Three cheers for employee volunteers

Volunteers are a sign of a healthy corporate culture. By understanding their motivation, HR can figure out how to keep and energize them

Volunteers are the fuel in the engine of every charitable organization, religious congregation and noble community endeavour. But their crucial role isn’t limited to the philanthropic; volunteers are also the heart and soul of many successful corporations.

Some of the most successful armies were built on volunteer soldiers who freely enlisted and put their lives on the line. Likewise, some of the most successful companies enlist the help of volunteers — people who willingly and faithfully serve their company and fellow workers on health and safety committees, recognition and award committees, mentoring programs, advisory boards or event planning committees. In fact, if you went to a company party over the holidays, it’s almost certain that its success was due to many hours of planning, preparation and service by employee volunteers.

Recruiting willing individuals, engaging their best efforts and appropriately rewarding them are essential to maintaining the corporate esprit du corps. But how does one reward a volunteer, a person who by definition does something for other people or for an organization, willingly and without compensation?

The answer lies in understanding how the act of volunteering meets some people’s human needs and, how HR can play a role in fulfilling those needs that aren’t met.

What makes volunteers tick?

Obviously, money doesn’t motivate employee volunteers. The truth is, in many situations volunteer jobs are the worst ones — you couldn’t pay people enough to do them. And employee volunteers aren’t primarily motivated by the benefits. The personal cost usually outweighs any apparent benefits.

Love and belonging may be why some employees volunteer. People have a desire to belong to groups: clubs, work groups, religious groups, family. People desire community, to be accepted by others. Performers appreciate applause. People need to be needed. Belonging and camaraderie are the key elements that get people to volunteer.

People who volunteer may also be driven by two types of esteem needs. The lower of the two levels is the need for acknowledgement and recognition that comes from others. It’s the desire to be admired, having one’s worth validated externally.

The higher esteem level is a self-actualization of worth, a sense of satisfaction in knowing that one’s personal potential is being realized.

For most volunteers, the external validation of knowing that what they are doing is meaningful to others is what keeps them volunteering after the camaraderie needs are fulfilled. For a few volunteers, the internal validation of doing something meaningful for others is fulfillment enough.

HR professionals interested in populating the organization with good people should keep an eye on employee volunteers. Their volunteer service shows a passion for their work beyond compensation.

People who are such willing volunteers are those who have a heart to be a willing servant. Willing servants are usually wonderful people managers and make great servant-leaders. What an interesting concept it would be if volunteer service were a prerequisite for moving up the corporate ladder.

5 tips for encouraging volunteers

Armed with an understanding of what internally motivates a person to volunteer for a payless task, how does one recruit them, keep them and energize them in their tasks?

Here are five key elements:

Promote camaraderie: To ensure a pool of ready volunteers, promote the camaraderie inherent in a volunteer endeavour. Let everyone know what good fun it is to be part of the volunteer team and that “many hands make light work.”

Be aware, be informed: Appreciate the time, energy, commitment and effort that employee volunteers expend. Look for all the quiet, unnoticeable, hidden and “secret” things they do, the things that nobody is going to know about unless someone investigates.

Shout it out: When it comes to volunteers, no news is not good news. Silence is not golden. Shout from the rooftops about their work — especially the little, hidden, “secret” things that they do. Then everyone will be acknowledging, recognizing and thanking them.

Recognize: People hate to be ignored. So, feed volunteers’ human need for personal validation. Recognize volunteers formally. Recognize volunteers informally. Recognize them publicly. Recognize them privately. Recognize them as a group. Recognize them individually. Just recognize them. Be generous with praise and recognition — but be careful. People know “fake” praise when they see it. So, be generous, but be genuine.

Don’t reward them, award them: Don’t even think about “rewarding” a volunteer. What they’ve done is worth far more than an employer can pay and is definitely beyond reward. Therefore, make sure to “award” them with something money can’t buy. Embody recognition, praise and acknowledgement of their service with something highly symbolic — not just a gift, but an award, something prestigious that cannot be bought but can only be earned by an elite group, earned only by being a volunteer.

Gordon Green is executive vice-president, recognition and reward strategy for Rideau Recognition Solutions. He can be reached at (905) 648-9873 or [email protected].

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