For employee volunteering to be most effective, we need to know more about what works, what doesn't and why. This requires cross-disciplinary research and collaboration, as guest blogger Chris Jarvis, co-founder of Realized Worth, explains.
Central to our work at Realized Worth is the belief that employee volunteering holds tremendous potential as a positive vehicle for business involvement in local and international development initiatives. Employee volunteering is an evolution beyond traditional corporate philanthropy and a one-way flow of investment in communities to enable a more dynamic exchange between corporate employees and key stakeholder groups representing community and civil society. The voluntary pro-social actions of employees include a massive array of social networks as well as the social capital represented across those networks. This enables businesses to operate beyond an organization-to-issue threshold typically represented in most community investment projects whereby private sector organizations are viewed as the primary actor in providing solutions.
Given the global interest and the relatively nascent nature of employee volunteering, there is considerable space for growth and improvement in both practice and knowledge. Volunteering has traditionally been understood within specific cultural and socio-economic settings. Now, with multinational companies encouraging the mobilization of employees locally and globally, these contextual understandings of volunteering are being challenged. This is a concern for both companies intending to be sensitive to the diverse cultural settings of its global workforce as well as the nations in which those companies operate. Yet while these considerations are challenging, the belief that employee volunteering offers material and measurable benefits for companies, employees and communities is gaining widespread acceptance.
Why we need more research
Key to moving forward as a field and improving the practice and knowledge of employee volunteering is research. The bulk of current research on employee volunteering is limited to program outputs and comparative data sets. This type of research is helpful for benchmarking but is of little value when trying to understand how to design approaches to volunteering or giving in the workplace based on scientific evidence or other disciplines.
As noted in the article “Employee Volunteering: A Review and Framework for Future Research”, CSR managers and practitioners looking for better research are faced with a fragmented and multidisciplinary approach to the topic. Yet drawing on a variety of disciplines is necessary to better understand and leverage the untapped potential of employee volunteering as a practice.
Our work with large corporate employee volunteering programs relies heavily on research coming out of the following fields:
- Behavioral science
- Cognitive science
- Social science
- Social Psychology and Constructivism
- Transformative Learning Theory
- Identity-Based Experiential Learning Theory
Finding the intersection between these disciplines and their many sub-categories, as it relates to the topic of voluntary pro-social behavior expressed in corporate citizenship programs, moves the field of practice forward and unlocks greater value. The interdisciplinary research process allows for a conversation beyond a mere evaluation of ‘what we are seeing’ to explain ‘why we are seeing it’. Examples of the practical value generated through an improved and expanded connection between practice and research would be:
- Scientific evidence - to explain observations of business benefits such as improved employee engagement, retention and productivity
- Advanced program design - informed by research explaining how best to encourage people to adopt new behaviours such as volunteering
- Lasting impact - through a better understanding of how groups of individuals transform systems resulting in long-term culture change
- Volunteer experiences - designed to stimulate neuroplasticity creating changes in neural pathways and synapses
Making it happen
But making these connections and harnessing the vast amount of data and insight available across multiple fields of study and research will not happen on its own. Practitioners are overwhelmed with the day-to-day concerns of managing employee volunteering programs that span multiple geographies with tens of thousands of employees. Researchers are mostly unaware of the practice of employee volunteering and most likely do not readily see a need to connect their work with the field of corporate citizenship. To make these connections and advance this field of practice requires the following:
- A forum for the conversations that brings researchers from across multiple disciplines together with those responsible for implementing and managing employee volunteering and giving programs within the private sector as well as stakeholders across other sectors of society
- The pursuit of common ground among areas of research with potentially conflicting concepts and frameworks of understanding through interdisciplinary research process (IRP)
- The search for and inclusion of research that may not be seen as directly connected to the practice of employee volunteering and workplace giving
An example of one such forum is the RW Institute (RWI), which was founded to explore interdisciplinary common ground and directly connect academics with CSR managers. The Institute is an association of stakeholders who are committed to innovative projects, research, analysis and public policy change that removes existing barriers and promotes the practice and theory of corporate citizenship on a global scale. Research from across multiple disciplines is foundational to the activities of the Institute.
Practitioners and academics working together
There is, without question, a need for more research to guide employee volunteering design, management and measurement. But that research must come from across multiple disciplines with practitioners and academics working together to break through to the next level of understanding and practice.
"You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed. People may not notice it at the time, but that doesn't matter. The world is changed nonetheless."
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