Missing the Mark - Participation Rates in Workplace Giving & Employee Volunteering

The Current State of Employee Giving & Volunteering Programs
Aug 12, 2011 1:30 PM ET

Just BeCause Blog

Post from the Benevity Just BeCause Blog

In the 2010 Edelman goodpurpose report Carol Cone - the matriarch of cause marketing - declared that “cause marketing as we know it is dead”.

Cone stated that slapping a ribbon on a product and giving a portion to a cause is not going to cut it in a world where people have higher expectations and want social purpose to be built right into business models and corporate culture.

We think it's time to sound a similar alarm on the workplace giving front: simply having an employee giving program, though increasingly necessary, is far from sufficient.

Although falling firmly into the category of better-than-a-poke-in-the-eye, many of today's workplace giving programs are the internal HR-equivalent of slapping a polar bear on a product and hoping for brand loyalty. They don't really work, and the proof is in the pudding: low participation rates and/or low engagement numbers.

Let's take a pulse check on the current state of involvement in workplace giving programs. According to Giving in Numbers, a Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP) study, the employee participation rates in year-round workplace giving programs was just 7.5% for year round, which rose to 43% for workplace giving campaigns and was only 3% for participation in Dollars for Doers Programs. Anecdotally, in our professional adventures we talk to companies that tell us their Dollars for Doers volunteering programs typically have about 8% employee participation rates and their employee giving/matching programs are often stuck at 20% participation or even less.

The other thing to note about employee participation rates is that it is an easy measure, but can be potentially misleading. Moving the needle on employee engagement is only possible if employees find value and personal resonance in the initiatives provided. Clearly, if participation rates are low, there's a problem. But if participation rates are reasonably high and they're a function of arm-twisting and pressure, the engagement element will of course be absent. Such behavior, although well intentioned at achieving company or charity aggregator targets, ironically takes workplace giving from an employee/employer/charity win-win-win to a lose-lose/sorta-kinda win.

So why are employee participation rates and enthusiasm often so low in current workplace giving and volunteering programs?

Consider the macro context. Outside of work, people are increasingly living online: they're interacting with rather than consuming the news; updating their personal profiles and presenting themselves dynamically on Facebook and LinkedIn; buying custom running shoes from Nike.com; making recommendations on Zappos and Yelp, etc… All in all, enjoying personalized, empowered interactive experiences online.

Then they come to work and are given a once-a-year option to participate in a workplace giving campaign via a digital pledge form (set and forget) or perhaps even more manual processes. And on the volunteerism front, although increasingly endorsed by most companies, there are typically huge hoops to jump through, poor communication and reporting of programs and event management, and a ton of paperwork and/or clunky approval processes to tackle to generate a grant to their chosen charity.

The reality is that individuals now operate in a web-centric technological world that enables “mass personalization” and they increasingly expect that same opportunity inside and outside the workplace. Manual solutions or technology that are built to facilitate grant management and post-facto matching from a corporate perspective have little chance of appealing to most employees or creating the desired emotive connection with the corporate brand and culture.

And money alone can't necessarily fix it, even where the budget is willing.

Heard from a senior HR/community investment exec from a large-co whose costly custom software solution wasn't delivering the expected results: “They delivered us a jet at great expense that no one knows how to fly; what we needed was a fast car that had the latest gadgets that people use everyday…”