How Volunteerism Enhances Workplace Skills

The idea of fostering learning through service is surprisingly controversial. Employers should plan carefully.

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Attract and retain top talent, boost morale, build brand awareness, give back to the community — these are among the most common reasons companies support employee volunteering, often through flexible scheduling or paid time off.1 But a new rationale is emerging: If managed appropriately, volunteer work for a charitable cause can help employees develop valuable capabilities that can be put to use at work.

Skills-based volunteering is a rapidly growing channel through which businesses engage in corporate citizenship.2 Traditional volunteer activities (serving people at a soup kitchen, for instance, or planting trees) tend to leverage general competencies. Skills-based volunteering, on the other hand, involves applying job-related expertise in specialized areas such as marketing, project management, and IT and often enables participants to acquire new skills along the way.

Employers have begun to view skills-based volunteering as a “win-win-win” opportunity for all parties involved — the nonprofit, the employer, and the volunteer. Nonprofits clearly gain from the infusion of material and intellectual resources to help them achieve their missions. Companies benefit from the follow-on effects of greater employee engagement in terms of individual and organizational performance.3 Indeed, as HR departments are exploring the potential for volunteering to complement training, the lines between corporate social responsibility and talent development are beginning to blur.4

Several studies have found that there are positive outcomes for the volunteers, too (although research that focuses on skills-based volunteering is sparse). For instance, when employees frequently apply their professional skills, they find their volunteer assignments more valuable and report higher levels of skill development.5 And when they acquire new skills, they feel they are more likely to succeed in their jobs.6 The inverse appears to be true as well: When employees do not learn from volunteering, their job performance actually suffers.

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References

1. D.Z. Basil, M.S. Runte, M. Easwaramoorthy, et al., “Company Support for Employee Volunteering: A National Survey of Companies in Canada,” Journal of Business Ethics 85, supplement 2 (April 2009): 387-398; and J. Kosakowski, “How Corporate Responsibility Professionals Use Employee Volunteer Programs,” Forbes, April 27, 2017, www.forbes.com.

2. “Giving in Numbers: 2020 Edition,” PDF file (New York: Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose, 2020), https://cecp.co.

3. B.D. Knox, “Employee Volunteer Programs Are Associated With Firm-Level Benefits and CEO Incentives: Data on the Ethical Dilemma of Corporate Social Responsibility Activities,” Journal of Business Ethics 162, no. 6 (March 2020): 449-472; and J.B. Rodell, “Finding Meaning Through Volunteering: Why Do Employees Volunteer and What Does It Mean for Their Jobs?” Academy of Management Journal 56, no. 5 (October 2013): 1274-1294.

4. For example, see A.S. Hirsch, “Doing Well by Doing Good,” SHRM, Jan. 5, 2019, www.shrm.org.

5. P. Caligiuri, A. Mencin, and K. Jiang, “Win-Win-Win: The Influence of Company-Sponsored Volunteerism Programs on Employees, NGOs, and Business Units,” Personnel Psychology 66, no. 4 (December 2013): 825-860; and D.A. Jones, “Widely Assumed but Thinly Tested: Do Employee Volunteers’ Self-Reported Skill Improvements Reflect the Nature of Their Volunteering Experiences?” Frontiers in Psychology 7 (April 2016): 495.

6. J.E. Booth, K.W. Park, and T.M. Glomb, “Employer-Supported Volunteering Benefits: Gift Exchange Among Employers, Employees, and Volunteer Organizations,” Human Resource Management 48, no. 2 (March 2009): 227-249.

7. J. Hu, K. Jiang, S. Mo, et al., “The Motivational Antecedents and Performance Consequences of Corporate Volunteering: When Do Employees Volunteer and When Does Volunteering Help Versus Harm Work Performance?” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 137, no. 6 (November 2016): 99-111.

8. Booth, Park, and Glomb, “Employer-Supported Volunteering Benefits.”

9. W.H. Goodenough, “Moral Outrage: Territoriality in Human Guise,” Zygon 32, no. 1 (March 1997): 5-27.

10. C. Argyris, “Strategy, Change, and Defensive Routines” (Boston: Pitman, 1985).

11. K.E. Weick, K.M. Sutcliffe, and D. Obstfeld, “Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking,” Organization Science 16, no. 4 (July-August 2005): 409-421.

12. M.R. Haas, “Knowledge Gathering, Team Capabilities, and Project Performance in Challenging Work Environments,” Management Science 52, no. 8 (August 2006): 1170-1184.

13. S.J. Ashford and D.S. DeRue, “Developing as a Leader: The Power of Mindful Engagement,” Organizational Dynamics 41, no. 2 (April-June 2012): 146-154.

14. Weick, Sutcliffe, and Obstfeld, “Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking.”

15. F. Heider, “The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations” (New York: Wiley, 1958).

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