Empathy in Motion: The Power of Employee Volunteering

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In Greek mythology, it is said that Prometheus bestowed two vital gifts on a despairing mankind: one was fire, giving humans the ability to create and thrive, and second was blind hope, the capacity to wish and strive for something better than what exists today. Together, these gifts allowed humanity to rise above their obstacles, avoid destruction, and ensure survival. However, there was also a third, unspoken gift: the concept of benevolence. It’s understood that thanks to Prometheus, humans learned that in giving to those around us, everyone benefits. Human beings thus embody Prometheus’ benevolent actions whenever we take action to help one another.

So began the introductory lecture in an open-source online course hosted by OpenSAP that Causecast staff members recently participated in. The course, titled “Empathy in Motion: The Power of Employee Volunteering,” was instructed by Chris Jarvis, CEO of Realized Worth and employee engagement thought leader. Through a series of video lectures and supplemental readings, the course provided an overview of the psychological impetus behind volunteering as an idea, as well as frameworks for formulating effective and impactful employee volunteering programs. In five digestible blurbs, here are the key takeaways that we gleaned from the course for employee engagement program managers!

1) Humans evolved to do good, but aligning motivation with opportunity takes work

Despite the complexities of human nature, helping others is in our biology. Empathy is a key component of human nature that has helped to ensure human existence to date. We’ve evolved to not only feel our own pain, but to recognize and feel the pain of those in our “in-groups,” which gives us the desire to take care of our loved ones. This idea of in-groups and out-groups is important to understand, because it implies that we prioritize and protect those whom we identify with, often at the expense of those who we don’t. Thus, while humans have a built-in capacity to empathize, we don’t always default to it. However, Jarvis asserts that volunteering offers a mechanism to develop “empathy through experience, cultivate curiosity about others, challenge prejudices and discover commonalities.” It provides us with a nonthreatening space to interact with and put ourselves in the shoes of what might be considered our out-groups.

While empathy is a core motivator for doing good, though, people today have complex, cluttered lives and don’t make decisions based purely on a single factor or feeling. There are varying levels of motivation and thus different ways to appeal to prospective volunteers. Jarvis defines intrinsic motivation as that which is driven by factors such as personal enjoyment, i.e. performing an activity for its sake. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, typically involves being nudged to exhibit a behavior by the promise of a reward, to avoid punishment, or simply because someone has asked. First-time volunteers typically take action due to extrinsic motivators, whereas more seasoned volunteers have likely already found their intrinsic motivation and keep coming back.

Going a step further, motivation can also be classified by its capacity to change over time and in different situations. Jarvis outlined three “levels” of motivation: Global, Contextual and Situational. Global motivation is relatively stable, not bound by time or situation but rather by an individual’s core values. Contextual motivation varies based on the specifics of what is at hand. And finally, Situational motivation is influenced by time, context and competing values or priorities. As volunteer program managers, it is helpful to do a “What’s In It For Me?” (or WIIFM) analysis to take on the point of view of your participants and understand what intrinsic and extrinsic factors and levels of motivation will play a role in their decision to volunteer.

Through this exercise, you’ll lay out what your target audience of volunteers will think, feel, see, hear, say and do as part of the volunteer activity, as well as what their pain points and gain points might be as a result. This will enable you to take into consideration the ideas and activities that your prospective volunteers value and determine how those can align with the mission of the organization you are working with. The intersection between what will motivate your volunteers and what your volunteer opportunity will entail is your sweet spot.

2) Your volunteers are on a journey and you should recognize where they are

Volunteers are not all the same and shouldn’t be viewed as such. Treating volunteers one-dimensionally can lead to burnout and disengagement. To avoid this, Jarvis recommends breaking up the phases of volunteerism into three categories and approaching each category uniquely. In order to establish an effective volunteering initiative, program administrators need to meet each volunteer at what Jarvis calls their “highest level of contribution.” To understand where each volunteer is on this journey, look for key indicators associated with each phase listed below and make your events flexible enough to accommodate everyone.

