The Current State of Corporate Volunteering

In this episode, we discuss the state of corporate volunteering and how it’s changed the past two years. We chat with Jerome Tennille with the Uplift Agency and explore the new forms of volunteering since the pandemic. We talk about the difference between outcomes and outputs in corporate volunteering and employee engagement programs.

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So today my guest is Jerome Tennille. He is the Director of Social Impact and ESG at the Uplift Agency. Thank you very much, Jerome, for joining us today.

Karl Yeh:

So Jerome, today we're going to be talking about corporate volunteering strategies and really meaningful employee engagement. So I guess before we begin, in your opinion,

What is the state of corporate volunteering today?

Jerome Tennille:

It's interesting. I think the answer that I would give is there's a lot of pent-up demand.

And what I mean by that is three years since the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, now people are starting to feel safer about going outside, connecting with others and getting back to what would be considered more normative social behaviors.

And that certainly includes volunteer engagement.

And the other part of that too is, I think as a result of the pandemic and really focusing on hybrid and virtual forms of service, there are also now different channels and different ways that people can serve.

And people are now starting to realize that, that there's no one size fits all in how they're serving their community or serving nonprofit organizations that they love.

Now there are different ways to do that and people are trying to figure out what does that mean? I would also say that at the same time as there's pent-up demand and really trying to meet that expectation to continue service, I would also say that at the same time people are also trying to figure out this new landscape that has been completely disrupted.

Karl Yeh:

So I remember two years ago when the pandemic hit and a year into it, I remember there was a lot of conversation about virtual volunteering.

And everybody wanted to take action and do some good, but they couldn't really go out anywhere and actually do it because of lockdowns, and government orders and so on.

So are you seeing today, like you mentioned, people are feeling more comfortable, is it transitioning all the way back to in-person live site volunteering, or is it like it's now a true 50/50 between virtual and on ground?

What’s the split today between virtual and in-person volunteering?

Jerome Tennille:

I would hesitate to put a number to it.

What I will say is what we are seeing in a volunteer engagement environment right now is almost a symptom or a reflection of what we're seeing in the workplace.

And what I mean by that is now that we're completely beyond lockdowns, corporations, companies, businesses are now starting to find their sea legs and start to bring their employees back to the office while also trying to acknowledge more of this hybrid workspace where they're like, come to the office two to three days a week, and then the other time you can do it remotely from your home workspace or whatever.

And so we're seeing some of that.

So in 2020, it was almost really focused on virtual volunteering with the exception of some of the in-person Covid type of emergency relief that had to be done in-person at food banks and so on and so forth.

So even though back in 2020 it was really hyper focused on virtual and hybrid forms of service, now we're starting to see that recede back.

It's not going to go back to what we knew back in 2019. I think virtual forms of service, hybrid volunteering is here to stay.

The nonprofit sector largely has already adapted to that and have evolved themselves.

And I think that it's going to be the expectation that there is some sort of balance between the two, just as there is a balance between the two in the North American workspace.

Karl Yeh:

Now, I remember, well, in the economic conditions that we're in, we're seeing a lot of, instead of giving donations, volunteering is the primary method of doing good.

Are you seeing the same thing?

Is volunteering the primary method of doing good today?

Jerome Tennille:

I'm seeing that, yes.

It's a yes, and. And it's yes, I think some people have found that it's more convenient or more accessible for them to give their time.

And the other part of this too and an extension of this is that people are volunteering in different ways.

And what I mean by that is the Covid-19 pandemic and the string of different racial injustices that we saw through 2020 and even into 2021, it almost, it was a realization that the systems have changed that got us to this point are no longer effective enough to get us to where we want to go future focused.

And so what we're seeing is that there are some people who are saying, okay, I might not necessarily have the financial means to give to a nonprofit, but I can give my time.

The other part of that too and the extension is sometimes people are now giving their time directly to peer to peer informally, so community member to community member, and completely bypassing the formalized mechanisms or formalized structures that do exist at nonprofits and charities.

Karl Yeh:

And I want to get back to that a little later in our episode, but the first thing I want to talk about in our transition to was the, I guess employee engagement and social impact programs that businesses are running.

And we're seeing a lot of corporate volunteering activities.

But before we actually got on this episode, we talked about more about outputs versus outcomes.

And I'm curious to see what your perspective is on social impact or employee engagement specifically related to corporate volunteering where maybe companies are more focused on the outputs of these corporate volunteering programs, so like, hey, how many hours did you volunteer? 100. Perfect.

This is something that we can relay.

Where did you volunteer here? You volunteered for 100 hours. Perfect.

Versus the actual outcomes where, hey, the volunteering that all of you did at this organization or with these people, what exactly did that result in?

