Better Employees, Finances and Image: Why and How to Create A Corporate Volunteer Program–With Chris Jarvis

Click the player to listen to the interview or right-click and save for the MP3.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Like this interview?  You can thank Chris on Twitter like this.

With a poke in the chest, Chris Jarvis was asked a question on a street corner that stripped away what he knew and put him on a path to give people the opportunity to realize their full worth. Chris is responsible for helping companies attract and retain the best people. But he’s not a recruiter. He creates and implements employee volunteer programs (EVPs) for companies and nonprofits.

When I asked Chris what a company gains the most from having a corporate volunteer program he said, “Better people. Hands down. Better people.”   In addition to top employees, an EVP will improve your business’ community relations; increase morale and productivity; help your employees develop new skills and abilities; save you an average of $500 in employee training per employee every year as well as recruitment and turnover costs; and change the attitude of your company by giving your employees the opportunity to give more of what they have to offer.

In this interview, Chris lays out the four steps to building a corporate volunteering program that will give your company these benefits. We talk about aligning the nonprofit partner and program with your brand, the controversial subject of paid-time off to volunteer, white-collar vs. blue-collar volunteering and tools you can use to track and measure the impact of your program.

You’ll also hear what Chris was asked on the street corner and why he’s trying to recreate that same experience for you.

About Chris Jarvis

Chris is the co-founder and senior consultant for Realized Worth, his answer to how he can give everyone the ‘poke your finger in the chest’ experience that he had on that street corner. He creates employee volunteer programs for companies looking to strengthen their CSR programs and differentiate their corporate culture. Chris writes about corporate volunteering and CSR for Realizing Your Worth and is 3BL Media’s Canadian partner. One of his current projects is a comprehensive guide to CSR for human resource managers.


This is a very raw transcript. Readers (like you) are editing a better version here.

Olivia: I’m here today with Chris Jarvis who is an expert on corporate volunteer programs, and the co-founder of Realized Worth. He’s joining us from the States, and I’m in Buenos Aires. We have a bit of a delay on the line today, but nonetheless, I’m really excited to have Chris with us to share his 20 years of experience working with nonprofits and with corporations on their corporate volunteering program. So Chris, thank you.

Chris: Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Olivia: Thanks. Could you give us a little bit about your background, and how your background, being the executive director of two non-profits led you to found Realized Worth, whose sole focus is on employee volunteer programs?

Chris: Yeah, that’s a great question. It’s an interesting journey. I think most people today who are involved with corporate social responsibility or sustainability within a company kind of get there by an indirect route. Since it’s a fairly new concept in academia, in terms of being formalized. 

My background actually, the way I came to it, I was working with some faith communities, churches, and got involved with a dropping program and got connected with some kids who were facing issues that I hadn’t really considered before. My background’s rather dull and middle-class, and the kids I was working with also had that kind of background. But just in Toronto, I was living in Toronto at the time, and we were outside Toronto and there were a lot of kids without a lot to do. So the little town I was in wanted to give them an opportunity to get involved or become active. Because anytime you see two or three kids hanging around a corner store, you get nervous.

So the town decided to put in a drop in center for kids who weren’t active in sports. And I didn’t know anything about it. I had no concept or understanding whatsoever of how drop in worked, or how you connect with kids who were disconnected and a little bit on the fringe of things in terms of what they were getting involved in and their activities. I guess the formal term for it is “at risk youth.”

So I connected with some people who were in downtown Toronto who did have drop in experience. One was a very old Mission [xx] Street, it was over a hundred years old. And they kind of took me under their wing. And I remember I was downtown, eating at a greasy spoon with two guys who were going to tell me a little bit about youth, and the kind of youth that were going to their drop ins. And we were eating and they were asking me questions. 

We went around to some of the places where kids were sleeping outside in sleeping bags and cardboard boxes. And they talked to me about why kids come into the city. And about 15,000 kids would come in during the summer, 5,000 would stay. The rest would go home, they were just sort of trying it out. The kids who stayed because they were getting involved in drugs, or they were getting involved in the sex trade, or they were just falling into the wrong crowd, or maybe they had been abused and didn’t want to go home. A whole myriad of reasons. And this was all new to me. 

