For companies
August 16, 2022

Building company culture with a volunteer program

Imagine constructing a brick office building. You have plans for an elegant arched entryway and soaring windows. You will stand at these windows, admiring the neighborhood around your office through the changing seasons. To start construction, you know you’ll need a lot of bricks – but don’t forget, you’ll also need a lot of mortar! The bricks are what everyone sees, but the humble mortar holds all the bricks together. As you’re building a company, think of it just like this brick building. 

The bricks of the company are what everyone sees: your quarterly All Hands meetings and public product launches, awards for impressive achievements and your annual Sales Kick Off conference. 

But the mortar of the company is everyday activity: the cat channel on Slack, the 3pm popcorn break, new hire swag, and custom emojis. These small, everyday pieces of company culture are what make your workplace unique, and what give everyone a shared identity. 

When you approach a structured volunteer program as mortar, instead of as bricks, the program becomes a natural part of the company culture. You can start slow, with a few events. Your program does not need to be a large showpiece. A structured volunteer program should be simple, and one that you scale over time. In this article, we share the key elements that make company volunteer programs the mortar that happily ties your team together.

Why your company volunteer program is important 

One-third of American workers will turn down a job offer if the company culture isn’t a good fit. And almost half of them cite company culture as the driving reason they’re currently looking for work! So it’s clear that the culture of your company is important. You want to build it to appeal to the most people, making it a great place to work for everyone. 

A volunteer program has wide appeal among employees. Continue to think of bricks and mortar; an annual “Day of Service” is a brick of company culture. But you want to create a consistent program that is mortar. To do that, include these structures in your program:

  • Plan volunteer events on a frequent cadence. This provides ongoing opportunities for employees to join the program, whenever they’re ready and able, as their workload allows. They don’t have to wait for an annual day of service. They can get started, or return to volunteering after a pause, at any time.
  • Design events for small- to medium-sized groups, rather than the entire team. Large events feel required, even if they are advertised as optional. Smaller events are low-key and approachable for your employees. Over time, the volunteer events become as important to the team as the 3pm popcorn break or Friday social hour. The volunteer events become something to look forward to – but something that is also always there for them.
  • Ensure that members of senior leadership join volunteer events. When they do, it shows all employees that volunteering is simply part of working here. At volunteer events, employees across all levels are able to connect, forging bonds and preventing any damaging manager vs. employee silos.

With these structures, your program will grow organically. Start out with a few events, and over time, employees will be eager to plan their own. 

The program and volunteer events will become a source of pride for all employees, even if there are times when an individual’s personal, physical, or family circumstances don’t allow them to volunteer. They will still feel proud of the company’s efforts, and identify with the positive impact of the program. This pride is a great data point to measure in internal employee surveys!

Engage employees and build company culture with virtual and in-office volunteering 

A company volunteer program can, and should, include remote and in-person events. Both event types allow the program to include all employees, of all abilities, when they want to participate. This is the mortar: volunteer events are always there, surrounding everything the company is doing. The events are commonplace and low-key, but vital to the company culture.

For in-person events, keep in mind peoples’ differing abilities, and plan events with a wide variety of physical demands. These can take place in the office (indoors or out!), or elsewhere with a non-profit.  For example, folks can stay seated around a conference table when sorting Legos for a kids’ robotics club, or they can engage in strenuous lifting at a food bank or neighborhood clean-up. Keep differing personalities and neurodiversity in mind as well. Folks can work independently and quietly while building an affordable local home, while others can eagerly socialize while making fleece tie-blankets for a furniture bank. 

Blanket making for Community Warehouse done in person, hosted at the team's office

For remote events, a little planning goes a long way. Seated events like making cards for foster kids, sorting supplies for school teachers, or repairing books for an early childhood care center can be done successfully from the home office, while the team connects via video. The small cost of shipping (if needed) is far outweighed by offering accessible and inclusive volunteer events for your whole team. 

Creating care cards for Portland Backpack can be done remotely or in person

Building a team connection is paramount, so look for these seated events over Zoom, rather than events where folks join on their own time and report back about how it went. Remember that remote events help build company culture when people connect. Asynchronous events or fundraisers belong elsewhere at your company, if you choose.

Build a consistent, inexpensive, and inclusive volunteer program

As the leader of a volunteer program at your company, it is important to provide some guardrails along with the structure suggested previously. You are building the company for the long haul, and guardrails keep programs consistent year over year. It will be natural for employees to come and go, and if an individual establishes the program guardrails from their personal standpoint, your company will be adrift if that person moves elsewhere in their career. 

As your volunteer program’s leader, you can set guardrails by thoughtfully choosing one cause (or a very small number) to focus on for the first few years. Selecting this cause (or a few) is a brick in your building: it stands out, everyone can point to it. The events that are planned, the connections that are made? There’s your mortar again, quiet and ever-present.

Perhaps you want to focus on literacy for the children in your community. Or perhaps you want to focus on an issue that is connected to your business mission. As the program leader, it is wise to decide what causes your team will volunteer to support, and how you’ll address requests outside of those causes. Employee interests should be taken into consideration while you consciously keep the program tightly focused.

As you start building your volunteer program to build employee engagement and satisfaction, select volunteer events that don’t require specialized training ahead of time and that are directly connected to the issue. What does directly connected mean? Don’t volunteer to hand out pamphlets, gather signatures, or welcome guests at a gala. Do plant trees, pull weeds, assemble kits, read to kids, or restock a community clothing closet. 

Your program will flourish, and your team will bring new ideas for direct volunteer opportunities. There is a satisfying co-creation of company culture when leadership sets the framework and employees volunteer and soon plan more events. Everyone grows the program together!

Get started with Field Day

Ready to build your employee volunteer program? Field Day can help your company or team discover activities, connect with local nonprofits, coordinate events, and track volunteering data. 

Right now, we’re helping companies with a people presence in Portland build up their volunteer programs in our beta program. Learn more about Field Day for your company.

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