  • Casually Curious - this is the “Tourist” stage. These are usually newer volunteers who need guidance. These volunteers are typically very enthusiastic and will attend events, but may not take a leadership role in volunteering at first. 

  • Meaningful Discovery - this is the “Traveler” stage. Volunteers in this phase are motivated to keep volunteering. They also have developed attitudes and ideas about what they’re doing, why it’s important and how it can be improved. They’ll go beyond simply attending and will provide more support at events than a Tourist would.

  • Intentional Alignment - this is the “Guide” stage. Volunteers are in a place where they want to share what they are doing with others, feel the experience is valuable and are willing to take on more responsibility. At this stage, they are ready to manage events.

Volunteers within each of these phases will have different needs from you as a program administrator. For example, a Tourist likely will need to be assigned specific tasks and given clear direction. They’ll need to be checked in with regularly throughout the event and may not know if they can commit to volunteering long term. Travelers, on the other hand, will want higher levels of responsibility and might need extended educational and training opportunities to allow them to take on larger roles. They may also be more excited about committing to longer term opportunities. And finally, Guides are at a place where they’re ready to lead their own events, work directly with nonprofits and delegate tasks to others. 

3) Strive to make your volunteer experiences transformative rather than transactional

Volunteering opportunities are often purely transactional, in that volunteers are giving something away (their time and skills) to complete a specified task, and usually also receiving something in return (a sense of fulfilment). However, volunteering can go beyond this and serve as a transformative experience; one that develops and strengthens empathy. Volunteering opportunities should provide your employees with a safe space to critically reflect on their existing behaviors and assumptions and make new conclusions about the world around them. As individual employees grow and experience positive changes to their sense of self and their surroundings, these positive changes can have a ripple effect throughout your organization.

Program administrators, this is where your power to create a secure space for transformation plays a major role. To this end, Jarvis outlines three keystone behaviors that are vital to framing the volunteer experience and creating the necessary conditions for transformation to occur:

  • The Brief. You may already be used to giving a quick introduction at the beginning of a volunteer event that outlines the mission of the organization and the specific tasks that volunteers will be doing. The brief is an opportunity to go a bit deeper. Jarvis asserts that it is necessary within this introduction to establish a “disorienting dilemma” - to present volunteers with a reality or an idea that may not have been considered before. An example of this would be telling volunteers that they’re not there to solve the underlying problem; rather, they are there to discover truths about their community and themselves. Also, it is vital as part of the brief to create “proximity to the beneficiary” by telling a story to paint a picture of the beneficiary’s needs. And finally, use the brief to create “task significance” by explaining why the volunteer work that is being done is important beyond the obvious outcomes.

  • Volunteer Development. This piece goes back to the journey of the volunteer and the importance of meeting each volunteer at their highest level of contribution. In designing the event, you must strive to ensure that each volunteer will have the ability to find their place and be able to contribute however they are best equipped to. Tourists are typically extrinsically motivated and might need to do the most hands-on activities to see and feel the results of their work. On the other hand, Travelers are more intrinsically motivated and might be open to working behind the scenes, and Guides have established what Jarvis calls “intentional alignment” and should be addressed with inclusive language.

  • The Debrief. Oftentimes at the end of an event volunteers will disperse as they start to clean up and things will fizzle out without a clear wrap-up. Holding a debrief at the end of event allows everyone to gain a sense of clarity and put themselves in the larger story. This is also an opportunity to ask your volunteers critical reflection questions, such as “what did you experience?” and “was it what you expected?”. Critical self-reflection is a key part of what Jarvis calls the “sense-making” process - bringing meaning to the experience. Over time, sense-making leads to fundamental changes in attitudes and behaviors. Without having this opportunity to reflect, everyone misses out on the chance to connect the dots and think more deeply about the role that they play.

