Redefining Corporate Volunteering: What needs to change and the biggest opportunities

In this episode, we talk with Jerome Tennille, Manager Social Impact and Volunteerism with Marriott International, and discuss the state of corporate volunteering today, what's working and what's not.

We explore how volunteering is being redefined as well as flaws in corporate volunteering programs and what to improve on. We also look at the major opportunities in corporate volunteering today and how to better enable employees today through volunteering.

This is part 4 of our 4 part discussion with Jerome Tennille on disruptions in the social impact space. 

Watch or listen to

Part 1: Why Corporate Social Responsibility is even more important in business today

Part 2: What is the future of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging in the workplace?

Part 3: State of Community Investment and Strategic Philanthropy: Can it be better?

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Karl Yeh:

So this is part four of our series on disruption, and today I'm joined by two special guests. The first one is Janelle St. Omer, who is the Regional Vice President with Benevity, who is our guest co-host today, and we're also joined by Jerome Tennille, who is the Manager of Social Impact and Volunteerism with Marriott international.

Janelle St. Omer:

Thank you, Karl, and welcome Jerome. I'm so excited that you're back with us to have this discussion.

I think that volunteering [00:01:00] has been in the forefront over the last year with companies really needing to figure out how to pivot, how to continue to engage in a meaningful way, how to continue to support their non-profit partners all through volunteers.

And then also looking at the social isolation that was occurring with so many of us being working from home and how volunteering, whether that be virtual or in some cases when it can be done safely, on premises, and what that meant in terms of social connection, kind of [00:01:30] dispelling that social isolation.

So in our last conversation, we talked a lot about community investments and funding restricted, unrestricted dollars.

And I think volunteerism fits into that conversation in that so often I've seen and heard where companies say, okay, we're going to give you X number of dollars for this program, but along with that, we need a thousand volunteer spots on a Thursday afternoon between the hours of 2 and 2:30 at this particular location. [00:02:00]

So can you comment on why that works or in some cases I would say doesn't work at all.

What works vs what doesn't work in corporate volunteering today?

Jerome Tennille:

And that's a fantastic question and I suspect that many people don't think about the consequences of having a question like that within, or a requirement I should say, a requirement like that within a grant.

And that's in part because there are these power dynamics that exist, but I think many organizations that engage volunteers don't generally need hundreds of volunteers engaged [00:02:30] in a single day of service with thousands of volunteers in a single day. 

Or even episodically through an entire year at that volume based on the way that their organization is designed to produce goods and services for the community that they support.

So in many cases when development director or volunteer engagement professional gets that request from said company that has a greater deal of power because [00:03:00] they they have the purse strings, right?

They have all the money.

They will go through that process internally to try to meet that demand, essentially create something that might not be essentially needed to fulfill that specific check in a block for that grant.

And so what that ends up doing is it puts an undue cost and time burden on that organization that then has to create a program or an event or something just for the sake [00:03:30] of employee engagement, even if it doesn't satisfy the direct or even long-term needs of that organization.

That's not always going to be the case, but I think, but that's where you see the nexus between grant giving and volunteer engagement is that there's usually that check in the block or that requirement that there's employee engagement, and sometimes that, that can actually do a little bit of harm to that non-profit who really does need that money, but not necessarily the volunteer [00:04:00] project,

Janelle St. Omer:

A hundred percent. I know I've seen it and heard it, it's like how many times can this wall be paying to within the organization?

I think, if companies were to have a different conversation and even establish a different dynamic with those non-profits and really get at what is it that you need and how can these dollars be deployed, then maybe you're not able to engage your employees on mass or these very, very large groups, but the employees who do go to that non-profit and volunteer with them can have so much more of an enriched experience.

Because [00:04:30] they're doing something where they're actually making a difference, the non-profit really values the support that they're, that they're bringing to their organization, and hopefully that turns them into, you know, a longer-term donor or perhaps in some cases, a longer term volunteer.

So I think it's also a bit of a missed opportunity when you actually think about the employee volunteer experience as well when you're creating some of those situations in that dynamic.

So when we think about the last year with virtual volunteering being at the forefront and companies needing really needing [00:05:00] to pivot, what are some thoughts that you have on virtual volunteering done well and, and part B to that, how do you think that virtual volunteering could actually serve to alleviate the conversation we were just having on that undue burden?

Or do you think that it can?

What are some examples of virtual volunteering done well?

