How To Improve Employee Engagement With Your Volunteerism and CSR Initiatives

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In this article, we'll share a simple framework that you can use to increase employee engagement with your volunteerism and corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. 

In case you’ve only got time for a quick hit, here’s the short version:

  • Align with intrinsic motivations;
  • Minimize barriers to action;
  • Communicate as often as possible.

Also, if you’re looking for a fun, easy and proven way to improve your CSR or volunteer engagement, we’ve got just the thing for you. Please just fill out this 7-second form and someone from our team will be in touch. 

Now onto the details…

The Three Ingredients Required For Action.

B.J. Fogg is the founder of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University. He’s the Godfather of behavior design.

His eponymously named Fogg Model says three elements must be simultaneously present for someone to take action:

  1. Motivation – the person has to be sufficiently motivated;
  2. Ability – the person has to be sufficiently able;
  3. Prompt- the person needs some kind of prompt, telling them what to do.

When it comes to employee engagement with volunteerism and CSR, we find that companies often struggle with one or more of these elements. Let's examine each more closely.


Motivation: What motivates employees?

Several factors can motivate someone. Those factors include:

  • Pain and Pleasure
  • Fear and Hope
  • Extrinsic and Intrinsic Rewards
  • Personal and Social Identity

For now, we’ll briefly examine the primary way that companies usually try to motivate employees: extrinsic and intrinsic rewards.

Extrinsic rewards are usually tangible or financial rewards that are not related to the CSR program itself and are controlled by someone other than the employee.  

In contrast, intrinsic rewards are intangible, psychological rewards that employees feel. These include the good feeling of achievement, belonging, and helping others.

Sometimes rewards can be both extrinsic and intrinsic. 

For example, with Charity Miles, the primary reward is a tangible donation to charity. However, the employee isn’t receiving that donation. Their reward is the good feeling of improving their health while making an impact on a cause they care about.

Similarly, many companies have “Dollars for Doers” programs where, if an employee volunteers for a charity, the company will also donate to that charity. The financial donation is like an extrinsic reward. But the employee doesn’t receive it. Instead, the employee’s reward is intrinsic:  the good feeling of helping others.

Research has shown that intrinsic motivation is more powerful than extrinsic motivation.  

However, it’s very hard to intrinsically motivate someone else. Intrinsic motivation is intrinsic– it comes from within.

Therefore, the key is to align your CSR engagement strategies with what is already intrinsically motivating to your employees.

Fortunately, it’s not hard to know what that is.

Survey after survey, employees say they want more CSR and volunteer opportunities to feel good by helping others. They’re already intrinsically motivated.

Now you just have to make it easy for them.

This brings us to…

mind thoughts

Ability: How easy is it to participate? 

Several factors influence a person’s ability to take a desired action:

  • Time
  • Money or other resources
  • Physical effort
  • Mental effort
  • Routine
  • Social Acceptance and Deviance

These are the factors you should consider when designing your CSR opportunities.

Time: Employees are busy. They have work, families, other obligations, and hobbies. Taking time away from work to volunteer often means they\'ll have to find other time to make up the work. Or, for example, what if the volunteer event is on a day when their kid has a soccer game?  

Money: Many employees are on increasingly tight budgets. Therefore, some employees may be less able to participate in CSR programs that require them to contribute financially.

Physical Effort: Many CSR opportunities require physical effort. For example, building a house with Habitat for Humanity is one of the most fun and rewarding things that I’ve ever done. I also enjoy running in road races that benefit charity. 

But these events require physical effort, causing some employees to think they are not able to participate.

Perceived ability is as important as actual ability. Most CSR opportunities aren’t that hard. However, if people think they are hard, then they will be less likely to do them.

For this reason, when our corporate partners want to do a “step challenge” we help them do it without calling it a “challenge”.  

The word “challenge” means something hard and therefore increases the perceived difficulty of something that’s very easy.

Instead, we recommend that companies emphasize how Charity Miles is easy: You don’t need to be a runner or cyclist. All you need to do is walk through your day to make an impact.

Mental Effort: Mental effort is the brain power that someone must exert to understand and perform the desired action.

The more confusing something is, the more instructions there are to read, the more mental hoops there are to jump through, and the less likely someone is to participate.

For this reason, we recommend that companies refrain from making their Charity Miles teams competitive.

Competitions could be motivating for some employees (i.e., those that are already very athletic and likely to win). We’ve done many successful competitions for companies like JP Morgan. 

But that increased motivation can be outweighed by the increased brain power that employees must exert to understand the rules of the competition.

Is it an individual or intra-team competition? How do participants join their respective teams? Is it based on total miles or relative participation? Are bike miles counted differently than walking or running miles?

When employees get a long email that has both a story about a charity and rules about competition, they might not even read it. They don’t have the mental bandwidth.

Does it fit within or break from an existing routine? People are less likely to do something that requires them to break an existing routine. Conversely, people are more likely to do something that is anchored to, or embedded within an existing routine.

Have you ever used your GPS navigation while driving on a familiar route? Sometimes it detects traffic and recommends an alternative route.

The recommendation will save you time, gas, and aggravation, but you don’t do it.

Where is this taking you? Does it go through a bad neighborhood? Are there more stoplights? What if you get lost? What if it’s wrong? 

All of this mental effort matters. You’d rather sit in traffic than deviate from your routine.

The same is true for your CSR engagement. If it requires employees to deviate from existing routines, they will be less likely to participate.

For example, many companies have generous matching gift programs where they match employee donations to charity.