4) Being thoughtful and proactive about how you plan your events can make all the difference

The ideal timeline for planning, executing and evaluating a volunteer opportunity spans about 3 months, according to Jarvis:

Month 1: Connect with nonprofits to find a mutually beneficial activity. This is when you will learn about organization’s needs and make sure their opportunities can work within your company guidelines.

Month 2: Build a team of volunteers who connect with this organization’s cause and benefit from volunteering in this way. Make an effort to engage employees who may not already be active volunteers. Aside from working out the logistical elements of the event, be sure to come up with a briefing, volunteer development, and debriefing plan in collaboration with the nonprofit.

Month 3: Hold your transformative volunteering event and take some time afterward to reflect with volunteers, collect data, and prepare to repeat the process again!

One thing to always keep in mind when managing an event, Jarvis underscores, is that expectations are usually different from reality and things are not always going to go smoothly. Here are a few tips and tricks that Jarvis points out that will help you achieve success:

  • Be flexible and adaptable. For example, you might expect volunteers to arrive a little late, so plan to do your introductory brief 30 minutes after the event’s start time.

  • Delegate tasks - this is helpful for you as a leader, and it’s also good for the development of your volunteers as they move through their volunteering journey. Throughout the event, walk around and make sure that everyone feels like they are contributing.

  • While participation is indeed a success metric, it is not always the most important. Think about what other results and longer-term impacts on individual volunteers are most important to your organization

  • Go easy on yourself - event planning is difficult! If things go wrong, just remember that you are doing your best!

5) Think ahead about how best to measure your program's impact across all beneficiaries

Impact measurement is a hot topic in the employee engagement world; there are many ways to go about it, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. However, Jarvis calls out four main factors that should be proactively considered when creating a plan for impact measurement of your volunteering initiatives: program capacity, competency of organizers, individual engagement, and outcomes for the community, company, and employees.

Regarding program capacity, one of the important questions to ask is whether your program can achieve scale. Are there sufficient opportunities for volunteers to be engaged with the program on an ongoing basis? Other factors to keep in mind are whether you have a mechanism in place to be able to even measure outcomes and impact, whether you have built an infrastructure to mobilize volunteers across different office locations, and whether you have the ability to provide a sense of focus without alienating or disenfranchising employees with varying interests.

Second, evaluating the competency of your volunteer leaders revolves around the resources you have in place for these organizers to find nonprofits, scope projects, manage transformative events and meet volunteers at their highest level of contribution. Are your volunteer leaders set up for success?

When thinking about engagement of the individual, think about what engagement really means in the context of your company, and ask yourself how equipped you are to engage volunteers in that way. One way to measure engagement is by using the Net Promoter Score methodology. Ask your participants how they would rate the event on a scale of 1-10, 1 being lowest engagement/would not recommend to a colleague and 10 being highest engagement/would recommend to others. Employees who select higher numbers can be called Promoters, those in the middle can be called Passives, and those with the lowest numbers are Detractors. As you can probably imagine, Promoters are most likely to evangelize your efforts. Once you have a sense of how your employees feel about your event or overarching program, you can tackle the challenge of turning Passives and Detractors into Promoters.

Finally, you should be prepared to measure the impact and results to beneficiaries spanning the surrounding community, the company and individual employees. There are several ways to do this, the most common of which is by setting up a Logic Model (or Theory of Change). A Logic Model will allow you to evaluate how your program inputs, resources and activities lead to certain outputs, outcomes and longer-term impacts to each group. No matter which way you go and how you define it, you should be proactive about measuring success.

Integrating these five learnings into your employee engagement strategy will help your program connect to volunteers and nonprofits in a meaningful and lasting way. At Causecast, we strive to ensure our clients are fully equipped to launch volunteering programs that are engaging, innovative, and that create long-term impact. We encourage our clients to think outside of the box when planning opportunities and campaigns that set the bar for the employee engagement community. In addition to our technology offerings, we also provide consulting services that can help you get going on your social impact journey.

Tweet us @Causecast or find us on Facebook to share the creative and exciting ways that you engage your employee volunteers!

Laura Plato