Jerome Tennille:

Well, so in terms of how I feel about virtual volunteering, I will say that similar to the conversation that we had around CSR being accelerated because of COVID-19, DEI and racial justice, [00:05:30] that conversation and productive commitment accelerated by five years because of a string of issues

But the catalyst, I think many would agree with the death of George Floyd and that capturing that nine minutes of poor on film.

We're having to stay in conversation around virtual volunteering.

Virtual volunteering has been around for as long as I've been alive and I'm in my mid thirties,

And now it's only, now it's only getting [00:06:00] its due respect as a widely accepted means of volunteering.

That's not to say that every organization is fully equipped to go digital and it doesn't mean that in-person volunteering is not going that it's going somewhere because it's not.

There are many organizations that work in ecosystem, restoration, food insecurity, poverty, you know, supporting those who are unsheltered.

They all need an in person volunteer.

You can't zoom call your way into [00:06:30] serving meals at a transitional housing unit.

So those will stay.

But I think what we'll see, and I think the opportunity to have people, it's almost like a rubber band, right?

We pull the rubber band all the way back, it went all the way forward, and now it's starting to even out.

And I think what we're starting to see more is that people are still doing in person, volunteering [00:07:00].

People will continue to do the virtual volunteering, and you're going to see a hybrid moving forward, and in some instances, while virtual volunteering is it's, not inclusive by nature, right?

If you don't have broadband access, it's not inclusive to you.

If you don't work in front of a computer like you and I do every day, it's not inclusive to you.

But in some instances for like the knowledge economy, people who work at a corporate office on a daily basis, there are some organizations that have fully pivoted to virtual opportunities because their service delivery mechanism allows it, and those are the opportunities where you can now connect with employees that you may have never [00:07:30] previously connected with.

Janelle St. Omer:

Absolutely. And I think one of the things that I heard quite a bit over the last year was even just this expanded definition of volunteering as well.

So moving from that kind of traditional mindset to acts of service or acts of goodness, or we sort of these actions where if I am doing something to help my community, to help my neighbors who kind of contribute to this greater good, that's also being viewed as volunteering.

What, what are your thoughts on that?

What activities are now considered volunteering?

Jerome Tennille:

It's all volunteering. It's just how you want to define [00:08:00] it.

Now I'm going to use a couple of different examples.

So many companies will define corporate volunteerism however they want.

Some are in like a hundred percent voice and choice, which would account for a lot of that.

And then some are very prescriptive where they say, well, unless it's company sponsored or uses a company banner or something that is provided by management, we're not going to count it towards our goal.

Then there's everything in between.

But what most people don't realize is 70% of the world's volunteerism is informal.

It's those actions that you're taking for your own colleague for, for [00:08:30] your family, your friends, your local community, and what we're, what we're starting to see is a greater acknowledgement of that.

In some instances, if you want to know, make volunteering the spicy thing, activism and peaceful protesting is volunteering, right?

And those are becoming more acknowledged as well.

I think the Canadian company, Aldo actually they started providing a social justice time off or paid volunteer time off for people that the peacefully protest, right?

So maybe they don't [00:09:00] think about it as volunteering, but it's a form of volunteering and they're lending credit to that voice in a way that's built into policy, which is fantastic.

So I think it's all volunteering.

It's just like how do you want to slice and dice?

You know, people's philosophical understanding or their very traditional understanding of what constitutes volunteering, but I think it's all volunteering.

Janelle St. Omer:

And I think to your point, the inclusion lens to it.

If you're, if you're expanding your definition and you're really looking at what [00:09:30] do people consider of, I'm giving my time to do X, then you're also creating or casting a wider net, where it's now accessible to everybody in your company.

And it's not just the individual who can go to the boys and girls club every single Wednesday for two hours, but it is in whatever way I can give back, you are facilitating, empowering and encouraging me to give back in that way, because we have this expanded definition, and I can feel like there's a way for me to have impact in whatever way I can contribute. Right?

Jerome Tennille:

Yeah. [00:10:00] The definitions, the hard, fast definitions of what it is to be a volunteer are much more blurry now.

We're starting to see language that encapsulates the equity conversation about who's privileged, and who's not privileged to volunteer at the YMCA or apt the American red cross. Right?

Who's got all the different barriers that might prevent them from participating through formalized organizations.

But now they are volunteering [00:10:30] within their own local community for their own friends, for their family. And having a more wider definition is something that I've seen, especially as people are starting to apply DEI to the mechanisms that engage volunteers.