So we were walking along, and I had some theological training, that’s my background. So I remember we were standing on this cross street of Gerard and Jarvis, which is my last name ironically, and they said, “Can we ask you a question?” And I said sure. They said, You know, we were talking to one of the girls who’s working the streets. She’s about 20 and she’s got a couple kids already. And she wants to get off the streets; she’s in the sex trade. A working girl, involved with prostitution, for those of us who don’t know those phrases. And she wants to get off the streets. She’s got two kids. You work in a little church in the suburbs. There are 120 people that go there. Somebody in that church has got to have a basement where this girl can live.

I said, “Ehh…” They said, “Yeah, someone who might have a basement, a place for her to live. Help her get on her feet, help her get her GED or high school diploma. Help her kids, maybe get some shoes. And pay off a little bit of a drug debt that she has so her pimp doesn’t come after her. Do you know anybody like?”

I said, “Let me think.” And this was a legitimate question on that corner, which made it very, very real. And I couldn’t come up with an answer. I said, “I’m really sorry, I don’t think there is anybody.” And the one guy took his finger, and he poked me hard in the chest. And he said, “Then what the blanking good is your God to anybody?” 

And these were also guys of faith, so they were not dissing my faith. But they were very serious about a kind of value or morality or lifestyle that couldn’t be backed up with regular, everyday living. I mean it’s one thing to say nice things that a spouse can believe, but if you can walk the talk, then it’s really not that useful to anybody else. And it certainly wasn’t useful to this girl. And I sort of crashed at that point. You know, I didn’t know what to do. They gave me a book, and they said, “Read this. It’ll help.” I was totally, I was destroyed, because I spent a lot of time learning, you know, how to work at church, and how to be helpful, and how to be involved with the community. I wanted to do good things. But I could not come up with an actual practical answer to make a difference. So shortly thereafter I moved to Halifax, got involved with a non-profit, a very grassroots organization. I’ll tell you what I did. I went to everybody I knew and said, “Who’s working with the hardest people in the community to work with, the derelicts, the drug addicts, the alcoholics?” I didn’t even know what phrases to use or word or sign, or any, you know, I didn’t know anything. So they pointed me to two women, who in my mind were like, you know, Mother Theresa. These were amazing women, who had been working on the streets with clients involved with alcohol, women involved with prostitution and drug addiction, and what not. Anything on the streets. And I just followed them around for months. And then, you know, I did have some skills, so we kind of formalized the whole thing. And it was still grassroots. It was just, you know, there was no organization at all. And we built a little board around it, and we built a little organization. We started fund raising, and getting more people involved. And I got to the point where I was standing there, one of the dinners that we put on, and I remember I was standing there thinking, “How do I let everybody have that ‘poke your finger in the chest experience I did’. That moment of epiphany, where the, you know, the veil is pulled back, and you start asking really fundamental questions about yourself, and about other people. How do I do that?” And I knew that it was by offering people exactly the same opportunity. Not that everybody’s ready for it, but for people who are, it is life changing. And nothing since that day has ever rung my bell like that. I mean that’s what I live for, giving people the opportunity to have that kind of experience. And volunteering, as far as I know, is the best way to do it.

Olivia: So that is much more than I anticipated, and I loved it. That was such a fabulous journey. And so you had this experience. You were there as, what brought you in the first place to the street corner to encounter the kids? It was just curiosity or was it just a go at community service?

Chris: Yeah, that’s a great question. It was just an alignment of I needed to learn something, I found some people who were willing to tell me something. I really didn’t even know the right questions to ask. And it’s interesting; I think where most people get involved in volunteering. We don’t know why we’re doing it. We have a sense, well it should be something or I want to give back, I have so much. We all have these external motivations for doing it. But if you can get into a space where you can really personalize the experience and really own it, and have that epiphany and internalize your motivation, then I think it can become very transforming. But at first, I really, I need to build something, and so that’s how I ended up there.

Olivia: And then you had said you established a small… It was a non-profit. That was what came about from your work with those women. And the board that you created to support was a non-profit organization?

