Levers and barriers for corporate volunteering

If you’ve ever tried to organise volunteering in the community, you’ll know it’s difficult to get people to turn up. Even with good intentions, numbers often drop at the last minute. This can happen for a variety of reasons, it can be frustrating and puzzling. During my five years focusing on engaging all the people in our corporate in volunteering, I’ve reflected a lot on what motivates people to sign up and, what gets in the way of them volunteering.

The biggest lesson for me is that different people are motivated by different things. We found the best approach was to try to cover as many of the potential levers as possible when appealing to people. Some people are naturally drawn to initiatives, they will actively seek out committees and make it their business to be involved. These were our best people, they used to respond to our monthly emails letting us know which of the days they COULDN’T make. These were also the people who we could really count on to help us secure other volunteers.

Many people who sign up will have a personal interest in the cause you’re supporting, or the activity, and this is what will motivate them. You might find that a person who has had a family member struggle with mental health, for example, will sign up for a charity with this as a focus. Similarly, if you’re going to cook for residents in a homeless shelter, some of the volunteers will be there because they are passionate cooks. In order to appeal to individual passions, it helps if you’re able to offer a bit of variety, within the bounds of your strategic focus. There are some people who would relish the idea of spending the day maintaining an outside space, whereas others will come to a drumming or poetry workshop with young people, because the love music or writing.

Some people are more than happy to help, but they will only respond to a personal approach. You could send them emails for ten years without them signing up, but walk over to their desk and ask them in person and they will happily oblige. You can get by using emails and a simple, low-tech poster in a bathroom can be surprisingly effective (there’s not much else there competing for one’s attention), but these do not compare to the results you will get from asking someone face-to-face. I’m not sure if it makes people feel less shy about signing up, or if it makes the request more personal to them, as though they are prepared to do it as a favour to you. Perhaps, on some level, you asking them directly gave them an unspoken confirmation of their suitability for the task, that they have value to add (many volunteers dramatically underestimate the skills, experience and overall value that they bring), or the granting of permission they felt on some level that they needed.

Some people would never sign up on their own, but will happily join if their friend is coming along. So, it sounds obvious, but it’s always a good idea to ask people who sign up to try and bring a friend with them. This is a good way to reach people who have not signed up before.

Some people have a particular skill that they are interested in developing in their career. For example, public speaking/presenting or mentoring newer staff members. They might be interested in an opportunity to practice that skill in a ‘safe’ environment, giving a talk to a small group of students, for example.

New joiners may be persuaded to sign up for the opportunity to meet people in their team and the wider organisation. It’s a good time to reach out to try and get them into the habit if supporting the company’s CSR programmes, plus you get them before their workload becomes too heavy. On the other hand, I’ve encountered some hesitance in people who feel that by taking time away from their desk, they might be giving the wrong first impression in their team, i.e. that they aren’t that driven or don’t have their priorities straight – be aware of this as a potential barrier.

Another assumption I made early on, which is not always correct, was that people with their own children would be most comfortable signing up for youth development opportunities. I figured they would be more comfortable working with teenagers with slightly challenging behaviours. Firstly, I learned that many parents feel awkward even talking to their own teens! But also, that many parents feel guilty spending so much time away from their own kids as it is, so they are unlikely to volunteer to spend time with someone else’s child. However, propose an opportunity to them to use their directly work-related skills, for example, in a workshop with budding entrepreneurs, particularly one during office hours, and they really come into their own.

Some people are sceptical, and need to feel a sense of co-creation in relation to the opportunity to give back, before they will get on board. You can form a committee to decide with them what their chosen activity will be. Spoiler alert: for some, even this investment of your time and energy to create a bespoke opportunity is not enough to stop them pulling out at the last minute, but it’s worth a try…

Many people will be motivated to volunteer if their whole team is undertaking a day. They recognise the benefits of time spent getting to know each other outside of the day job and like the opportunity to bond with their colleagues. These days out can be appealing for team leaders, because they achieve team objectives, as well as having an impact in the community. I had to cringe whenever a team had a day out and the leader bowed out – talk about a wasted opportunity, especially if the leader is fond of talking the talk about company values, teamwork and staff engagement! Certain people will only turn up for a volunteering day if their boss will be there to see them.

Regardless of people’s motivations, we welcomed them all, made it easy as possible for them to get involved and tried to cater to everyone as best we could to give them an impactful and meaningful experience, to increase attendance and engagement of employees going forward. We were driven by the impact we were able to have through our programmes and involving volunteers played a big role in that.

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