Janelle St. Omer:

So when you think about it and in your consulting experience, Mariano and working in the non-profit space, what are some of the design flaws, as you've seen, the major design flaws in corporate volunteer programs?

What are some design flaws in corporate volunteer programs

Jerome Tennille:

So thinking about this, I'm going to use a couple of different examples of design flaws, but I think the first [00:11:00] design flaw that I think you and I probably see from the north American lens is that the value and the idea and the mechanisms that have created volunteer engagement or put a value set around them are very tied to perhaps the way that both of our nations were founded with a very Eurocentric and Christian lens, right?

Design flaw: How volunteerism is defined and understood doesn't include global perception

So the way that we value and understand volunteerism is in some instances, even tied to our [00:11:30] tenants of faith.

And so we are called to volunteer and to value volunteering and giving one's time and service of others very differently than I think they do elsewhere in this world, right?

Volunteering is not universally valued. So we have to also think about the way that other people think about volunteering.

The word doesn't exist in every language of course.

The acts of volunteering differ. In places like Africa, it's very informal [00:12:00] versus the way that you see that valued and recognized here.

So saying all that, the design flaw is sometimes how we philosophically understand and value volunteerism through a Western lens, and think that that's it.

Design flaw: Focusing on the volunteering benefits to your organization than actually helping the organization you're volunteering for

Now, the second design flaw that I think that is applied to more to most organizations from a corporate perspective is that we generally pursue volunteer engagement from a place of wanting to engage our employees [00:12:30] first primary.

That's the primary goal, why we volunteer?

Or secondly, we volunteer in the different communities where we do business, because we also believe that there is like a brand reputation that is attached to it [00:13:00].

And so when you're putting different objects and achievements or goals in front of the organization's needs, then that can create like a really disjointed mechanism to serve a community.

And so what I see is that, that is oftentimes a design flaw, and it's not usually intentional, but it's, we have to understand that the mechanisms that we engage volunteers is being created by people who have their own blind spots, their own biases that are sometimes shaped by their professional and academic backgrounds. Right?

So if you have a marketer who's creating a volunteer program, then they're probably going to be thinking about it from that marketing lens, how [00:13:30] do we uplift our brand? And the same can be said from any perspective.

And so we have to think about that our own perspectives and how we're applying our perspectives in the mechanisms that we're creating. But I think in corporate America, I think I see that that's a pretty common design flaw that it's corporate first and then community second in terms of whose needs are being met.

Janelle St. Omer: So if you were to flip it, what would that look like to you?

How to improve corporate volunteer programs?

Jerome Tennille:

Well, you would have to, so a couple [00:14:00] of different things, I think in terms of like partnership development and program design.

Taking all your cues from your community partner and not having an expectation that they're bending or designing things around when it's convenient for you.

So that's first and foremost.

Taking the cues from the community, creating a mechanism that addresses those needs [00:14:30] based on what the community needs, but then you're also having to remove barriers on the backend.

Some of the biggest barriers that I've seen to employees volunteering is work.

Sometimes the business model that has made that company uniquely successful adds barriers to those employees, right?

So then internally you have to give the permission.

There are financial and time considerations to that, of course [00:15:00] .

But if you want to be focused on the needs of the community, then you would create the mechanisms internally that allow for people to engage based on the needs of that community and not the other way around.

And then working backwards, right? Designing all your programming to achieve the goal that the community is focused on.

Janelle St. Omer:

So let's just say we've gotten there.

So we're working our way backwards, we have focused on the community need and now kind of the secondary perspective for our company is on that employee engagement experience. [00:15:30]

How can companies create more impactful and engaging volunteer experiences for their people once that focus on the community need has really been met?

What, what are your perspectives on that?

How can companies create more impactful and engaging corporate volunteering programs

Jerome Tennille:


So I'm going to separate these two things because I think engagement and impact.

I think they can be interconnected, but I also think that they're very separate.

So I think when most people think of how can we get more engagement as like, how do we increase the ability for people to volunteer? [00:16:00]

And I think most people will say, oh, well, I've been told how to do this. Right?

Give paid volunteer time off, remove barriers that are in terms of time commitment, like pay people to work, give them the opportunity to work, maybe bring the volunteer opportunity on campus.

So people can like come in for 15 minutes and I go back to their offices, or for example creating some fun gamification or some competition where the person who [00:16:30] builds her house faster than the other, right.

