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Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Sustainability

Why Obsessing About Volunteer Participation Gets You Nowhere With Millennials


There are certain goals in life that seem self evident. For HR and CSR leaders, one of those certainties is this: high employee participation rates means that your volunteer and giving program is a success. Ergo, participation rates must be at the forefront of one’s focus.

My insightful friend Chris Jarvis recently raised the issue of employee participation preoccupation, asking his typically smart questions about a topic many would consider open and shut. As a leading expert in the employee volunteer and giving space, Jarvis knows that program managers drive themselves nuts over participation rates. And understandably a degree. After investing time and effort implementing programs that will help employees enjoy a more purpose-filled experience at work, managers want to make sure that employees are actually taking advantage of enriching volunteer opportunities.

But Jarvis warns that participation sometimes gets confused with engagement.

“Participation is an important output metric, but it should be considered neither an outcome nor impact,” he writes. “In fact, fixating on participation rates without understanding what the desired outcomes and impacts are for the company, community, and the employees themselves, is dangerous.”

I’ve written in the past about the dangers of being voluntold. After all, It’s not actually volunteering when it feels like “mandateering” (mandatory volunteering). If you’re not showing up of your own free will, the air of obligation can wreak havoc on the intended spirit of any civic engagement.

Jarvis notes that the pressure to conform is intensely felt at many organizations (by 49% of employees, according to one survey), and the pressure to be good can actually backfire. Employees feel put upon when their jobs seem to obligate them to give back, and this negative atmosphere can come from subtleties as seemingly innocuous as too many reminders to record your volunteer hours.

What a conundrum for HR and CSR leaders. So many of them want to create a culture of giving back, but it doesn’t take much for employees to feel like pushing back instead.  

So how does this relate to Millennials? Well, while company leaders may be tailoring their volunteer and giving efforts to appeal to Millennials more than any other type of employee, Millennials are probably the most likely to rebuff these entreaties when there’s a vibe of conformity in the air. Company leaders who are desperate to uptick participation rates are probably approaching these efforts looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

Join us for our webinar on Feb. 23rd: How to Retain and Attract Millennial Talent

It’s not about how many people participate; it’s about how much impact is generated. What’s going to inspire Millennials is not some announcement about how your company scored 75% participation at the done in a day, but about how everything you’re doing is leading to a larger strategy around moving the needle on a social cause or mission.

Of course HR leaders aren’t wrong when they try to shape their corporate culture in more philanthropic ways that appeal to Millennial employees. According to the 2014 Millennial Impact Report, one-third of Millennials surveyed said that their companies’ volunteer policies affected their decision to apply for a job, 39% said that it influenced their decision to interview, and 55% said that such policies played into their decision to accept an offer.

Throughout the four years of the Millennial Report’s survey, several consistent trends have emerged. One of them is that Millennials engage with causes to help other people, not institutions. Another is that Millennials support issues rather than organizations.

Millennials don’t care about your company and its participation rates, no matter how much this disregard may vex you. What matters to Millennials is following their individual philanthropic passions and feeling that they have the autonomy to discover their own path towards innovating around causes.

Sure, Millennials care deeply about giving back, but they approach this priority in different ways than the traditional workplace has allowed for. It’s an approach that the Millennial Impact Report concludes will reshape the way we approach engagement. As Jean Case wrote about the 2015 Impact Report, “...If managers want to have the greatest influence on their Millennial employees, they may have to step aside. Today, Millennial employees tend to be most inspired by their colleagues and peers who are not in management. And the longer an employee is at the company, the less managers influence them to participate in cause work.”

The report backed up these conclusions with some fascinating data. Millennials are 44% more likely to volunteer if a supervisor does, but 65% more likely if other co-workers participate. They’re 27% more likely to donate to a cause if their manager does, but 46% more likely to donate if a co-worker asks them to. The higher up an individual is on the organizational chain of command, the less influence he or she seems to have on motivating Millennial employees to engage in cause work.

When managers fret about participation rates, they’re missing the point when it comes to Millennials in particular. Millennials don’t want to separate their cause interests from their work; they want it to be a seamless part of their life that follows them from home, to work, and everywhere in between. Obsessing over the participation rates at the office alone capture a narrow slice of the bigger picture; consider that seventy-nine percent of Millennial employees who did not participate in a company-wide giving campaign still donated to a cause outside of work. Millennials are engaging in causes overall and using your company as a platform for this exploration, so reframe your expectations and scope of vision if you want to understand the full sweep of Millennials and giving back.

It’s not that participation rates aren’t important; they just don’t tell the whole story. The fact that Millennials are so heavily influenced by peers over managers around giving back tells us much about how the power centers are shifting at companies, with Millennials taking on the role of what Case calls “organizational influencers.” When it comes to Millennials, stop fixating over the numbers alone and think instead about how you can nurture their passions in ways that connect your company to the rest of their lives, including the parts you’re not tracking participation for at all.

Sign up for our webinar: How to Retain and Attract Millennial Talent

Thursday, February 23rd at 10:30am PT/ 1:30pm ET

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