Chris: Yeah, we worked together in Halifax to do that. So we ended up… It was built around a fifteen year old ministry, like a little dinner that was held at one of the United churches in downtown Halifax. And we had men, women coming in, with kids coming in. It was you know, at first it was kind of line up and get your food, but we wanted to give people as much, we all wanted to create as much space as we could for people to have that experience. [Laughs] So to do that, we became very, very inefficient. Like we used to get everybody to line up, and the fine ladies from the Women’s Auxiliary, who were 60 years old or later, could serve 200 people. So, we stopped doing that and we gave everybody. We lined people up and we took food to people. After they sat down, we took pepper and salt to people, and we made other people take around bread, and one person took around the juice and the other person took around the pepper. Everyone who came to volunteer had something to do, which was really important. And then we just, we went from 10 volunteers to 70 volunteers. But it was built on that dinner. And then through the week, we would make connections with people on the street, and eventually, a youth drop-in was established out of that in Halifax and still going to this day on God’s Ministry.

Olivia: So what made you leave the nonprofit sector to begin working with a combination of corporations and nonprofits?

Chris: Well after being involved with that non profit and then we were involved with another one that we did some kind of cool programs with in another part of Halifax, I actually got to the point where I thought, I love working with faith communities and churches and that kind of thing but I was interested in a broader audience. And I was interested in the bigger conversations that were happening globally around sustainability and international development, that kind of thing. I think companies have won…are definitely positioned in a leadership role that’s really unrivaled by any other type of organization. And I saw that they were interested in getting involved in communities as well. And a lot of the moving parts are the same between a church and a business. How do you create a good volunteer opportunity? How do you optimize it? How do you get people involved? How do you help them move from external motivation and internal motivation? So that was all the same but the context was different. But this is just really our wanting to move out and step out and make contributions that go beyond pure profit. And that really was interesting to me and we jumped into that area, that field.

Olivia: You have a very specific focus for your work, which is to create these programs. How much of a need did you see? How did you see this need? And part of my motivation for asking this question is because I think a lot of people can look at it and say, Well, what’s the big deal Chris? To create a volunteer group you pick a group in your area, you set a date, you set a date once every three months, you send an email around to your employees to take some pictures. There you go. So what was it that you were trying to fill here?

Chris: That’s a really great question because you’re exactly right. If you a volunteer program that you can take some pictures at, have some people involved and have an event for a day, or a couple days a year, then it’s actually not that hard. It’s far more like event management than anything else. But if you’re looking for something more, if you’re looking for more value than that, if you’re looking for something that can help transform your company, that can increase the productivity of your employees, that can increase the enthusiasm of your employees, but more importantly it can actually work with partners in the community to make substantial changes that last beyond the picture, the photo op, then there’s a little bit involved than that. It’s like me when I began the process. I didn’t know what it took to do a drop in. I could explain what an drop in was and I could tell you what was involved but I really didn’t understand it until I got involved or got out there and asked some other people what was going on and I got better questions. And I think when companies think about engaging in the community and getting their people involved in volunteering…when it comes to volunteering it seems like a no brainer. I mean, you find a non profit, you order the t-shirts, you get the banners, you plan the date, you have the hot dogs, you send out the press release, you tell them paint the wall, which has just been painted the month other company before by the other company and you’re done. That’s the day. You get 200 people out on a Saturday with their nonprofit and you do some good. I think painting the wall because ironically that is what a lot of nonprofits end up doing is painting buildings and that kind of thing. Sorry. Companies when they work with nonprofits. And there’s nothing wrong with that but there is something that can go awry if that’s all that companies do when they think about corporate volunteering. So we wrote a blog with the seven standard requests that companies make. We actually got the list from a group in Australia that works with businesses and nonprofits and they compiled the seven most requests made requests by companies and nonprofits when it comes to corporate volunteering. And we looked at the list and we said on the page and there’s nothing wrong with it. I mean, they were things like we want something that can be done in a day. We want something that has inherent value or innate value or obvious value. We want something we can do as a team. We want something to do that matters.

