Branding Employee Volunteerism: Building Culture and Community

Seven principles for leveraging communications to enhance the long-term success and impact of your employee volunteer program.
illustration of volunteering

Employee volunteer programs are an increasingly important component of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Even when companies cut back, the pressure to give back is increasing. This is particularly true for high profile corporations, including those in financial services, that have taken a reputational hit in recent years. Negative press coverage not only weakens relationships with customers and prospects, it can deeply damage employee morale, with disastrous consequences for a company’s long-term prospects. Employee volunteer programs can go a long way toward restoring a tarnished reputation and building employee morale.

Employee volunteer programs are an increasingly important component of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Even when companies cut back, the pressure to give back is increasing. This is particularly true for high profile corporations. Negative press coverage not only weakens relationships with customers and prospects, it can deeply damage employee morale, with disastrous consequences for a company’s long-term prospects. Employee volunteer programs can go a long way toward restoring a tarnished reputation and building employee morale.

However, simply creating a new employee volunteer program does not guarantee its success. Nor does supporting a long-standing program with tired, uninspiring messaging. Effective communication, directed to both internal and external audiences, is critical for maximizing a program’s impact – on the company’s reputation, on employee morale and, most critically, on the community organizations with which the company partners.

Effective communication begins with creating a compelling “brand” for the volunteer program. Brands are developed to instill desired impressions in the minds of key audiences. The audiences for a volunteerism brand includes employees, the community partners engaged by the program and, ultimately, the wider network of individuals and organizations that influence the company’ success – its customers, shareholders, suppliers, regulators and others. How that brand is communicated to these audiences is equally important, particularly when it comes to recruiting volunteers.

Seven Principles for Branding Employee Volunteerism

Let’s look at seven principles for developing and implementing a branding and communications strategy to enhance engagement in and maximize impact of employee volunteer programs:

Principle 1: Make sure the objectives of the volunteer program align, directly or indirectly, with what the company stands for, believes in or does.

The most effective employee volunteer brands align closely with the company’s mission, values and/or products. An excellent example of this is SAP, the B2B software company. It has focused its CSR efforts on increasing citizens’ access to the digital economy. Activities include “Meet and Code” workshops, targeted investments in nonprofits devoted to education and workforce preparedness, and encouraging its employees to serve as mentors to students interested in social innovation.

Similarly, Deloitte’s employees harness their own business-savvy to help others develop job skills and access educational and professional opportunities. The company’s initiative — WorldClass — aims to affect 50 million lives by 2030. Additionally, Deloitte donates its consulting capabilities to NGOs tackling major global challenges; for example, it’s partnered with the UN to study how private companies can best battle climate change.

Not every volunteerism brand must be as tightly linked to a company’s positioning or product. A client of our firm, a prominent investment banking firm, links its employee volunteerism activities to the concept of teamwork, which is a core principle of its strong corporate culture. An explicit purpose of its volunteerism program is bringing together employees from diverse departments and with different levels of authority to work together on community projects. The volunteer brand isn’t related to the firm’s product offering (financial services), but it is directly tied to its corporate culture.

Companies just launching a volunteer program should consider the linkages to their brand, product or values when determining which types of activities to support and/or encourage. But even those with a long-standing volunteer program should make sure that its objectives and impact are in some way tied to the what the company stands for, believes in or does. This can be done explicitly, as with SAP or Deloitte, or subtly, as with Intel. Intel’s volunteer program, “Intel Involved,” is a subtle play on the “Intel Inside” concept, offering a sense that the company’s employees are “inside” the communities in which they work.

Principle 2: Determine your employees’ motivations and appeal to them as you encourage volunteering.

Why do employees sign up for a company volunteer program? Is it the opportunity to “do good?” The chance to make a positive impression on company management? A day off from work? The answer isn’t always obvious. A few years ago, our firm was asked to create a communications program for a client’s community volunteer program. Participation had been holding steady at 70% for several years, and the company wanted to boost this to at least 80%. In the past, communications about the program had focused on the social importance of the work done by the volunteers. Images in recruiting posters showed employees visiting senior centers, cleaning urban parks, painting school buildings. It was all very inspirational.

But when we asked employees in informal focus groups why they signed up, it wasn’t always “doing good” that motivated them. Instead, the most common motivation was the opportunity to step out of their day-to-day routine. Since many of the volunteer activities took place on weekends, it wasn’t just a matter of a day off from work. It was the chance to do something different, to be someone different, if only for a day. A hard-charging young finance executive could be a soccer coach for a day. A marketing director with grown children could spend time at a day care center with young children. A senior executive could work with her hands for a change and see immediate results in the form of a freshly painted schoolyard wall. With these insights, we created a recruitment campaign built around the notion of “being” something or someone different for a day. Communications featured bold headlines: “Be a painter.” “Be a coach.” “Be a landscaper.” Participation rates jumped significantly the first year.