65% of Fortune 500 companies have matching gift programs, donating an extra $2-3 billion to charity each year.

Unfortunately, approximately $6-7 billion of matching gift dollars go unclaimed every year. Why is that?

It’s not that employees don’t give to charity– they do.

It’s because matching gift programs require people to deviate from their usual donation routines. 

Think about the last donation you made. You likely did it directly with the charity.

You likely didn’t think to donate through your company’s benefits portal, or subsequently gather the documentation necessary to submit for the match.

It wouldn’t have taken much time or effort– and it would have doubled the donation to a cause you care about.

But because it required you to do something different from your usual routine, you probably missed an opportunity to double your donation.

Fortunately, several companies are addressing this problem. 

For example, a company, appropriately called Double The Donation, has a widget that charities embed into their donation pages. When you donate to the charity, you are asked to enter your employer’s name. It then lets you know if your employer matches donations, and prompts you to submit for the match.

This doesn’t deviate from your usual donation routine but simply attaches one extra step to the end of that routine. It’s a great example of what Fogg would recommend as anchoring.

If you want to adopt a new habit– for example, doing push-ups every day – Fogg would recommend anchoring that to an existing routine like brushing your teeth. Brushing your teeth is a routine you do every day. After you brush your teeth, you simply add a few push-ups to that routine.

Perhaps even better than anchoring, some of the best CSR practices are those which are embedded into employees’ existing work routines.

recycled nylon clothes

For example, one of our partners, Athleta, makes women’s athletic apparel. In 2017, they developed a new fabric made from recycled nylon yarn. 

Their employees are going to design, produce, market, and sell clothes anyway

With this new fabric, they’re doing the same work they would have done, but in a way that has diverted nearly 1,500 tons of nylon fabric waste from landfills.

They weave their CSR into their work routines. (Pun intended!)

Similarly, Charity Miles fits easily into existing routines. People are going to walk anyway. Charity Miles turns all that walking into money for charity.

Social Acceptance / Deviance: If a behavior deviates from social norms, then people will be less likely to do it. If a behavior conforms to social norms, then people will be more likely to do it. 

These days, it’s hard to imagine a work environment where CSR engagement or volunteering is socially unacceptable. 

I used to work for two big New York City law firms, two of the top law firms in the world.  Firms like these are notorious for their billable hour requirements. Associates often work 18-20 hours a day, for months at a time. That’s the culture.

But they also have a very strong cultural commitment to pro bono work. 

I can’t think of any former colleagues that didn’t have at least one significant pro bono project every year. 

It’s just part of the culture. It would be socially unacceptable if someone didn’t do pro bono work.

The point here isn’t to shame people into CSR engagement.

However, whenever possible, you should publicly celebrate those who engage. 

This creates social proof that makes others want to participate. Most importantly, it fosters a culture that takes pride in helping others.

That’s one of the unexpected benefits our partners find in Charity Miles. It’s not their only CSR engagement. But it helps activate their other CSR pillars by weaving those values into their everyday cultural identity. 

Some CSR activities inherently require time, effort, and a break from routines. 

Building a house, cleaning a park, mentoring students, volunteering at a food bank, representing a client pro bono…  All of these are impactful and worthwhile CSR activities despite (or because of) their relative difficulty.

Nonetheless, whenever possible, you should minimize barriers to action, especially the perceived effort and mental effort required. 

Further, and perhaps most importantly, you should foster a culture where CSR engagement is celebrated as the norm.

For this, your communications play a crucial role.

This brings us to…


Prompts: Tell Employees What To Do.

Fogg’s third element is the prompt, which refers to any communication or stimulus that prompts someone to take action. 

You need to tell people about your CSR opportunity and how to participate.

These communications can include emails, messages in Slack or Microsoft Teams, webinars, signs in the lunchroom, word of mouth, and more.

Whatever the channel, your communications should concisely convey the opportunity to make an impact, minimize barriers to action, and contain clear instructions on what to do.

In our experience, we recommend telling a simple story that highlights the charity’s impact (i.e., motivation), and how easy it is for anyone to participate (i.e., ability).

For example, in Charity Miles, you could say something like this:

If you’re the type of person who likes a fun, easy way to help others, click here now to join our team in Charity Miles

For every mile you walk, run, bike (or otherwise move) we’ll donate $x to [charity], which means every mile [i.e. plants a tree, feeds a child, sends a girl to school].    

You don’t have to be an athlete, take time off work or adjust your schedule. Anyone can do it. Even just walking through your day makes an impact. 

This is a no-brainer. You’re going to be walking anyway, you might as well do it for [cause].

All you have to do is click here now to download the app and enter our private team code when prompted in the onboarding.

The more prompts you can send, the more people will participate.

If someone misses the first, second, and third email, they might see the fourth or the sign in the lunchroom.

Of course, you can’t spam or nag people.

Therefore, your comms should be consistent, but appropriately spaced. The longer your runway, the more opportunities you’ll have to send triggers without spamming people.

Additionally, rather than reiterating the first communication, we recommend building momentum by regularly celebrating the team’s impact and spotlighting participants who are going the extra mile.

This makes current participants feel good, serves as social proof to others, and weaves CSR into the cultural fabric of your company.

Action items: What to do next.

We hope this article helped illustrate the key principles of behavior design that can help you better engage your employees around your CSR and volunteer initiatives:

  • Align with intrinsic motivations;
  • Make it as easy as possible; and
  • Send regular prompts concisely conveying both of the above.

If you’re the kind of company that likes fun, easy and proven ways to empower your employees to make an impact, Charity Miles can help.

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