Chris: So, there’s nothing wrong with these requests. The problem is that you only meet, you only give the company these requests if you offer them the one opportunity. Clean the playground or paint the wall, everybody takes their photos and they go home. There’s so much value left behind unrealized. What’s missed is long-term relationships that can actually solve problems in the community. So, that’s what’s missed. On the underneath of it, here’s the bad part. You can actually communicate with two hundred people in a company to go about cleaning up a playground, which is what you do. Where as painting a wall is actually getting at some of the core fundamental systemic problems that exist in the neighborhood. And its not. Its part of a process. Its part of a piece of the whole but it is actually not solving any problems. When people came down and served a meal with us on a Sunday afternoon with this community of two hundred people that I mentioned before, this united church. The first thing i told them was: We are not going to fix problems of hunger and poverty here, you’re handing out a plate of food, its not going to make a dent in that. If they didn’t eat here, they would find somewhere else to eat. That is not what this moment is for. This moment is about creating is about creating space where we can start to understand the world a little bit differently than we did before. Where we can ask better questions and whether we can see that we’ve a role to play, a part to play, in a long term journey towards making our communities and our neighborhoods and our cities better and in that is a part of us becoming better too. And now lets just step behind, we needed an epos-tar event and you paint a wall or you clean a playground and that’s it for the year. You could in-fact inoculate the two hundred employees into to thinking they’re a simple solution that are better realized when it comes to problems in the neighborhood and that’s not the case. What we add is further than that. We advocate taking those steps, getting people involved into those one day events are a great way to get people involved to go further, go further and realize the real benefit that can be there and you can get there by just having some conversations and figuring out, what needs to be done to benefit the business, to benefit our profits, to benefit the community and what can benefit the employees and that take a little bit more thinking than most people know to do at the beginning.

Olivia: So lets talk about what the benefits are to the business because a-lot of people that listen to this are business owners, there’re young entrepreneurs they’re evolved in businesses and the understanding of how it benefits a good project that helps benefit the causes of the community is clear. So what’s the value proposition of a corporate volunteer program for a business?

Chris: Well I think essentially when we talked about the business we can talk about things like operation. There are benefits to be realized when it comes to the operation of the business so you can create better company relationships, relations with the community, you can have positive effects on productivity because the studies show that as moral goes up, productivity goes up, employees will experience greater fulfillment because thy are starting to add on pieces that goes just beyond whatever they’re making on the assembly line. It a more holistic approach, there’s a value there for sure that translates. As-well as skills and abilities that you can offer employees when you think a long term approach where you can get employees involved in leadership roles on a board or public speaking on behalf of an on top or the kinds of skill sets you can learn from networking or that kind of thing where companies studies are showing that an average of 4 to 600 dollars are spent on training per employee, this is a real gain in terms of real life skill set training and its also set off some pretty onerous costs that can be a part of training. As-well as there should be lower error rates, reduced absentees and that kind of thing but that’s on operational I mean we can focus just in on the skills in terms of an employee magnet because it begins in non-profits, involved with non-profits at an organizational level they can run things like planning, budgeting, communication, assessment, people, just basic people skills caring, negotiating, listening that kind of thing. So those kinds of things then there s prospective and attitude these guys love these kinds of things in terms of personal fulfillment, learning to be more innovative and pre-social contact awareness bases just all these kinds of things make people more rounded, well rounded, that defiantly is a benefit and then obviously there’s things where you go to the non-profit.

Olivia: And how does it decrease absenteeism at work and you know, I know that your specialty isn’t as a researcher but can you talk briefly about how…I can see how bring it would bring increased moral but how does that increase productivity and decrease absenteeism? Do you have any thoughts on that?

Chris: Yeah. It’s an interesting study. It was done by an engineer in…I think it was Pittsburgh in the 60s. It’s called the Two Factor Theory or the Hygiene Theory and Gallup did a study a little while ago…Have you heard of First Break All the Rules and what’s his name…Buckingham.

Olivia: Is it Buckminster Fuller? Well, all right we’ll leave that for a side note.