Employee Engagement: Outcomes vs. Outputs

Jerome Tennille:

Yeah. And this isn't any surprise, outputs are easier to track.

They're almost immediately known after that volunteer activation or that activity has concluded.

So at the end of the day, you will know the number of people who were engaged, the number of people who showed up and who did something in that moment and the number of hours collectively that it took for them to do said activity.

What is harder to track oftentimes is the result of that activity.

When we're thinking about outputs, they're easy to track, but they actually don't tell you anything.

What they do tell you is the number of people who spent time doing something, and that's really it.

In order to understand if there was a positive or unfortunately a negative impact from that actual activity is you have to start to think about the qualitative data or what somebody would call an outcome.

And I think the outcome, when you look at measurement and evaluation just across the social impact space broadly, and when I say broadly, I mean corporate social impact, nonprofit and charitable impact, and also government agencies, the outcomes are actually the hardest to track.

It's that tough nut to crack that literally everybody is working to crack, because that's the most meaningful thing that you can communicate to anybody, whether it's the consumer, your customer, to the community at large to uphold public trust, it's the most important thing that you can actually communicate in terms of the outcomes that you're producing in the communities where you do business, yet it is the hardest to track.

And it's the hardest to track because sometimes it actually takes a long time to figure out what that positive change was.

And the way that I think about this is I might show up at a volunteer activation. I might volunteer a set number of hours to, say, plant a set number of trees.

The output is the number of volunteer hours that I spent doing that activity, and an output is also including the number of trees that I planted.

The outcome that I might actually be most interested in is the positive environmental impact as a result of planting said trees, whether it's reducing the amount of carbon that's in the air, or whether it is adding to long-term change in terms of the biodiversity of an ecosystem and the plants and the animals that are thriving as a result of those trees being planted.

That qualitative data might actually take years to understand. And I think especially in this day and age, which I really tongue in cheek call the instant coffee era, the outputs are immediate. And even though the outputs don't necessarily tell you if there was a positive outcome or if there was a measurable change, I think most people, the general informed public, they don't know.

They don't actually know that when they're looking at outputs, that it doesn't actually tell you if there was an impact, a positive impact.

And I think most people who don't work in corporate responsibility or social impact, they don't ask the tough questions.

They don't ask the question of, well, what was the outcome of that volunteer engagement?

And because they don't ask that question, there's a lack of accountability for corporate responsibility teams to actually do the hard work to understand what those outcomes were.

If the general informed public or if people are not asking those hard questions, then you can actually in some ways, some companies can actually get away with just communicating what the output was and just leave it at that.

Karl Yeh:

And we see a lot of that all over the place. This company, we volunteered, we had over 1000 volunteer hours this whole year and that's it.

And most of us, you're right, we're like, oh, a thousand volunteers hours, must be amazing. Great, sure. I'm not going to talk about it.

I think though, it's also difficult from an organization perspective where you just want, I think for some social impact professionals, they just want people engaged.

The last thing on their mind would be, what was the outcome of your volunteer?

I just want you to volunteer to so that I meet the numbers, so I get the funding so I can continue doing these employee engagement activities.

And isn't it hard too to track that if your company allows different, you can volunteer in pretty much anything you want, it's hard to track every single person's volunteer, whether you volunteered at your local YMCA, you volunteered at a soup kitchen, you volunteered planting trees.

That's very difficult to ask that person, hey, what was the outcome of your 20, 30, 100 hours of volunteering this last quarter, the last year?

Difficulty in tracking employee volunteering

Jerome Tennille:

Sure. Yeah.

And that's very fair and I think that's really accurate.

So I have two different thoughts here.

The more people who are volunteering and they're volunteering in very unique ways based on very unique causes or issues that they're trying to rid this planet of, or the number of organizations that they're spending their time with, the harder it becomes to actually understand what the measurable change is.

And it becomes much more difficult to understand what progress you're making more collectively if everybody is rowing in a different direction, at a different cadence towards a different thing.

And so the data becomes very splintered, and when it becomes very splintered, it's really hard to understand what measurable change may have taken place. And it also becomes really hard to tell that story with a cohesive narrative.

And we know that corporations, understandably so, they also need to talk about what they're doing in the communities where they do business.

And so all those things become much more difficult to understand and to also capture and to articulate.

The other thing that I would share, and this is precisely why, and again, there's no right or wrong in this, some companies, they'll prescribe 100% to the idea of voice and choice, or what I would call the democratization of volunteer engagement, where they give 100% agency and latitude for their employees to volunteer however they want, wherever they want, whenever they want and they completely back that individual action.

Some companies on the far opposite end, they'll take another approach, and the other approach, there's a little bit more strategy, there's a little bit more prescription in terms of the different cause areas that we are going to sponsor and that we are going to really focus on and also try to get the buy-in and the action from our employees towards these very specific pillars.

