Virtual Volunteering

Microvolunteerism, designed to let employees help out a little here and a little there via phone or computer, appears to be a win-win for all involved -- so long as it's managed properly.

Monday, October 1, 2012
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Every time Dianna Hamilton completes a short, 15-minute burst of community service for a nonprofit, it's like she devoured a bowlful of giddiness. The Denver-based analytics consultant for UnitedHealth Group simply can't muzzle her enthusiasm for her computer-based "microvolunteerism."

"I love it! I love it! I love it!" says Hamilton, whose rapid-fire speech mirrors the quickness with which she performs volunteer tasks.

For Hamilton and perhaps many other corporate workers, microvolunteerism is emerging as the answer to this question: How do I volunteer when I'm handcuffed by time constraints or work limitations?

Much, if not most, of this type of volunteering is done online or via phone, so employees can help a budget-strained nonprofit anywhere and anytime -- in little increments.

Before such opportunities were facilitated by Minnetonka, Minn.-based UnitedHealth, Hamilton performed in-person volunteering sporadically. Traffic hassles and myriad children's activities prohibited her from participating in company-sponsored on-site volunteerism. But as of early August, she had finished 54 short-term online tasks. Significantly, her appreciation for UnitedHealth . . . well, appreciated.

"I care a lot," says Hamilton, "that UnitedHealth is out there involved in the community and is not just this big, nameless corporate entity."

Microvolunteerism is a fresh, innovative way to help hike employee engagement, according to Atlanta-based Points of Light Corporate Institute, which promotes and assists with corporate volunteerism. This virtual volunteerism typically lasts from a few minutes to two hours, and the wide-ranging tasks can include anything from helping design a logo or editing a marketing brochure to developing a database and offering suggestions for HR policies.

The institute says this form of helping others contributes to other company benefits, including improved employee morale and fulfillment. As with hands-on volunteering, it also enables workers to enhance their skills or even learn new ones.

Moreover, microvolunteerism can boost recruitment and retention, says Lee Colan, president of Dallas-based The L Group and a consultant who has authored two books focused on employee engagement. Colan says this form of volunteerism seems particularly suited for many younger, online-savvy employees who prefer working for community-engaged firms.

Jenny Lawson, who heads a Points of Light initiative -- also in Atlanta -- encouraging companies to perform more pro-bono service, considers this new form of volunteering "certainly a hot topic of conversation" among corporations she's recently communicated with.

Increasingly, she says, nonprofits covet specific skill sets -- for example, finance, operations and marketing -- which compares with, say, volunteers painting a fence. That aligns with many employees these days who enjoy exhibiting their professional talent, even if for just a short time, for the common good.

And yet, this condensed type of volunteering poses its own questions. Some debate how much impact employees can really make in such short, 15-minute windows. Furthermore, many microvolunteering workers can't partake in the camaraderie of team volunteerism at an on-site project; nor can they view first-hand people being assisted. Companies also cede some oversight with microvolunteering employees.

Still, the new form of helping out seems tailor-made for the times. After all, when people are performing so many other tasks online or over the phone, why not volunteerism?

Where It Got Started

In a society where time is increasingly prized, perhaps this statistic shouldn't surprise: 71 percent of employees say they don't participate in corporate volunteering because they're squeezed for time, according to the 2011 Deloitte Volunteer Impact Survey by New York-based professional-services firm Deloitte.

Mindful of this predicament, San Franciso-based launched a service in 2009 that offers companies an online-only employee-volunteering platform. Sparked is a dominant player in promoting microvolunteerism and a pioneer; in fact, it coined the term, says Ben Rigby, Sparked's co-founder.

With Sparked's "machine-learning" software, thousands of employees' skills, interests and causes -- for example, environment, health, education -- are matched with the needs of 6,500 nonprofits globally, says Rigby. Or Sparked can establish a "private ecosystem" whereby employees are paired with nonprofits that companies have already developed relationships with, he says.

"When we talk with CSR [corporate social responsibility] managers, they tell us we are hitting their pain points pretty quickly, especially employees not having enough time to volunteer," says Rigby. Fortunately, he says, many workers can manage 15 minutes of desktop computer volunteering.

