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Why Volunteering as a Team Can Inspire Employee Engagement

By Maja Orsic

You already know that your team is capable of accomplishing incredible things together. That’s why you hired the people you did!

So as your employees grow with you and become stewards of your company’s core values, how will you retain them?

To start, let’s reframe the question: How will you engage your employees’ passions, support their professional development, and deepen their connection to your mission?

“What used to drive employee retention were things like salary, benefits, job security,” reports CyberGrants. “[A]nd while those things are still extremely important, employees today are looking for additional avenues of motivation and engagement. They want experiences, camaraderie, growth and fulfillment.”

That’s right! Modern employees want to feel more motivated and engaged at work. And, as CauseCast points out, “they don’t give employers much time to make them happy.” Nearly 60 percent of workers under 40 have “switched careers at least once and most change jobs every three years or less.”

It’s important to note that these professionals aren’t job hopping for better pay. When comparable compensation is on the table, modern workers are closely examining the non-transferable characteristics of organizations — including company values, team morale, and work/life balance  that will directly impact their quality of life.

“[T]he biggest motivator for changing positions is the promise of purpose and fulfillment: not financial incentive,” reports MacKenzie Kassab in the Harvard Extension School Professional Development Blog.

With so many factors influencing the modern worker’s decision to stay put or move on, it comes as no surprise that 87 percent of HR leaders say employee retention is a primary concern for their companies, according to Kronos and Future Workplace.

You can’t offer your team a raise of “10 percent more company culture.” So, if you want to retain your employees and your employees want to feel fulfilled at work, how can you both get what you want?

One option for improving employee engagement: volunteer as a team

Deloitte’s 2017 Volunteerism Survey found that 70 percent of working Americans believe “volunteer activities are more likely to boost employee morale than company-sponsored happy hours.”

A staggering 89 percent of respondents believe companies that sponsor volunteer activities offer a better overall working environment than those that do not.

Let’s look at a real-world example:

From tip to toe, ThirdLove is exhibiting and encouraging behaviors that benefit other people. The company has donated more than one million bras (a $3.5 million value!) to women in need. ThirdLove employees volunteer as fit specialists to help women find comfortable and supportive bras, taking time to make each donation impactful.

The ThirdLove team goes one step further by encouraging its customers to get involved, suggesting several options for bra donation services that anyone can reference. They’re not patting themselves on the back for their great work; conversely, they’re offering themselves as an example that employees and customers can feel good about.

The result? A current ThirdLove employee describes the company culture as follows:

“It is really easy to come to work when you are selling a product (bras!!) that everyone is invested in and truly believes in….[P]eople are always going the extra mile to help contribute and work cross-functionally between different departments.”

This isn’t to say that employee volunteering causes employees to go the extra mile at work, but the correlation is certainly strong enough to be compelling.

Take this research from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania as further proof: “[W]hen employees see the positive impact of their work on others, they are more productive,” write Mark C. Bolino and Adam M. Grant in The Academy of Management Annals.

Volunteer efforts demonstrate company values

One of Chobani’s founding values is “giving back.” The company describes its philanthropic efforts as “doing well by doing good” and, as Rob Brunner notes in Fast Company, Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya “has begun to forge a new kind of business leadership, one that fuses competitiveness with an unusually strong sense of compassion.”

In 2016, the company’s employees logged more than 3,500 volunteer hours giving out more than 525,000 cases of yogurt. That same year, Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya famously gave his 2,000 full-time employees shares worth up to ten percent of the company if it goes public or is sold.

After Hurricane Harvey, Chobani employees volunteered to pack trucks with yogurt to send to Houston. It was the workers who led the initiative: “‘When there's a crisis at a national level, we immediately hear from our Chobani employees,’” said Chobani spokeswoman Alyson Outen. “‘They want to know what the company's doing to give back and what they as individuals can do to help.’”

In addition to yogurt, the workers donated to Save the Children and Chobani matched every dollar. As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than company core values printed on a poster.

Volunteer efforts don’t have to be related to your company’s product to make them meaningful. Dropbox’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) program, Dropbox for Good, is another shining example of how volunteering shows what the company values.

“As part of the company’s citizenship philanthropy model, employees are given four paid volunteer days per year to pursue the causes they’re passionate about,” CauseCast writes. (CauseCast is a B Corp dedicated to inspiring employee engagement through corporate giving and volunteerism.) In essence, Dropbox is helping its employees help others.

Chief among Dropbox for Good’s many impressive stats: the company’s employees logged more than 4,000 volunteer hours in three years. Those numbers are proof that Dropbox’s core value “be worthy of trust” isn’t mere lip service: they value, and therefore dedicate significant time and money to, meaningful work that fills a need and earns the trust of employees and the general public.

With regard to employee engagement and retention, positive Glassdoor reviews like this one and Instagram posts like these say volumes more about the company culture than any hiring manager ever could.

SnackNation is another prime example of a company publicly committing to its core values.