Like create some sort of momentum and fun and okay, those are all great.

Employee Passions

But I think in order to get true engagement, you have to tap into the passions of your employees, but then you also have to remove those barriers that internally made the company successful, but perhaps puts restrictions on that employee.

I'm going to use hourly employees as an example. [00:17:00]

Most hourly employees don't make necessarily a living wage, right?

So they work two jobs oftentimes.

Hourly employees are often times in the service economy.

So they're guest facing, they engage customers at a storefront or a property somewhere.

Those people have far less access to volunteering.

So they're going to be the least engaged in terms of their ability to make a long commitment to anything because of [00:17:30] those time and monetary mechanisms that put a barrier there.

So you have to remove some of those barriers.

And I think once you remove those barriers, whether it's administratively or operationally, making sure that people have access to the actual engagement and tapping into that passion, putting purpose and thoughtfulness into the way that you're connecting with your community partner.

Creating impact

The second part of that is getting the impact, right?

Removing the turnkey nature out of the volunteer opportunity [00:18:00] may actually allow for deeper, more purposeful engagement that leads to more positive long-term outcomes.

So you have to get away from turnkey.

And I think when you get away from turnkey and you start thinking about questions like who is showing up to the volunteer opportunity, is it actually meeting the direct need of the non-profit, or are they just creating this for us?

Like the conversation we had about the wall being painted [00:18:30] multiple times, we want to get away from that.

How are these people showing up in the community?

Have they been trained to show up in this diverse community in an inappropriate manner?

I think once we're able to remove some of those issues and the barriers that prevent people from actually volunteering in the first place and having a deep commitment, that's when you have real programmatic outcomes and real impact for that community based organization.

And that's going to look different for [00:19:00] a lot of different organizations, mind you.

Janelle St. Omer:

Absolutely. I think you just touched on so many different pieces, then I think that, even separating out the impact and the engagement, because some companies tend to think about the impact to the employees specifically.

So not even thinking about the community impact as an end result.

So I love the way that you think you were thinking about and kind of presenting that information back because to me, what you're saying is that you have to be very thoughtful and intentional, and think through the different elements, even the point that you raised about, [00:19:30] you know, are those employees trained to be in a community where there's a diverse population? Do they have sensitivity training?

Do they even understand what the dynamics could be? You know, for them to show up in a positive way?

I think that oftentimes those kinds of pieces are overlooked when we're creating volunteer opportunities.

Karl Yeh:

So Jerome, last question here.

What do you see as the biggest opportunity in volunteering today?

As you know, you've talked about that rubber band where we went from pre COVID to post COVID. So where do you see it going?

Biggest opportunity in volunteering

Jerome Tennille:

I think the big opportunity is, and it's got, I think goes back to one of the previous conversations, but being more open-minded to new ideas, and being bold with presenting ideas that may have never been pushed through in the past.

[00:20:30] And, what Janelle mentioned is redefining how you volunteer, putting a definition behind it, being clear on what you count as volunteering and what you don't, and being open-minded to thinking about volunteering as an action, and being much more inclusive of the actions that might not necessarily fit perfect into that very traditional box.

And I think that's where most CSR professionals will find some [00:21:00] of that opportunity to rethink imaginatively and creatively volunteering as an action and then presenting bold ideas, and not being afraid of being told no.

Karl Yeh:

And so Jerome, where do you see those bold ideas coming from?

Do you see it coming from the company led or do you see it coming from employee led or the grassroots?

Jerome Tennille:

Actually two different places.

One of them is employee and grassroots led, right. [00:21:30]

When I go to work, I bring my full self.

And so I have expectations of my employer as do many employees these days, right?

They want to work for a company that they believe is morally responsible and aligns with their values as individuals.

So that's one area is employee led. The other area is community led. Communities also have expectations.

And so there are a lot of non-profit organizations right now who are having really tough discussions around all the different [00:22:00] topics that we've discussed over the last several episodes, and in a way they're nudging what companies are doing because companies have to react to their community-based partners and their needs and their voice.

Karl Yeh:

Perfect. So, Jerome, if any of our audience wants to reach out and connect with you, where can they find you?

Jerome: Yeah, they can go to my website,

Question of the day

What do you see as the major opportunities in corporate volunteering, and how have you created opportunities in your business? 

Connect with Jerome Tennille on Linkedin

Connect with Janelle St. Omer on Linkedin