Be transparent that skills-based volunteer programs have a business purpose beyond the charitable contributions.
Motives matter when companies sponsor skills-based volunteering programs. Amanda Shantz and Kiera Dempsey-Brench write in an April 2021 MIT Sloan Management Review article that companies face criticism when they promote skills-development volunteer programs solely as give-back opportunities but really have underlying professional development goals.
Employer-sponsored programs that reward volunteerism with paid time off, flexible scheduling arrangements, or other perks seem positive for all involved. Charitable or philanthropic organizations benefit from the professional talent; employees can develop new skills; and the volunteer efforts reflect well on the company.
Shantz and Dempsey-Brench's research confirms that many participants in skills-based volunteering programs gain team-building and leadership experience and other soft skills. And there's no harm in employees gaining skills by giving back. "Volunteering programs can, in principle, meet multiple goals simultaneously, including learning and development and supporting an important charitable cause," the authors explain.
However, some participants were displeased to discover that their volunteer efforts were part of an organizational professional development strategy. "Our early findings show that skills-based volunteering programs can backfire if employees believe that profiting—in this case, through improved employee performance—is the real aim," note Shantz and Dempsey-Brench.
So, should companies avoid pairing volunteerism with skills development? Citing studies showing that capabilities developed through volunteerism can lead to on-the-job success, the authors do not advocate against skills-based programming. But they caution L&D leaders to stem potential controversy or confusion among participants by first and foremost being transparent. Shantz and Dempsey-Brench advise being up front about the program's purposes, which may include community reinvestment or giving back, employee skill development, and meeting corporate responsibility goals.
They also recommend creating a space for sensemaking where participants in skills-based volunteer programs can adequately reflect on their experiences. "Sensemaking is critical to learning." The authors add that without any guidance, employees aren't as likely to connect their volunteer experience with skill development. Those opportunities, coupled with transparency, are critical components to programmatic success.