"At SnackNation, volunteering is an embodiment of our core values,” explains SnackNation's CEO Sean Kelly. “We’ve found that it’s the perfect way to combine two of our favorite values: 'Serve and inspire' and ‘Spread joy and optimism.’"

"One example: for every box we ship through our partnership with Feeding America, we donate 11 meals to a family in need. That's 3 million meals donated to date! Additionally, to really understand the problem of food insecurity, our entire team volunteers at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank biannually for a hands-on education on how Feeding America’s networks impact the families who rely on their services. It’s always a fun, rewarding day, and good way to bond with our fellow teammates.”

Volunteering leads to stronger teams

The team bonding Kelly references is more than just a feeling: there’s science behind the idea that volunteering strengthens peer relationships and boosts productivity and profitability for companies. To understand that dynamic, let’s start by talking about prosocial behavior. Prosocial behavior is any voluntary action or pattern of activity that benefits other people or society as a whole.

When you offer to share your lunch with a coworker who forget theirs, you’re exhibiting prosocial behavior. When you hold the door for strangers at the train station, you’re exhibiting prosocial behavior. When your team volunteers, they’re exhibiting prosocial behavior.

The best part: neuroscientists believe that we experience the positive chemical effects of prosocial behaviors at an atomic level. “[T]aking...actions that make a positive impact on others can boost our oxytocin levels by up to 50 percent,” writes Bryan de Lottinville in ChiefExecutive.

Don’t worry if you don’t remember much from high school biology — neither do we! De Lottinville describes the influence of oxytocin as follows:

“Oxytocin helps to create the trust that is required for us to work cooperatively in important social groups, like companies and teams. Colleagues who volunteer together to create goodness in their community form a bond that strengthens the team as a whole, which is how most high-value work is conducted in companies these days.”

Forget costly ping pong tables and barista-quality espresso machines: team volunteering is an investment in your company culture that doesn’t draw on traditional resources or elicit traditional results. It’s a prosocial behavior with positive effects that can literally strengthen teams.

Team volunteering helps employees feel they are making valuable contributions while simultaneously helping them forge stronger bonds with their peers, bonds that are crucial for employee engagement.

And as Nancy McGaw, deputy director of the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Programme, tells the Financial Times, “There’s an emerging understanding of the relationship between engagement and purpose and profitability.”

Disney Petit, Postmates' Civic Labs Program Manager, saw an opportunity for the company to deepen its relationships with local communities by encouraging its employees to volunteer.

"Our mission is to tap Postmates' ingenuity to build a thriving and sustainable future that works for everyone. One major way that we address this huge mission is through our volunteer program," Petit explains.

"Our focus areas include Climate Action, Independent Workforce Advocacy, Local Merchant Prosperity, and Food Security. We use these focus areas to inform not only our volunteer activities, but also the work that we do in partnership with other teams at Postmates and in collaboration with other companies and non-profits."

"In the time since we started our volunteer program," Petit says, "over 300 employees have volunteered, logging over 1,200 hours of volunteer efforts in our offices all over the country with organizations like Project Open Hand in San Francisco, Earthcorps in Seattle, and the Cumberland River Compact in Nashville. Our goal is that by the end of 2018, every Postmates employee has volunteered at least one time."

Ready, set, give

I hope you’re feeling inspired to volunteer with your team!

Remember, you don’t have to have a full-blown program like Postmates, ThirdLove, Chobani, or Dropbox. Start by finding out what causes are important to you and your team, and schedule a time to brainstorm activities that you can do together.

Whether you’re volunteering with your team for the first time or you have a full program rolled out, CauseCast recommends offering “multiple on-ramps to charitable engagement.”

Those on-ramps can take many forms. For example, your team can:

  • Spend a weekday morning cleaning up a local park
  • Sponsor an in-office drive for clothing or non-perishable goods donations
  • Commit to a regular, recurring volunteer time slot at a school or a shelter
  • Volunteer at and/or donate to special nonprofits on significant holidays

The Bonusly team recently discussed the causes that are important to us and how we can support them. One of our first charitable initiatives as a team was our campaign around hurricane relief last year. More recently, we celebrated Women’s History Month, World Wildlife Day, and World Water Day by donating some of our Bonusly earnings to related charities via the Bonusly Rewards Catalog.

Soon, we'll be kicking off our Earth Day celebrations by volunteering at Bear Canyon Creek in Boulder, CO. (We'll be getting our hands dirty over on Instagram!)

Whether your team is volunteering for Earth Day this week or planning something down the line, please share your experiences by mentioning or tagging us on Twitter and Instagram!

To learn more about more ways to strengthen employee engagement, don’t miss this comprehensive resource:

The Five Elements of Employee Engagement

Written by Maja Orsic

Maja Orsic


Maja's background in writing, fine art photography, and visual design informs her hybrid approach to marketing. She is motivated to create welcoming digital spaces and make work better for everyone.

Originally published on April 18, 2018 → Last updated June 14, 2018