'Employee Engagement' Is Great, But Will Charities End Up Losing?

Over the 14 year history of the Charities @ Work Conference, which just took place April 3-4 in New York, we’ve seen the workplace giving discussion move from providing access to more charities and more choice for employees in their company workplace giving campaigns, to the impact of technology on those campaigns, to where employee workplace giving fits in the corporate citizenship and social responsibility spectrum (turns out its “employee engagement”), to best practices in employee engagement and their impact on corporate goals related to retention, employee satisfaction, and corporate reputation.

All of this is great.  But I’m worried.  I’m worried that we are losing sight of a very important aspect in this equation – raising funds for charity.  I’m worried we have lost sight of the fact that the reason employee workplace giving is one of the most important forms of charitable giving is because it generates the most important and most leveragable dollars a charity can raise – unrestricted funds.

As one of the organizations that founded and underwrites the annual Charities @ Work Conference, America’s Charities applauds and supports the more strategic and progressive approach which recognizes that employee workplace giving is part of a bigger whole.  In the communications and public relations fields where I cut my teeth, there is a long standing and accurate adage that says in order to elicit a desired behavior from an audience, you must first create awareness.  Awareness will then lead to understanding and ultimately support; support being things like taking an action such as signing a petition to protect a river,  buying a product or service, and yes -- giving money.

Awareness = Understanding = Support

When you think about it, this basic equation, awareness = understanding = support, is eloquent and effective in its simplicity. But as the employee giving discussion has evolved, so have the metrics. 

I spent the early part of my professional life with United Way where I saw the value of fundraising goals in workplace giving. But I also saw the negative effect of the lack of choice and the over exuberance of management in many companies when it came to “100% participation” goals.  The most effective workplace giving campaigns were those that provided extensive information to employees connecting them to charities, not just during the fall campaign, but on a year-round basis, and showing the impact of their giving. In order for those charities to have impact though, they needed money.  And to raise money, there comes a point in time where there needs to be an emphasis placed on actually raising money.

The Missing Piece to the Equation = Ask

Fundraising requires a point in time where people actually ask people to give.  No amount of engagement, technology, pro-bono engagement, time off for employee volunteering, skills-based volunteering, or social media will raise more funds unless those activities and tools are intentionally and thoughtfully connected to the need for charities to raise money.

Here’s an example:

There was this large company that used to have a traditional United Way type employee giving campaign - top down management support, departmental goals, charity fairs, and campaign events - the whole nine yards.  But the campaign was not connected to broader corporate goals and objectives and operated in relative isolation as a once a year, management driven activity.  Their executive office mantra was “We are doing well by doing good”. 

By the late 2000’s this company began to develop a more sophisticated approach to corporate social responsibility and decided to connect the workplace giving campaign to broader goals and objectives.  Workplace giving became more connected to broader company goals and objectives, and it appeared the campaign would become energized as it was now part of the overall company social and employee and community engagement fabric.

However, as new technology solutions became available, they decided that technology was now going to “drive the campaign”.  All of their core employee engagement tools such as the EAP program, timesheets, expense reimbursement, training and the like had moved online, why not workplace giving?  With technology, there was no more need for time consuming events or volunteers asking people to give.  Just point people to the web site with all the information they need and they’ll give, right?  Wrong.

Can technology help enable awareness building, create better understanding, and facilitate support?  Absolutely.  But using technology with a passive approach to workplace giving, passive meaning no actual campaign or pulse points throughout the year, will not generate the same or greater amounts of donations.  The opposite will happen. And that’s exactly what happened with the company in this example.

Donations are Most Valuable to Charities

Understand, my organization, America’s Charities, represents the point of view that charities depend upon and deserve to benefit from employee workplace giving and employee engagement.  But in a study we are scheduled to release later this month at the National Press Club, we asked charities what corporate charitable assistance is most important to them.  We asked:

  • Are you seeing an increase in requests to engage employees in volunteer activities?  The answer was yes.
  • Are you seeing an increase in opportunities to engage employees through skills-based volunteering?  Once again, yes.

Then when we asked charities to rank the type of support they value from companies ranging from employee-volunteers to financial support such as receiving donated dollars (particularly unrestricted funds).  Their response? Receiving funds is dramatically more valuable and important. 

The discussion at the Charities @ Work Conference has changed and the evolution of employee workplace giving and integration into broader corporate social responsibility strategy is an very positive development.  One of the fast emerging social responsibility metrics is social impact which is the impact employers have on communities and the well-being of people who live in those communities.  

But let’s not forget that charities are a major part of any community’s social impact fabric.  And, they cannot have impact without vital unrestricted, sustainable funds many of which come from employee workplace giving.

So when considering your company’s employee engagement program, consider these points:

  • Workplace giving should be part of a broader employee engagement and social responsibility strategy.
  • Employee engagement is a critical aspect of the basic communications behavior continuum of awareness=understand=support
  • Support isn’t just employee satisfaction with your corporate volunteer and related efforts, from the charities’ perspective, it’s about the critical funds they need to be effective.
  • Technology isn’t a strategy; it’s a tool that can infuse new life into your employee engagement, volunteerism and workplace giving programs.
  • Strategically and intentionally create opportunities for employees to give money throughout the year with an annual campaign or launch point as well as pulse points throughout the year. 
  • Have people tell stories about their charitable volunteering and giving experiences both on-line and in person.  Press your charity partners, like America’s Charities, for content showing how employee dollars are having an impact.

In 2009 a Harvard Business School’s research working paper Feeling Good about Giving: The Benefits (and Costs) of Self-Interested Charitable Behavior, cited an interesting phenomena as it relates to employee giving.  The research concluded, “Happier people give more and giving makes people happier, such that happiness and giving may operate in a positive feedback loop.”

Now there’s a real reason to continue emphasizing the act of giving money to charity through your employee engagement centric workplace giving program.

Steve Delfin

Steve's BlogSteve has 30 years of experience working in and with major national and international not-for-profit organizations and socially-responsible international corporations, including a long history of engagement with and leadership around workplace giving and employee volunteerism programs.