goBeyondProfit - The Business Case for a Generosity Reboot

Carley Stephens, Megan McCamey

Friday, December 1st, 2023

If you pay close attention, you will hear a growing disagreement between companies, employees, and the communities they serve. While they are bound together by a mutual interest in meaningful engagement, employees and community-serving nonprofits are begging for a relationship reboot. Corporate partners appear wed to historic practices that no longer resonate. How did a good thing go bad? 

Companies have long been the backbone of vibrant, healthy communities. Company leaders recognize the essential business connection between customers, employees, and the community. From local softball leagues to community hospitals, corporate generosity stems from this symbiotic relationship and authentic goodwill. 

In the early 1990s, companies began to realize the important role employees could play in extending their goodwill. Bedrock Atlanta companies, such as The Home Depot, Coca-Cola, Accenture, and IBM, spearheaded this trend by hosting large-scale volunteer events at local schools, food banks, and parks across the country. Corporate volunteerism took root inside company cultures, boosting employee loyalty, productivity, and overall workplace satisfaction. The benefits were infectious. According to goBeyondProfit, a Georgia-based business initiative that tracks all facets of corporate generosity, including activities like volunteerism, nearly 80% of companies have now embraced volunteerism as a core part of their culture. 

However, year after year, data tells the story that employees are placing company volunteerism at the bottom of their wish list. Combine that with under-resourced nonprofit partners who share the view that large-scale volunteer days may be causing more harm than good, and you have a growing problem. 

What’s influencing the trend among employees? Perhaps it’s the heightened ability for individuals to self-activate that causes less demand for company-coordinated activities, or perhaps the external stressors in the world leave the workforce depleted, burned out, and lacking energy for one more required activity. It could be the combination of technology, innovation, and decades of mandatory high school service requirements culminating in a workforce that prefers to dedicate their time to issues that personally matter most to them. Whatever the reason, company-managed volunteer activities focused on company priorities no longer holds the same appeal. 

Nonprofits, however, agree for very different reasons. Initially, the emergence of corporate volunteer days brought an influx of revenue. Suddenly, companies were offering thousands of dollars and hours of volunteer support. The demand for corporate volunteer activities, coupled with concerns about funding scarcity, drove nonprofits to shift resources toward event planning at the expense of their core mission. For instance, homeless shelters redirected limited staff to create meaningful volunteer activities while simultaneously providing critical services. Local schools had their staff work on a Saturday to coordinate the repainting of the previous year’s volunteer mural. Precious financial resources were being diverted toward activities that entertained rather than fulfilled a mission or critical need. 

Though the rationale may be quite different for employees and nonprofits, there’s a shared cry for reimagination in how companies engage with local communities. One group craves autonomy in how and where they spend their time. The other needs a financial infusion better aligned with their mission. 

Yet, according to the latest goBeyondProfit survey, more than 76% of executives plan to maintain or increase their corporate volunteerism activities. Certainly no one is advocating that companies abandon their commitment to communities. So, what is the advice for a more modern alignment of purpose, corporate philanthropy, and employee passions? The first step requires listening. The second involves evolution. 

Engage employees in reimagining the ways they can serve together. Leverage their desire for autonomy to create new volunteer opportunities. The youngest generation in your workforce is deeply connected to the community, proficient in cross-platform communication, and comprises natural advocates who know how to activate others. Tap into this inclination and incentivize them to create meaningful moments within corporate guidelines. Then, reward their efforts with exposure to top leadership, professional recognition, positive feedback on their annual reviews, and acknowledgment of project accomplishments and new skill sets they can showcase on their profiles and resumes.

Explore the intersection between the nonprofit’s greatest needs and company assets you can deploy. Most nonprofits hesitate to say “no” to a funder for fear of losing funds. Therefore, companies should encourage curiosity from both sides. Consider unintended consequences in your current funding relationship. Is your grant process too intensive, requiring a grant writer the nonprofit can’t afford? What does the nonprofit need to fulfill its mission at scale? Which professional and personal skill sets can employees deploy to help? Do employees’ desire for flexibility, serving at their convenience, better align with nonprofit staffing demands? Consider if flexible, individual, or small-group volunteer activities might be more impactful than large-scale events. 

Embrace the business case for disruption. Rather than finding employee and nonprofit requests onerous, see them as opportunities. Data suggests that the traditional ways of doing things no longer serve company interests. For instance, group volunteering may not enhance company culture if only 20% of employees participate while the other 80% are burdened by repetitive requests. Are the employees tasked with curating engagement opportunities burned out from pushing ineffective programs? It may be time to consider new or different culture-building activities. Is your philanthropic funding process as cumbersome internally as it is for your nonprofit partner? An asset map between employee skills and interests and nonprofit needs might reveal more effective ways to achieve shared value alongside annual donations.

Demand for companies to demonstrate authentic goodwill continues to rise. In an age marked by increased polarization, employees unanimously agree (99%) on the importance of business generosity. The question is no longer whether a company should give, serve, and meet needs beyond profit; rather, it’s about how businesses can most effectively deploy their resources. There is good to be done. How companies deliver that good simply needs an upgrade. The approach looks remarkably like customer discovery and product adaptation. Businesses are well-suited to redefine the ways they engage, and their partners—employees and nonprofits alike—are eager for them to lead. Who will start the conversation?