National Volunteer Week: Corporate volunteering is on the up – but will it last?

To coincide with this week being National Volunteer Week, we look at the role corporate volunteering plays - and how organizations can sustain new-found interest in employee volunteering

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Apr 22, 2024

When the US economy effectively shut down in 2020, one of the obvious and very big losers was the charity/voluntary sector.

In the year September 2020-2021, less than one-quarter of working-age Americans volunteered for an organization or association.

This is according to data from AmeriCorps, the federal agency for national service and volunteerism. In that year, about 60.7 million people, a little more than 23% of Americans, formally volunteered with an organization. It represented the lowest percentage of volunteering since tracking began in the early 2000s, and was down dramatically from 30% in 2019 and from 27.6% 20 years earlier.

Of course, it was not that Americans didn’t want to volunteer; more that they simply couldn’t to due to social distancing. And the good news is that since the pandemic, volunteering has bounced back again.

But what’s been interesting, however, is that the exclusion people felt while being locked-down has largely continued due to the prevalence of remote working.

As such, it has largely been through their employers that many Americans have now voiced a desire to want to volunteer – to reconnect them with colleagues and the community they serve.

Corporate volunteering finds new purpose

This is one of the main observations that volunteering platform provider, Benevity, has found, after polling 473 organizations (covering 12.9 million employees), for its recently produced ‘The State of Corporate Volunteering’ report.

Today we exclusively share some more of details of it, and speak to the person who wrote it, as we mark the start (this week) of National Volunteer Week (21st-27th April).

 The headline result is that corporate volunteering programs now seem to have found a renewed purpose as a way for companies to build connection.

Amongst Benevity’s clients, there was a 9.2% global average participation rate for volunteering. This represents a 57% increase from the previous year’s participation rate of 5.9%.

Generally speaking, it also found the more variety and types of cause a company supports, the more participation it inspires from employees. Companies experience 12 times the participation rate when promoting both company and user-created volunteer opportunities.

So is volunteering really ‘back’?

Have organizations hit upon golden moment of symmetry – where organizations want to demonstrate having a social purpose, while employees want to increasingly be more in-tune with their colleagues, their community and a sense of purpose that providing volunteering creates?

Workers want to do things that matter

“It’s very evident there is pent-up desire amongst workers to be doing something that they feel brings meaning to them, and that work now must give them more meaning,” says Sona Khosla, chief Impact officer at Benevity.

Keen to find out whether the rise in volunteering was simply a result of it being extinguished for so long, and whether it is just a short-term bounce she said she looked back at trends going back to 2019.

“What we found was that yes, there was clearly a big rise post-pandemic, but what we’ve also found was that in 2023 there was a second massive boom, and I think the real reason behind this is that companies see volunteering as a way of rebuilding their company cultures after a period of trauma.”

She continues: “In other words, volunteering has become a tool to address other business problems – the fact that people are working in silos; and are seeking to find a way of having a shared sense of purpose.”

She adds: “For some companies volunteering has been a way of helping them bring people back to the office, because what we also found was that there was a 3.6 x increase in location-based volunteering compared to what it was in 2022 and 8.6x the level seen during the depths of the pandemic in 2020.”

She says: “Salesforce was one company in particular that offered out ‘donated dollars’ specifically to those that came back to the office.”

More ‘new volunteers’ and wider definitions of volunteering

What was interesting from the research is that the data also confirms there has been significant growth in ‘new’ volunteers – that is people completely new to volunteering, rather than comprising the same people who do it year-in, year-out.

It found 65% of volunteers Benevity polled were ‘new’ in the past year, and Khosla says this is further symptomatic of the need for people to feel they are making a difference.

“Virtual volunteering still remains strong – that is people lending their skills, such as marketing or financial skills, over Zoom/teams,” says Khosla. “Some 51% of all hours volunteered are virtual. But this is receding somewhat, and I believe it will continue to fall, as people want more in-person contact.”

Interestingly too, she also argues, is that companies are now experimenting with a wider definition of what it is to volunteer.

“Firms used to have a very strict definition around it being a ‘corporate volunteering day,’ or other some other mass-event.”

She says: “Now we’re seeing growth in Volunteer Acts of Kindness (or VAOKs) – which are not tied to a specific non-profit, and include small acts of goodwill. These might be things like attending learning sessions hosted by Employee Resource Groups, park and beach clean-ups and more.”

She adds: “VAOKs can act as an entry point for social action, which makes them popular among Gen Z who are sometimes not as engaged in traditional volunteering as their millennial or Gen X counterparts.”

Global differences

Khosla is keen to point out that even though corporate volunteering participation levels have grown significantly in the US in the last few years – it is still the case that US corporate volunteering participation is still only around 7.8%, which is below the global average of 9.2%.

But Khosla argues there are grounds for optimism for a more long-term uptick, and one that is sustained, rather than being a post-Covid-19 bounce.

“In the UK, for example, corporate volunteering does tend to be more ‘top-down’ – with employers directing things. Here though, it is more bottom-up, with the emphasis on enabling people to do things in their own time.”

She adds: “We see firms also tailoring their events too, to having fewer big day-long events – where people can feel too time-constrained to attend – to more micro-volunteering moments.”

But…volunteering doesn’t happen by itself

What Khosla is also keen to impart however, is that while companies are now benefiting from a very apparent uptick in interest in volunteering, they shouldn’t be complacent.

In fact, they shouldn’t think that volunteering will now simply take care of itself.

“The one big message here – I think – is that the data suggests that volunteering isn’t easy. It requires hard work to push, and promote, and get employees engaged in it still.”

She adds: “The most successful firms have volunteer champions, networks, and actively go out and find out what their local community needs. Just because employees say they want purpose from work, employers still have to do the leg-work to ensure volunteering stays front of mind.”

The good thing though, she adds, is that volunteering doesn’t have to be scary.

“Volunteering is the sort of CSR initiative that does have a maturity curve. Companies can start out doing things slowly; find out what works, and then build thing up from there.”

She adds: “Next year I think we may well see a leveling off in the growth of volunteering, but I do sense volunteering is still something employers want to continue to invest in.”

She continues: “We think we’ll also see development around ‘why’ people should volunteer. Volunteering will be couched less as something to help bring people together, and more how can we – as employers – sustain volunteering as a way of achieving real, and lasting social impact.”