TRIPLE PUNDIT OP-ED: Are Corporate Volunteer Days Worth It?

Jesse Hertstein of Amway asks: How do the benefits of day-long volunteering stack up against long-term investments?
Jan 28, 2014 8:15 AM ET
Campaign: #AmwayVolunteers

Originally published on Triple Pundit

I serve on the board of a Literacy Center that aims to elevate reading and writing levels across the community. One of our most powerful programs uses one-on-one volunteers to teach adults to read for the first time in their lives. It’s powerful stuff. But it can take many months to bring them to basic, functional levels.

The greatest impact you can have on a person’s life is usually made through steady, long-term commitments, like tutoring, mentoring, facilitating home ownership or providing nutrition. Change doesn’t usually happen in one day, but over a long period of time.

Global volunteer days: why bother?

So why do we place so much emphasis on single volunteer days that draw crowds of people?

As our Amway One by One Campaign for Children reached its 10-year anniversary, we asked ourselves whether we should have a single, global volunteer day. The idea had surfaced in the past, and each time we rejected it.

Why? Big change was happening at the grassroots level and each of our country offices was developing meaningful partnerships. We were helping children with disabilities in the U.S., providing nutrition in rural schools in China, building homes for families in Latin America, immunizing children in Africa through a pan-European alliance. These were thoughtful, long-term commitments that showed lasting change.

At first, we were afraid that a global volunteer day would devalue the investments we had made in local communities and turn volunteer efforts into a spectacle. But what made us turn the corner was the data.

Reframing the idea: a global demonstration

The data made us reframe the idea. While we had reached big milestones of helping 10 million children, and could count nearly 2.7 million volunteer hours and $190 million in contributions, we still had relatively low awareness and mediocre engagement in the programs.

Amway is made up of 21,000 employees and 3 million Amway Business Owners. If we could get more of them engaged, there would be no end to our positive impact on the world, working from the ground up through our international networks like no other organization can do.

A global volunteer day wasn’t just about the impact we would have on that day. It was a way to show the world that Amway is serious about mobilizing people to help children in our communities. Even more so, it was a way to show ourselves what we were capable of when we channeled our generosity on a global scale.

Our global volunteer day

We used the same approach we had been using for ten years. Create a simple call-to-action but allow our regional offices to develop their own plans. As a call to action, we leveraged all of the voices we could: our product brand celebrity spokespeople, our CEOs, top Amway Business Owners and NGO partners.

On the actual global volunteer day, we took over an empty warehouse at our U.S. headquarters and offered every single employee – office, manufacturing, logistics, executive – the chance to participate in a volunteer project, from building bikes to creating care packages to assembling disaster relief kits.

Around the world, projects were as diverse as our markets. In Thailand, Amway Business Owners delivered 22,000 winter jackets to kids in remote schools. In Mexico, we built Habitat for Humanity homes. In Korea, we volunteered for foster children at child welfare centers. Across Europe, we assembled and delivered care packages.

We encouraged people to upload Instagram photos using hashtag #amwayonebyone, and we saw more than 1,000 “volunteer selfies” from around the globe. More than 15,000 volunteers participated in 57 countries, helping more than 100,000 children. It was astounding to see how people responded, even to our global CSR team that had seen story after story for the last ten years.

Is a global volunteer day worth it?

The survey data will not be in for another six months, so the jury is still out on whether we moved the needle on awareness and engagement. But I am sure that we planted a seed in the hearts of many people around the world. I know that for many, this was their first volunteer experience and they will be looking for their next.

For organizations with a global footprint, or those spread out over a national geography, the question will likely come up. As a former skeptic, I am convinced that there is value in organizing such an event. But the value is mostly internal: It is a chance to engage those who may not otherwise sign up on their own. It is an opportunity for people to try volunteering for the first time in a safe, lively environment. It is a way to emphasize the importance of community involvement in your organization’s culture.

Be clear about your objectives, because it is a lot of work! But a demonstration of your commitment might just be the boost your program needs.

Jesse Hertstein is Amway Senior Corporate Citizenship Specialist, and author of the Amway One by One Campaign for Children blog, which provides thought leadership around grassroots cause activation and captures stories of successful partnerships around the world. He has traveled extensively documenting Amway CSR programs, and serves as a leader in his own community around issues of literacy.