With Anne-Claire Pache

From the paper “What Keeps Corporate Volunteers Engaged: Extending the Volunteer Work Design Model with Self-determination Theory Insights”, Journal of Business Ethics, 2018

For more than a decade, leading companies have been working on developing the practice of corporate volunteering programs. As a result, the number of these programs has grown increasingly. However, despite enthusiastic claims around the benefits for the workplace, their impact for beneficiaries and non-profit organizations remains uncertain, particularly when CV is practiced by employees on a one-off or short-term basis. Truth is, one-off CV interventions are inadequate to generate the required changes and the gratifying experience is likely to wane over time. Their positive effect is thus diminished and the benefits for employees, businesses and society, reduced. If previous research has focused mainly on the importance for the employee to internalize a volunteer identity, considered to be a critical process for future volunteering behavior, a recent study co-authored by Prof. Anne-Claire Pache and Dr. Arthur Gautier from the ESSEC Philanthropy Chair explores the factors behind the internalization of a volunteer identity in a corporate context.  

Corporate Volunteering as an Important Component of a Positive Work Environment

Recent surveys show that companies increasingly develop corporate volunteering programs, whether in the United States, Europe or Asia, and that employees - millennials in particular - are increasingly considering corporate volunteering as an important component of a positive work environment. A study conducted in 2017 by the Coalition of CEOs for Corporate Philanthropy (CECP) reported that, among top 250 multinational companies, 61% of them offered corporate volunteering programs, whereas 34% offered such activities in 2010.

In the US, Timberland, a manufacturer and retailer of outdoor wear, was one of the pioneers of the practice, launching its corporate volunteering program in 1992. The company started with offering each employee up to 16 paid hours per year to volunteer in his or her community. In light of the popularity of that initiative, that number was raised to 40 hours per year. In 2015, 77% of Timberland employees were participating in these projects. Such programs are not specific to the United States, across Europe, they can be found in most major companies such as L’Oréal, AXA, Deutsche Bank, or British Telecom. They usually match employees with volunteering opportunities in local non-profit organizations.

A Win-win-win Scenario?

Corporate volunteering is good for your business. In fact, its growing popularity is due in part to the positive impact on the companies practicing it. Corporate volunteering is said to increase employees’ job performance since it “charges” (positively) employees. In allowing employees to express personally significant values, it increases their organizational commitment as well as it improves their likelihood to stay with the firm.

Corporate volunteering is good for employees. There is growing evidence that CV tends to give meaning to the individuals who chose to get involved. It helps them develop job-related skills such as teamwork, written and verbal communication, project management and leadership. Furthermore, CV allows employees to nurture personal contacts that could be useful in the work domain.

But corporate volunteering is also good for society. Studies show that thanks to CV actions, relations between companies and the surrounding environment are improved and the company enjoys an increased legitimacy.

The Soul of a Corporate Volunteer

Despite the enthusiasm, few are the studies voicing concern about the ability of CV to generate a substantial and sustainable impact on companies, employees and society. When CV is practiced on a one-off or short-term basis by employees, its positive influence is likely to be largely superficial and short-lived.

However, when they “internalize” a volunteer identity, employees are likely to volunteer again, both within and outside the organization. In addressing the following questions - Why do employees invest time and energy in volunteering activities organized in the context of their work? What factors explain that some employees sustain their volunteering commitment over time? - Anne-Claire Pache, Arthur Gautier and their co-authors shed light on the “core of the problem” - the factors that foster long-lasting and impactful CV programs.

Here is what they find:

  • Employees experience “self-determined” motivation (i.e. they volunteer out of enjoyment and personal significance) when a CV project is meaningful to them when it allows for community experiences, when employees feel that their personal values are in line with their employer’s, and when recognition and managerial support for CV is low;  

  • Employees experience “controlled” motivation (i.e. they volunteer because they feel obliged, or to obtain rewards or avoid punishments) when organizational pressure to participate is high, when the cause of the project is prestigious, when the recognition and managerial support are high, and when employees work under time-contingent pay.

What does that mean? Factors contributing to self-determined forms of motivation, such as meaningful projects or self-selection of causes, foster the development of a volunteer identity. To the contrary, factors such as organizational pressure, recognition and managerial support, time-contingent pay, and cause prestige, which lead employees to experience controlled forms of motivation, are unlikely to foster the internalization of a volunteer identity and do not contribute to sustained CV behavior.

A Counterintuitive Approach

90% of Civic 50 companies report that their leaders encourage employees to participate in community engagement at least once a year, and most of them offer formal awards and recognition opportunities. If you are not convinced, a simple online search does the trick and provides you with a great many articles suggesting that such rewards for corporate volunteers are necessary for successful corporate volunteering programs. However, the reality appears to be quite different.

Based on a survey conducted on 619 employees of 17 large French companies, Arthur Gautier and Anne-Claire Pache’s recent publication suggests, on the contrary, that giving recognition and providing managerial support for CV activities may seem useful at first, but it can backfire as they challenge the basic idea of volunteerism as a free and altruistic activity. If employees feel pressured by their managers to volunteer, they are likely to do it once and stop as soon as their manager relaxes his control.

Companies should, instead, pay extra attention to how they communicate about and encourage CV activities to avoid such counterproductive effects. For instance, they can provide a menu of impactful and interesting projects and let employees select what they want to volunteer for; they can provide general recognition for volunteering from the CEO instead of local recognition from supervisors.

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