Help Wanted: What Will It Take to Make Workplace Giving More Effective?



Once upon a time, American employees expected to stay with the same company for many years, decades even, and many employers obliged them. For workers who did give, payroll donations to places like the United Way, the Combined Federal Campaign and local charities became yet another way to identify with company and coworkers. The same went for volunteer work in the community with fellow employees. 

While the nature of work has shifted, there’s some carry-through in terms of what inspires employees to donate time and coin. There are also some key differences. In a recent report, Giving USA and Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy tease out that dynamic, drawing on research into a fraught set of questions. Namely, can “corporate social responsibility” foster meaningful change, and can it engage a footloose, digitally savvy 21st-century workforce?

It’s an important question in an era when charitable giving and volunteering by Americans has been declining, falling to its lowest point in two decades, according to recent research from the University of Maryland's Do Good Institute

As we’ve discussed in the past, corporations themselves are becoming a lot more strategic in their philanthropy, with major firms like Google, JPMorgan Chase and even Walmart setting those trends. In that context, many companies see their large and multi-talented workforces as key assets for having philanthropic impact in specific issue areas—stay, STEM education—via volunteer work, mentorships and the like. The 1+1+1 model of corporate giving that Salesforce has long promoted—and that numerous other tech companies have embraced—calls for companies to donate 1 percent of equity, 1 percent of product and 1 percent of their employees’ time.

Related: Taking the Pledge: Inside the Next Big Wave of Tech Philanthropy

Meanwhile, as we so often hear—and as this new report affirms—today’s employees increasingly expect their company’s social impact commitments to match their values. That’s very much the case among younger workers: Seventy-six percent of millennials “consider a company’s social and environmental commitments” during the job search, according to a study cited in the report. But they’re not the only ones. “Though much attention has been given to millennials,” the report’s authors write, “gen Xers and baby boomers are also highly invested in working for companies whose work aligns with their values and goals.”

It’s not hard to see why. For many employees, their companies are often the only institutions they regularly engage with—a break from the days of abundant clubs, associations, and formal social groups. The report says we’re in a time of transition for workplace giving, underscoring the need for companies to experiment with new models as traditional approaches struggle for traction.

According to the report, offering employees greater choice over where and how they donate is a sure path to engagement. While old-school workplace giving was a top-down affair, today’s employees prefer more say in the matter. When companies match gifts to nonprofits that employees have chosen themselves, the authors write, even more people get on board. 

That can mean tangible competitive benefits for the firms involved. The report finds that “when employees are involved in a company’s CSR initiatives, they frequently display positive commitment and a stronger emotional attachment to their companies, making them more likely to spread positive information about their workplaces.” The authors also note investor and stakeholder preferences for firms with well-publicized CSR efforts. 

Technology, the report says, can be a great enabler for employee-driven (or at least employee-advised) workplace giving. So it’s unsurprising to see tech companies like Salesforce, Google and Hewlett Packard experiment with platforms designed to facilitate the process. As we’ve written, some even make it easy for donors to broadcast that giving in their personal social feeds, further blurring the boundary between personal charity and giving through one’s company.

Related: Next Up for a Pioneer in Corporate Philanthropy: Transforming Workplace Giving

When it comes to the workplace giving playbook, nothing’s more selfie-worthy than company-sponsored volunteering, which one study the report cites calls “essential to employee well-being.” The benefits to corporations in hosting volunteer events for their employees, the authors write, are well-documented. But the same isn’t true for the nonprofits that supposedly receive this largesse.

From the report: “Corporate volunteering is frequently thought of as a ‘win-win- win,’ with benefits accruing to the company, employee volunteers and nonprofit partners. However, few studies attempt to understand the nonprofit aspect of the triple win, and benefits to nonprofits are often assumed rather than critically studied.”

The way nonprofits tell it, employee volunteer time could be put to better use by establishing long-term partnerships beyond single-day events. The report also notes particular skillsets nonprofits need, like accounting, finance, planning, information technology and marketing. But according to some nonprofits, quantity can outweigh quality in the eyes of corporate partners, leaving those needs unmet.

As we’ve reported, corporate philanthropy leaders have already heard this message from nonprofits and are acting on it. For example, JPMorgan Chase has a program called the Field Service Corps, which embeds volunteer teams of bank employees in a nonprofit for three weeks to help it solve a business or technical problem.

The report also delves into the demographics of workplace giving, breaking things down by race, age and gender. Female employees, the authors find, are on average more likely to participate in workplace giving campaigns than their male peers. That effect carries over to men who work in departments with lots of women—they’re also more likely to give. 

While women in the workplace tend to boost campaigns, ethnic and racial diversity can depress engagement, the report finds. It recommends that employers and established workplace giving campaigns modify their approach for better alignment with more heterogeneous communities. 

One top-level takeaway from the report is that in addition to greater employee choice and engagement tools, employee loyalty is key. Their tenures may be shorter than in the past, but it remains true that the greater their sense of connection to the company, the more likely employees are to give. By tailoring workplace giving campaigns to employees’ values, identities and personal stories—or by empowering employees to do so themselves—employers can boost morale. In a time when ordinary Americans are giving less and charitable activity is becoming ever more concentrated in the hands of the wealthy, the potential benefits to the nonprofit sector shouldn’t be underestimated.