And I think, again, there's no real right or wrong way.

Those are philosophical conversations on how you want to engage your employees in volunteer engagement.

But you're right, when you prescribe 100% to voice and choice, that becomes a harder narrative to tell a story because you don't have the consistency in the data points, versus if you are a corporation, and say the corporation is focused on a handful of United Nations sustainable development goals, and then also has very specific pillars that are under each of those SDGs, and each of those pillars are towards subtopics that might exist.

And if you have a framework that you're working off of with strategy, and if you have some semblance of guardrails that employees can focus on, that becomes easier to track the data, it becomes an easier narrative to tell or it becomes an easier story to tell.

And as a result of that, you're able to more effectively understand the impact that you're making because you're able to actually measure and evaluate it as a result of having more focus.

Karl Yeh:

And is this just, not an outcome, but a result of, I guess it depends on what your company's social impact program or CSR program is geared towards?

Is there a solution or a hybrid approach going forward where you also can report the outcomes in addition to the outputs that each individual employee has or your company overall wants to provide to any external or internal stakeholders?

Reporting on outcomes and outputs

Jerome Tennille:

In terms of where companies often focus is you usually do find some sort of middle ground. I described two very extreme sides of it.

I would say that most corporations fit within the middle, where they do have some sort of framework or strategy, but within that framework and a strategy, it's not over prescriptive and they have enough guidelines, and guardrails and policies in place that do focus employees on certain things while also acknowledging the individuals, or the associates, or employees who might not necessarily want to support those particular pillars.

And most companies will work to capture that.

Even if it's not on company strategy or towards a very specific framework or pillar, companies will still try to capture that data as best as they can, even if it is slightly divergent of their strategy.

But I would say that's the first thing is that I think you find that there's usually some sort of hybrid that exists at most companies, because they do want to acknowledge the amount of agency that people want to have in how they're serving their communities where they do business.

The second part of this, of course, is that when we're talking about outcomes, what I generally tell people is that the outcomes that you're trying to achieve in the communities often exist at the community level.

And what I mean is the organizations that you're serving, they're going to understand your progress towards helping them achieve the outcomes that you're supporting through your volunteer engagement.

And this is why corporate and nonprofit partnerships are critical. So if you're working with community-based organizations, make sure that you have strong partnerships that are intact, because at the end of the day, you may have volunteered with them, you might not immediately understand the outcomes of your service.

And so you're going to need to really lean on those community-based partners for them to tell you what the outcomes or what you contributed to in terms of helping them achieve their outcomes as a result of your volunteer engagement.

So I do think, to sum this up, most corporations are sitting in that hybrid where they're giving voice and choice in agency while also prescribing some sort of framework or a larger strategy.

And in addition to that, I think companies, they need to really think about the partnerships that they have in place, because at the end of the day, the partners are going to be the ones who understand the outcomes and will also, I think more smartly understand what your employee volunteers contributed to in terms of helping them achieve that outcome that might be one of their organizational goals.

Karl Yeh:

So let's shift to what you were previously talking about earlier was more about peer to peer volunteering, because that's really interesting to me. And is that related to the skills-based volunteering?

Peer to Peer Volunteering

Jerome Tennille:

Not necessarily. I would say that peer-to-peer volunteering is what I would bucket as informal volunteerism.

And here's what I'll also share.

The United Nations, every couple of years, they'll do a state of the world's volunteerism report.

And the United Nations has concluded that more than 70% of all the volunteer engagement that happens on this planet is informal.

So it's me helping my neighbor. It's me giving my time to support a family member or a friend. And it's not necessarily through a formalized charitable organization or a nonprofit.

And so informal volunteerism is just, it's the formal acknowledgement of volunteer service that is not necessarily being done through an institution or an organization that is formalized.

And then when we think about skills-based volunteering, I think there are different ways that people define skills-based.

But skills-based in general is when people are serving a nonprofit institution using their professional or academic skills that they may have been learned or taught.

And I would even say that skills-based volunteering, it could even include the skills that you possess that might have been learned, that might have been learned culturally, or might be tied to something you learned through on-the-job training or something that you were self-taught.

Karl Yeh:

And what I think that you can connect your skills-based volunteering to maybe the outcomes, which is an easier maybe connection than just regular outputs is that, let's say, I think we had a discussion on this earlier, where you can put your skills that you've learned over time, whether it's in the company or you've taken courses and you've built up throughout your career, you can use those skills and train maybe junior employees on specific specialties or specific skills that has a direct outcome for not just the volunteer hours, but also for the company as a whole, right?

Skills-based volunteering

Jerome Tennille:

Yeah. So when I think about skills-based volunteering, it's interesting, because there are two sets of outcomes that you can essentially produce.

