Building a Culture of Volunteerism

Strategies CSAA Insurance Group, a AAA insurer, used to raise its volunteerism rates over three years from 35 percent to 98 percent.

Despite countless studies showing significant business benefits of employee volunteerism and diligent work to build strong programs, participation rates in well-run corporate volunteerism programs tend to hover around 35 to 50 percent. Last year, CSAA Insurance Group, a AAA insurer, achieved a record-breaking employee volunteer participation rate of 98 percent. We often are asked for insights on how we did it. That is, how can a company integrate community service into its culture?

At our foundation, CSAA Insurance Group is a values-based company that cares about AAA members and the communities we serve. This is key to the success of our corporate volunteer program. In addition, we leveraged several important strategies to raise our volunteerism rates over three years from 35 percent to 98 percent—the highest of any company with more than 3,000 employees.

  • Establish the end game: It’s critical to develop and rank clear business goals for an employee volunteerism program. Beyond a goal of supporting the community, are you looking to recruit and retain top employees? Do you want to attract Millennials who are drawn to companies that are concerned about more than profit? Do you want to boost your reputation among your customers? Are you looking to build your brand in an area that is tied to your product or service? Do you want to bring employees from different groups together to help break down silos? Clear goals will help you design a program, partner with the right community organizations, and successfully promote your efforts. This also will help you measure your long-term success.
  • Find your champions: Broad, executive-level support is essential to the success of employee volunteer programs. Communicate the benefits of the proposed volunteer initiative and how it is expected to positively impact the brand, employees, and the community. Share research on the business value of a corporate volunteerism program, including “free” teambuilding and the opportunity to break down company hierarchy. Ask for input on what challenges may exist and brainstorm how to address them. Offer to coordinate a volunteer event for their team. Leadership support—and involvement as volunteers—provides a solid foundation for realizing a shift in corporate culture.
  • Empower your leaders: Establish clear roles and responsibilities for managing your volunteerism program, and seek out employees with passion, know-how, and strong communication skills. The individual or team will secure successful cross-organizational participation and alignment, manage a diverse array of stakeholders, and ultimately provide fellow employees with necessary volunteer training and orientation. Great volunteer program managers can come from any part of the organization, but they require skills in human resources, public relations, communication, and marketing.
  • Engage employees: Depending on your goals, employees can be invited to nominate organizations for volunteer events and to lead those volunteer activities. If a company cause has already been identified, inspire employees’ passion to support the initiative though a marketing and communication plan.
  • Get out the ruler: Any good initiative has clear goals and reporting metrics to keep the program on track, and volunteerism is no different. Common volunteerism measurements include volunteer hours, number of participating employees, organizations served, the value of volunteer time, impact on the community, and/or visibility. Be transparent with your metrics. In our case, we focus on the number of employees participating by location and division and communicate this as part of our quarterly financial reports.
  • Recognize achievers: By recognizing the participation of individuals, teams, and leaders, you reinforce the relevance of volunteerism to the company, employees, and the community. Spur on some friendly competition with awards for the most inspiring volunteers or the division with the most volunteers. Ask the CEO and other respected leaders to present the awards at a large business meeting. Create videos to recognize your volunteers—internally and externally via your Website or social media. Even simple gestures such as a quarterly thank you e-mail to a team recognizing all volunteers by name goes a long way toward bolstering participation.

Identify and Overcome Challenges

Studies show that employees who volunteer are better at customer service, bring new ideas to work, and are more engaged. However, as is the case with most worthwhile initiatives, there are challenges along the way. Some may be clearly stated and others may emerge as a result of employee feedback in post-volunteering surveys.

For example, while many express interest in volunteering, lack of time frequently is cited as a roadblock. Getting employees out of their day-to-day routines—or even away from their desks for an hour—can be harder than it sounds. Bringing volunteer activities to the office is an effective and convenient way to encourage broad participation because it lessens the logistical burdens on employees and the company.

Offering employees paid time off to volunteer also can help underscore the company’s commitment. Consider extending companion employee benefits such as a matching gift program; nonprofit board service programs for executives; or a Dollars for Doers program, in which the company donates money to an employee’s charity of choice after he or she achieves certain volunteering milestones. A well-rounded community program conveys appreciation for employees’ time and efforts, while simultaneously building visibility with a broad array of charitable organizations.

On the other end of the spectrum, it is important to guard against “voluntoldism.” Employees should never feel they are being forced into volunteer activities, but instead should be empowered and engaged to pursue a common goal.

Influence Attitudes

As volunteerism begins to take root in your culture, the effect on employees and the company can be truly transformational. Putting hierarchy aside and engaging employees in a common purpose can bond an organization in ways few other activities can. Bringing together colleagues for positive change in the community deepens relationships, develops leadership skills, builds teamwork across the organization, and enhances company morale.

At CSAA Insurance Group, we believe our commitment to volunteerism is an integral part of what makes us a good corporate citizen and a great place to work. We attract people who share these values —and seek candidates who support them. We are proud to make a positive difference in the communities we serve.
With the right level of planning and commitment, your company can make it happen, too. Good luck!

Danielle Cagan is the vice president of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs at CSAA Insurance Group, overseeing all internal and external communications functions, including charitable giving programs, as well as corporate meetings, travel, and events. She serves as president of the Community Safety Foundation and is a board member for Huckleberry Youth Programs. In 2015 and 2016, Cagan was named among the Most Influential Women in Bay Area Business by the San Francisco Business Times. CSAA Insurance Group, a AAA insurer, offers insurance to AAA members through partnerships with AAA clubs in 23 states and the District of Columbia. Founded in 1914, the company is one of the top 20 personal lines property casualty insurance groups in the United States. In 2016, the company was named to the Civic 50 by Points of Light, the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service. This award recognizes the 50 most community-minded companies in the nation for their commitment to responsible corporate citizenship and for improving the quality of life in the communities where they do business. For more information on CSAA Insurance Group, visit:

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