The lesson from this experience is clear: find out what does — and does not — motivate employees to get involved and use this information to create your recruitment campaign. Motivations will vary from company to company, depending on the type of business, the communities in which it operates and the kinds of organizations supported.

While the recruitment message may vary from company to company, certain principles about how it is delivered cut across all organizations.

Principle 3: A picture is worth a thousand words – let employees see themselves participating in the program.

In our experience, many successful campaigns showcase real employee volunteers out in the community. In asking employees to volunteer, you’re asking them to step out of their comfort zone, to go to new places and interact with new people and ideas. Showing images of colleagues participating in the community helps allay any anxiety employees might have, enabling them to envision themselves doing the same. For a recent campaign for a client with a relatively new volunteer program, we created lobby posters and other communications that showed employees volunteering in small groups. This not only promoted a sense of teamwork, it reassured employees that they would not be “flying solo” when they ventured out of the office.

Principle 4: Plan ahead. Use this year’s program or activities as the building blocks for next year’s recruitment campaign.

Showing images of your people in the community requires an investment in custom photography – and a good bit of planning. For seasonal programs that occur each year at a specified time, it’s vital to have a photographer on hand to capture images this year to use in next year’s campaign. This is where the planning comes in. But it’s worth the extra effort to avoid using stock photographs. Employees have no trouble sniffing out phony images, and it’s important that they see themselves in the photography, not posed models. For a global investment banking client, we sent a single photographer to volunteer sites in six cities on four continents. The images he captured were used to recruit volunteers for the next year’s program. Using a single photographer ensured a cohesive visual style across all sites and activities.

Principle 5: Make each campaign unique to maximize engagement over time.

It’s also important to keep your communications fresh. Just as magazines invest in new campaigns to secure renewals from subscribers, employee volunteerism campaigns need to find new ways to engage past participants as well as non-participants. The volunteerism brand should remain the same, but the messages – in verbal and visual expression – should change each year to draw attention to the program and give employees a new reason to join. We recently created a new campaign based on a volunteer program’s 10th anniversary; though the brand for this program was well established, the campaign messaging used the anniversary as a catalyst to engage employees who had not yet gotten involved.

Principle 6: To build a teamwork and align CSR to corporate culture, develop shared goals and common metrics for the program.

One way to generate enthusiasm, even for a program that may be several years old, is to share participation goals and keep employees updated on progress. A client of ours incorporated target participation rates into its one-day volunteerism program three years ago and used a variety of communications, including emails from senior management and frequent postings on the company intranet, to chart progress. Employees felt they had a stake in helping the company reach its goals, and participation increased significantly that year. Sharing goals and outcomes also helps transform the volunteer program into a culture-building activity; even when employees volunteer individually, they feel tapped into a company-wide effort.

Even if you choose not to share participation goals beforehand, it is almost always advisable to share results afterwards. Again, this will connect the volunteer activity to the corporate culture – and build a sense of teamwork. Beyond participation rates, find ways to quantify the impact of what was accomplished. For example, a client of ours calculated the impact of its volunteer efforts using a number of unexpected yardsticks: acres cleared of rubbish, meals delivered to homebound seniors, etc. These calculations brought home to employees that, while individually their impact may appear insignificant, collectively they made a difference.

Principle 7: Leverage a broad range of touchpoints to engage employees and phase communications to build momentum.

Posters in your lobby and other common areas are important but not sufficient. To build interest and excitement, it’s vital to reach employees where they are most comfortable acquiring information. For many, this may be on social media platforms. For example, on Facebook pages devoted to employee volunteer initiatives, employees can post photos of volunteer events on the site – provided they pass muster with the page’s administrator. Video is another effective medium, unique in its ability to capture the moment and convey the spirit of an activity. For one client project, we sent a video team along with a photographer to capture footage of volunteer events. The footage was edited into a five-minute film that was posted on the company’s intranet to generate buzz for the next year’s program. It was also posted to YouTube and Vimeo sites, where it was seen by external audiences.

By adapting your campaign to diverse media, you can more easily phase communications over time. Lobby posters may not change, for example, over the course of the campaign, but online photo messages of last year’s events can be posted to your intranet at appropriate intervals.

The Takeaway

Corporate volunteer programs are highly effective way to leverage the skills and enthusiasm of employees and make a difference in the community. They build a strong internal culture as well as goodwill with external audiences. But to be truly effective, they must communicate a distinct perspective that demonstrates how their CSR goals relate to the company’s “why” . This kind of brand- and purpose-driven messaging will ensure maximum participation among employees and maximum benefit for community partners.

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