Unlike a typical companywide day of annual service at one site, which can prove time-consuming, costly and logistically challenging, offering volunteerism activities in bite sizes through Sparked is basically a turnkey administrative exercise, says Rigby. The HR or community involvement department typically still markets the online volunteering internally and perhaps cultivates internal employee champions for microvolunteering, he says.

Rigby says Sparked is providing microvolunteerism opportunities for 25 larger companies, and the interest is accelerating. Among the companies licensed with his firm are 100,000-employee UnitedHealth and Northfield, Illinois-based Kraft Foods, both of which field extensive volunteering programs. At both companies, this incremental volunteering is seen as a welcome complement to their in-person volunteering program. Virtual volunteering expands the opportunities for employees everywhere to contribute, including telecommuters and those deskbound or working globally.

At Kraft, employee volunteering operates under HR. After a pilot phase, it rolled out microvolunteering in 2011. As of early August, 400 employees had volunteered virtually. That's a mere fraction of the estimated 40,000 employees who volunteered in 2011 in 72 countries. Then again, microvolunteering is still in its infancy at the 126,000-employee Kraft.

"We're so big and have such a diverse employee population," says Julia Gin, senior manager for Kraft's Corporate Community Involvement. "We have people who work in offices [and] plants [as well as] salespeople who don't have an office. We have remote employees, in different countries. So we can't do a one-size-fits-all. We can't all go out there and build a playground. So this is another option for people to volunteer and feel good about something. Even if they microvolunteer, they may still want to do hands-on volunteering."

At UnitedHealth, nearly eight in 10 employees volunteered in person last year, performing community service valued at $8.3 million, says Kate Rubin, vice president of the Office of Social Responsibility. About 1,000 employees -- who are encouraged to do community service during personal time -- microvolunteered from May through July (during the program's pilot phase), completing an average task in about 14 minutes, says Rubin.

One of those UnitedHealth microvolunteers is Dianna Hamilton, mother of five, who favors online over in-person volunteering.

"I'm a big fan for two reasons: It takes a whole lot less time, because you don't have to deal with transit," says Hamilton. "And online volunteering is very convenient. I can literally do it on my lunch break. Or I can do it at night if I can't sleep or have time to kill. It doesn't take time away from my kids like physical volunteering, which is an event you've got to plan for and which takes up a huge chunk of your day."

While UnitedHealth's social-responsibility office heads all community service programs, the HR department teamed with Rubin's office to select employees for the company's microvolunteerism pilot program. Newly hired college graduates were picked, in part because of millenials' interest in corporate social responsibility and social media-type opportunities, says Rubin. Human resources also produced and analyzed the post-pilot survey, which revealed that 83 percent of respondents would recommend microvolunteering to others.

Rubin also works with HR in utilizing volunteerism as an employee development tool. Social-responsibility activities, including microvolunteerism, are encouraged as a way for employees to learn from experience how to leverage and grow job-related skills in new and different ways, she says.

"I think [virtual volunteering] is a great engagement tool and a great learning and development tool," says Rubin, who has spent much of her career in human resources. "The more tools you can have that are a good fit for your company, the happier and more engaged your employees will be."

Making it Work

At the Boeing Company in the Los Angeles area, microvolunteering enabled the company to intensify its relationship with about 30 nonprofits for which it provides grants. Volunteer Los Angeles, a volunteer center that provides training and recruits and places volunteers with nonprofits, acted as a liaison between Boeing and Sparked so company employees could volunteer online, says Nancy Olson, Volunteer Los Angeles' executive director.

Boeing officials weren't available for comment; however, Olson says the company's stepped-up relationship with the nonprofits signals to employees that Boeing takes seriously its social-responsibility commitment. She adds that it contributes toward viewing Boeing as an employer of choice.

According to The L Group's Colan, microvolunteering can address that millennial "sweet spot" mentioned earlier. Millennials have matured with the Internet, he says, and many are adept at performing myriad tasks online. Microvolunteerism is also aligned with many younger employees' preferences for community-engaged companies and how they like to interact, he says.

"Many younger workers are more socially engaged, yet they're not 'social,' which is an important paradox," says Colan. "It's this thing about, 'I've got 1,000 or more friends on Facebook, but I don't necessarily want to go out.' In that sense, virtual volunteerism is nicely suited for [them]." Plus, volunteerism of any kind may enhance their resume.