Chris: Okay. I loved the book First Break All the Rules. It’s based on a comprehensive study that Gallup did. I donít know how many millions of people and how many thousands of companies were involved; I used to be able to reel that right off but they came up with an interesting observation that was exactly that same as that discovered by the gentleman who came up with the Two Factor Theory. And that is that what makes you unhappy at work is not the same as what makes you happy at work. So what makes you unhappy at work is lousy pay, lousy work conditions like you cubicle space and there’s no windows, a lousy boss. Those kinds of things, right? That makes you unhappy. If you fix those it makes a better working condition but it actually won’t make you happy at work. What makes you happy at work, and this is what is part of Buckingham’s book First Break All the Rules, is someone knows you by name, someone’s interested in your development, you have a personal relationship to other people. It all has to do with personal fulfillment in who you are as a human being. So when a company takes time and formally offer an opportunity to get involved in community, what they’re doing is creating the right kind of space for people to express their personal interests and personal desires that go beyond just what they’re doing as part of the company. And so it integrates their life inside that building, or that assembly line of those sales calls with the rest of the world. And if they have a sense and studies show, and I don’t have any off the top of my head, but it makes common sense. If you are more satisfied with who you are as a person in life you just do better. In terms of health, in terms of productivity, in terms of mental acuity, those kinds of things. When you’re engaged you do better across the board. And so companies that are able to connect people to passions and interests where they feel they’re making a significant contribution as a human being, where they feel like they matter and their business is facilitating it, there is direct correlation and positive benefit that can be realized there.

Olivia: And it makes sense about the workplace, the Two Factors. It’s a great thing to carry forth in this conversation. Most companies that come to you for your assistance in creating these programs what are their motivations or how do you make sure they’re starting from the best type of motivations to create these programs? What’s the starting ground?

Chris: Well, actually simpler than you would thing. We talk about four things you need to pay attention to. One is the thing that most people talk about that’s structure. That has to do with design, program, how many hours we’re going to give off, are we going to do it together, are we going to do it individually, are we going to have dollars for doers. All those kind of things that people talk about a lot. We were involved with a great research project with Bea Boccalandro at the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship and they offer six drivers for effective volunteer engagement and giving programs and companies. It’s free, it’s a free download on the Boston College website. I highly recommend it. But those six drivers, those factors, actually it’s a bit like the Two Factor Theory: if you do not pay attention to those things, if you’re not paying attention to how you’re structuring it and being intentional about that then your program’s going to flop. So you need to do that. But what takes it to the next level, what really helps people realize the value is when they pay attention to the other three conditions of a great outstanding volunteer program; and that is movement. People have to have a sense of achievement. They have to think, Okay, we work here and we’re going there. I mean across the board, that’s just a basic human need.

Chris: I need to have a sense of program. Spending my will isn’t going to work. So, Companies need to take time with nonprofits to figure out where are we where do we want to be and be very clear about those goals. So that means they need to form partnerships. Partnerships where everybody understands what the expectations are, what we want to achieve, where we want to go, what it’s going to take and then we’re both all in on that. They need to actually demonstrate clearly to your employees and all the participants, even participants of the nonprofit who may not be involved in your company, because you’re going to be rubbing shoulders with these people. You can demonstrate what you’re achieving together and have a sense of success there are some milestones. You can tick it off and say yes we’re moving towards a goal. And companies need to pay attention to that, and forming actual partnerships the long-term goals are the best proactive way to achieve that. The third condition is one of motivation. Why are people doing, why would any body want to volunteer? Well, the businesses have certain reasons for doing it, the nonprofit definitely have reasons for doing it. But the third group usually gets ignored and that’s the employees. Why would they want to do it? What are the personal benefits for our employees? What are they interested in? So taking the time to do some evaluation and understand what people are doing already and where they want to go and why they want to go there? That’s very important, so taking the time to actually ask those kinds of questions, do some interviews. And discover what are people doing already, maybe we’ll want to build on that. Or maybe it’s a combo, maybe we do something as a company but we facilitate the individual interests of our group, like IBM, they put together over 200 online programs where you can learn skills for whatever you want to do. If you want to become a better board member, you go online and take the online skills program and you can be better board member. Well that’s great, they facilitate the people individually. But maybe you want to combine that with focused company activity as well. And that approach works really well. But pay attention to what motivates people, is really important. Which leads us to the last condition, that of space. And we’re big advocates of creating the right kind of space to make people at their highest contribution, because what people are volunteering for the first time are like I said before. They’re astringently motivated; they’re not exactly sure why they are there. Like me on that street corner, I didn’t exactly know why I was there, I was going to learn, I was going to personalize the whole thing. But that’s what I’m starting to see, we’re expecting too much of that person, give them that experience, let them move on. If it’s not right for him, that’s fine, but the less obligation you put on the person at the beginning the more likely they’ll find space to own it themselves. And honestly people kind of, you know, go through three stages when they’re volunteering. The first stage is very much like when you’re visiting a country for the first time and you’re taking in the sights and sounds. You know, you’re like a tourist. You’re there, you’re trying it out, that kind of thing. But if you really like it and go back you kind of develop some connections, we call that person travelling. And you need to treat them differently than you do tourists.