If I am the employee who is volunteering my time with an organization as a skills-based volunteer, because I'm using my academic or professional skills that I might use on a daily basis, when I am participating as a skills-based volunteer, I actually have to go through the motions of reinforcing the things that I've already been taught.

So let's say, for example, I'm a PR strategist and now I'm making a communications or PR plan for a nonprofit organization.

As I am going through that work, it's reinforcing the skillsets and the academic expertise that I have, because I have to recall that information and I have to be able to apply it.

So I'm essentially reinforcing the things that have already been taught to me, and I'm also learning new skills at the same time.

I might be applying my expertise to a different problem set that I may have never done before, so I'm also exercising new muscles that I may have never tapped into in terms of my expertise.

When I'm engaged in skills-based volunteering, now let's widen the aperture and let's say I'm leading a project team of skills-based volunteers for my company and we all work in communications and PR.

And now all of a sudden, now that I'm leading this project team of other skills-based volunteers, now I'm in the position of managing and mentoring others.

Learning new skills through skills-based volunteering

So I'm now also learning new social skills and I'm also learning new managerial skills, because now I'm helping others in a way that perhaps I didn't have, maybe I didn't have to do that in my day-to-day job.

So there are personal professional growth opportunities as these skills-based volunteer because you have to essentially recall and reinforce your expertise, but then even as you're applying it and if you're applying it along with a team that you're also managing, you're also using all these other skillsets, the soft skills that we all talk about in our day-to-day lives, and I'm becoming a better employee as a result of that. And those are all outcomes.

If you're developing personally and professionally, and if you can track your progression and track development that you're having as a professional through that, then those are outcomes.

The other part of this too, and when we're thinking about the outcomes that are produced on the community side from skills-based volunteering, let's imagine now I am working with an organization that has a vocational training program or a workforce development program.

And let's say as a skills-based volunteer, I am now in the position of importing my skills as a communicator or PR professional through this workforce development program.

Maybe I am the trainer or maybe I'm the subject matter expertise that was pulled into this program to teach these program participants the skillset of communication and public relations.

And so in that specific instance, I am now upskilling those workforce development program participants. Now, let's go one more step.

Let's say I'm volunteering with this workforce development program, and let's say the workforce development program has a cohort of 20 different people. And let's say that cohort of 20 people, they're in this program for, say six months.

At the end of the six months, let's say they get a certificate or they earn some sort of credential that now makes them more employable as a result.

Fast forward, let's go to the next step.

So let's say six months later, these 20 individuals, as a result of my developing their skillset in communications and PR, now they have graduated from the program, now they also have a certificate of completion and they have some sort of credentials as somebody in comms and PR. At the same time, now they become more employable.

So ideally in those situations, we would also want to have those individuals who just graduated from that program to also get a job in the subject matter that they just learned.

If they get a job, that's the outcome. So you see there's a lot of steps to that.

But the outcome in that specific instance, the outcome over six month period of me volunteering as a trainer imparting my subject matter expertise to those 20 cohort members who just graduated, the outcome would be to also have those same 20 people hired.

And so you can see that, sure, maybe I volunteered 100 hours. Maybe that's the output.

Maybe another piece of output is 20 people graduated from a workforce development program.

But the outcome that is much harder to achieve is we also got them living wage jobs.

And as a result of that living wage job, because these 20 individuals who just graduated were hired, now they're also elevating themselves out of poverty.

So you can start to see the economic implications of getting a living wage job as a result of participating in a workforce development program that needed my expertise as a skills-based professional. To get to that point, it's harder to track, but it's so much more meaningful than the number of hours that I volunteered.

Karl Yeh:

Well, I like the example, because you can track both. You can track the 100 hours. You can track how many people graduated.

But you can see the actual tangible outcomes that has affected every single one of these people that you've trained and provided that expertise with.

Jerome Tennille:

Sure. And what I'll also say is I'm not saying that outputs are useless. I'm just saying that in and of themselves, they don't tell the full story.

Outputs, they're a part of the story, and they're an important part of the story. They just don't usually tell the full story by themselves.

So in an ideal world, you would understand the inputs, outputs and the outcomes that were produced, so that way you could also figure out how to replicate that, because that's what you want to do, you want to replicate that same outcome.

Karl Yeh:

So Jerome, we could be talking about corporate volunteering and skills-based volunteering for quite a while. But if any of our audience wants to connect with you on volunteering or other subjects on social impact, what's the best way to reach you?

Jerome Tennille:

Two different ways. They could certainly look up Jerome Tennille. I'm on LinkedIn and very active on social media. But the other part too is they can just go to the Uplift Agency and find me there as a member of their staff.