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As with regular volunteerism, employees in these virtual programs can learn new skills or enhance existing ones. Firms can track this skills development -- for example, they can monitor skills utilized and projects accomplished -- with Sparked's software, says Rigby.

"People write to us and say, 'I wanted to give back to a nonprofit, but I ended up learning a bit and advancing my skills as a result of seeing what others are doing on Sparked,' " says Rigby. "For example, 'I participated in a social-media challenge and I learned a cool technique on Twitter that I can bring back to my job.' "

Companies can also identify high performers, Rigby says, citing studies showing a correlation between people who are great volunteers and those who are high performers at work.

Team building and networking opportunities are apparently also enhanced through microvolunteering. For example, Rigby says, Sparked software can facilitate friendly internal company competitions to, say, produce the most dollar value for a nonprofit during a certain period.

All volunteering, in-person and otherwise, can help boost employee morale and fulfillment, says Colan. That fulfillment occurs, in part, because skills-based community service addresses employees' intellectual and emotional needs, he says. Workers appreciate the opportunity to demonstrate their skills while performing something purposeful to benefit society.

"If my employer meets my need, I'm going to be more fulfilled," says Colan. "And since they're doing something for me, I'm going to do something for them."

Hamilton identifies with that enhanced appreciation.

"As a mom, I love that UnitedHealth is involved in charities," says Hamilton. "It makes me feel good that it cares. It's not just this big company."

Further contributing to employee satisfaction is the fact that, at least through Sparked's system, exceptional volunteerism is often quickly recognized by nonprofits. So far, Hamilton has won 10 excellence awards from nonprofits for the $8,540 worth of tasks she performed.

"According to Sparked, only about 3 percent of all [volunteers] ever get an award," says Hamilton. "Since I've gotten 10, I'm really proud of that. It feels good that it means something to somebody."

Possible Downside

For all its benefits, however, microvolunteering presents some challenges. At Sparked, for instance, there are still disconnects between what a nonprofit seeks in an online task and what a microvolunteer performs. That's occurring even though Rigby says the company offers nonprofits tips to help manage those expectations.

"Sometimes, a nonprofit will ask for something that's not 'micro,' " Rigby says. "They might ask for video-production help, but 100 percent of video production requests are unsuccessful, because they take too long and cross the boundary of expectations."

At Sparked, about 80 percent of microvolunteering projects completed are deemed successful by nonprofits. But, on the other hand, that also means one in five nonprofits aren't satisfied with volunteers' contributions.

"With some challenges, it works really well, but not with others," says Rigby, adding that Sparked is striving to improve outcomes. "We're successful 80 percent of the time, but there is still 20 percent of the time when we're not successful."

Microvolunteers also typically can't witness the smiles of those being helped, a bright spot for in-person volunteers. Plus, companies have less oversight over individually performing microvolunteers than they do over a team of employees doing on-site, company-organized community service.

Additionally, some critics wonder how much impact volunteers can really make in, say, 15 minutes. Rigby acknowledges that it can be difficult to measure results.

"It depends on what you mean by impact," he says. "If you mean change on the ground, that can be hard to evaluate. How much impact is occurring is a good question about all volunteering, not just microvolunteering."

Asked to prognosticate about the emerging form of helping out, Rigby says there is "no doubt" about its bright prospects. Combine today's time-crunched workforce, filled with people who want to contribute their skills in a medium as convenient as online volunteering and, "It just makes sense," he says.

Colan agrees: "I don't think the traditional way of volunteering will go away, but I do see a significant drift toward the microvolunteering approach. It matches up too well with the dynamics in our world," including younger workers' preferences.

At Kraft and UnitedHealth, both companies embrace microvolunteering while closely monitoring its progress. UnitedHealth's Rubin advises firms to first experiment with microvolunteering to determine its suitability for their culture.

Since launching the program, UnitedHealth has prominently promoted it internally and it has been discussed in leadership and volunteer councils and other forums. Now, she says, it's a matter of amplifying that awareness.

"Our biggest challenge now," says Rubin, "is just getting the word out and spreading the word."

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