem clear enough: push our employees to be good corporate citizens, give back to our communities, create out-of-the-office team-bonding opportunities, etc. Senior level management, at some point, has determined that the ROI that will result from these hours of lost productivity will justify the investment. That is why companies like Salesforce.com donate 1% of their employee hours. They believe it does as much good for them, their culture, and their bottom line, as it does for their volunteer partners.

But there is a fundamental problem in this space today:

Often, the regional HR Manager who is assigned to organize this volunteer program follows a pretty standard series of steps:
1) The HR Manager asks his or her employees to identify a cause (or few causes) that are important to them
2) The HR Manager then organizes a Day of Service (or a # of initiatives) where the employees can volunteer with a nonprofit who supports the cause identified by their employees
3) The employees volunteer
4) The company pays the nonprofit a small stipend for their participation
5) The HR Manager sends out a survey to determine if the employees enjoyed their day

At a basic level, it seems like the partnership was a success. The employees are happy; the nonprofit benefited from their day of service.

The problem with this model is three-fold:

There is an obvious gap between senior level objectives and the objectives measured on the ground. The HR Manager lacks general guidelines they can follow, metrics they are required to report against, or even basic benchmarks that track back to the original senior level objectives

The nonprofit usually ends up spending more time organizing these engagements than they make from the stipend. And, the volunteer opportunity, created by the nonprofit, is usually more concentrated on creating an experience the employees will enjoy then making an impact on the community.

As a result, the nonprofit usually sees employee volunteer days as a burden rather than a benefit. And, the HR Manager executes an event the employees will enjoy, but fails to focus on (or measure!) if that program is successfully “pushing their employees to be corporate citizens,” “making an impact in the community,” or met the objectives of “team building.”
At the end of the year, senior management is forced to take a leap of faith that the program actually impacted employee retention, helped to create a better working relationship among their employees, and/or had a positive impact in the communities. When, in reality, all they really know is their employees did volunteer a certain number of hours, they had fun, and there are pictures to prove it.

In January 2011, Starbucks released a study that offers benchmarks for how to measure the success of employee engagement opportunities: “Making it Count: How to Measure the Impact of Volunteerism.” Starbucks has tried to provide an answer to the struggle of accurately tracking the impact of volunteer involvement. This study shows that “87% of America’s medium- to large-sized companies try to track the impact of their employee volunteerism, but only one in four is able to do this accurately.”

The reasons that are mentioned in this study that obstruct companies from accurately tracking their impact is: “insufficient skill, knowledge and capacity; measurement approaches are incomplete; the impact is multivariable; and there is an uncertain balance in data and communications.” Together with several partners, Starbucks was able to develop a structured set of widely applicable metrics that would comprehensively measure the impact of volunteerism. This structured framework of measurement for the first time provides a benchmark for measuring the success of an employee engagement strategy, that can be applied cross-industry.

Employee volunteer programs should be inspired by the passion of their regional employees. BUT, only by creating a consistent measurement framework that can be applied to all partnerships across the company, will you truly be able to understand if that program is affecting things like: team bonding, employee retention, and other senior level objectives. And, the Starbucks study is a really good place to start.

Good luck! Call us if you need some help. Our next post will dig a bit deeper into Michael Porter’s concept of ‘Shared Value’ and explain why we think it is re-defining the cause landscape…

– Cal Zarin, CEO