With the pile-up of data proving the bottom line benefits of employee volunteer and giving programs, more companies are clamoring to launch or escalate their own programs. As someone whose business helps organizations manage their corporate volunteering and giving, I’m delighted with this trend towards more employee-led philanthropy.
But I also see another trend: companies that try to do this all on their own and then wonder why they’re not seeing the results they hoped for.
“When you’re launching a business, you get experts to help with areas like legal, financial, marketing, and so on,” says Charisse Browner, Business Development Director of America’s Charities, a nonprofit that helps companies engage employees in greater giving. “So why do company leaders try to build impactful corporate philanthropy programs on their own? It’s best to plan and execute these programs with those who make it their sole focus.”
In fact, Browner observes that when company leaders wonder why their programs aren’t as successful as they’d like, they may not even have the proper understanding to recognize what success should look like.
This time of year is a common one for evaluations of last year’s line item wins and misses. Right about now is when America’s Charities tends to be having a lot of conversations with clients and would-be clients about their volunteer and giving programs, as company leaders question whether their programs are hitting the mark.
“I’ve learned since working in this industry that companies may be focusing on one particular area as a measurement that doesn’t necessarily relate to impact,” Browner says. “Impact is not necessarily the participation rate. So many companies want to focus on participation rates, but that’s not what I advise clients to look at. And even then, what defines participation? Some companies feel that participation is defined as the employee visiting the online volunteer platform. Employees are measured as participants not by volunteering or giving but just by clicking on the platform. Obviously, this has nothing to do with creating impact in the community. You want to know that what you’re offering your employees is actually translating in the real world.”
Many companies do tend to fixate on participation rates as the North Star of success. But of course, just because 500 employees participate in a volunteer effort doesn’t mean that the experience is necessarily impactful for the community or employee engagement.
Measuring impact has so many different variables. A press release may announce that 1000 employees just raised $50,000 for the Boys and Girls Club, but that doesn’t tell the whole story of the question of impact. You go from 5% to 8% participation rate; great, but what does that mean? What kind of participation are we talking about and will it resonate in significant ways with employees and nonprofits?
“I remember a recent volunteering event at a food bank,” Browner recalls. “The company sent approximately 200 volunteers to the organization to stuff bags, and most of those people happened to be engineers. The company coordinator looked around and was crestfallen at this realization. Imagine if you had those same 200 engineers taking time out of their day to build some sort of an infrastructure that the food bank desperately needed instead. Same people, same charity, greater impact that can be measured.”
Cutting to the heart of impact is the focus of America’s Charities - a partner, incidentally, of my own company, Causecast. Without the guidance of experts like America’s Charities, it’s easy to treat corporate philanthropy programs like feel good initiatives for companies to engage in now and then rather than fundamental value propositions of a company’s mission. The problem is, the “feel good” mindset ensures that your program won’t get very far or leave much of an impression on anyone it touches.
All of the research that has taken place in the last several years shows that CSR programs aren’t charity. Smart volunteer and giving efforts deliver a measurable ROI, creating a culture that engages employees, attracts and keeps top talent, increases productivity, and builds brand loyalty - having nothing to do with the actual impact in the community. One study sponsored by Verizon and Campbell’s Soup, titled Project ROI, showed that corporate responsibility can increase productivity up to 13%; reduce the average turnover rate by 25% to 50%; and increase employee engagement by 7.5%. The study also found that improving CR performance has the same effect on retention as an increase in annual salary of $3,700 per year, and workers who were informed about a CR program were willing to accept a lower wage and were more likely to go “above and beyond” for the employer by doing extra work not required for payment.
Employees are rating your CSR and Millennials in particular are passing you by for other companies if they don’t believe in your social mission. So whether you like it or not, the rest of the world is paying attention to how your company is giving back and that impression has a direct impact on your success.
Once companies accept that corporate responsibility - especially that which involves employees - is a priority that should be taken as seriously as any other business endeavor, it makes sense to bring in partners that can help define the proper direction. “It’s not just about understanding the impact of your measurement of success,” says Browner. “It’s about understanding the measurement of success that will impact the charities your company may be partnered with.”
Browner believes that if the person sitting down at the table with the charity organizations doesn’t know the questions to get the best outcome, it’s a wasted conversation. But most company leaders aren’t having honest conversations with their charity partners about what success looks like to the charity, in part because companies and charities need a third party to create an environment in which these conversations can happen.
For example, too often, companies earmark exactly how funds they raise should be used by charities without truly understanding what is going to make the most sense for the charity. “Even Top Fortune 500 companies have this problem,” Browner notes. “They give money to charity organizations for certain purposes and the charities take the money because they don’t want to offend the corporation. A particular Fortune 500 company has told us that they know these charities feel uncomfortable being forthcoming with them but they don’t know how to spark an honest discussion about their needs.”
Understanding how charities can align better with companies and vice versa is an ongoing challenge, and also the key to a successful relationship that creates success as defined by myriad metrics. Experts like America’s Charities make it their business to ask the right questions and devise targeted programs that increase funds raised, participation, skills-volunteering, and so many other areas that companies and charities want to enhance in smart ways.
“What we do has so much to do with education,” says Browner. “We act as the agent or partner of the employer and are there as a consultant and guide, helping them increase their impact and most of all understand what success looks like for them, for their charity partners and for their community at large.”
When companies are able to develop true partnerships with nonprofits and create a strategy for the goals and needs of all involved, that’s when we see the kind of meaningful impact that reminds corporate leaders why volunteer and giving programs are so important to the vitality of their organizations.