Olivia: The nonprofits still. The non-profits, yeah, right

Chris: Exactly, the nonprofits do. The nonprofits need to create the right kind of space. And then finally you have people that are operating at the highest level. These are people who are all in, it’s part of their identity, they have a very internal motivation for being there. You do not need to send them an email, you do not need to remind them to be there, you do not even need to ask them to do more. They just will because it’s their lifestyle, it’s just who they are. Those people, we call them guides. And so the business and the non profits need to kind of work together to find the right kind of volunteer opportunities so you can have people coming in and trying it out and then leaving, you can have people trying out and continuing on and become travelers and then finally guides. What the mistake is that nonprofit and businesses tent to treat everybody the same. And so people who are highly invested get asked to sleep and people who don’t know what they are doing are asked to be on a board before they even understand what the community issues are or what the motivation or the goal is. So, that’s the last part. I would say it might be one of the most important features of what we talk about with companies.

Olivia: So before you start to develop this partnership and layout, what, before you even develop the partnership with the non profit you should get a sense of what you were saying of what your employee interests are and their background. But then how do you even select who to partner with in terms of which organization and what type of cause, especially if you’re trying to take into account perhaps some of your employees personal or historical interests?

Chris: Yeah, that’s really good. Cause you have a number of factors that are kind of competing at this point. One you’ve got, you know, I’m a big believer in brand alignment. You know, mining companies that support soccer. I think, okay, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just not good enough. Right? So, consulting companies that plant trees — nothing wrong with that — you just need more. I mean, there’s more to be offered here. And there’s more alignment that can happen. Because without that kind of alignment, integration, there’s different business areas within your company. It’s just, it’s more philanthropic than it is corporate responsibility or social responsibility. And again, nothing wrong with that, but I mean, if you want to go to the next level, and that’s what most people are looking for and that’s where our staple is looking for, and that’s the real value that a business and community can send to benefit from. Then the process — there’s a little bit more involved. Like, you really need to, make some time, discover who the nonprofits are. You’ll have a general idea of what, which nonprofits have to do with your brand. And then you vet them. You spend some time meeting with them. But a really great practice, one that I’ve seen work well over and over again, is one where companies put together a team. A team of people from the different business areas. So you’ve got people from finance, you’ve got people from human resources, you’ve got people from the production line, the assembly line, whatever. Put them on a team together and make sure there’s a C-suite level person, one that — somebody from the highest level of the management, on that group. Who can advocate around that boardroom table. Put them together and then find a nonprofit. Take the time to find a nonprofit. And then ask the nonprofit to form a mirror team. And then this team gels together. And it’s really great if the HR guy finds an HR guy from the nonprofit, and if the finance woman finds a woman in finance, you know, from the nonprofit. That kind of mirror team works really well. They can find a lot of affinity and I tell you, the best part about that is, it won’t be built on the personality of the CEO or the Executive Director or champion within the company. Because when that CEO goes, the whole thing tends to fold like a house of cards. This team approach allows you to institutionalize the relationship beyond the personality. And it also is one of the best ways to facilitate finding the nonprofit in the first place.

Olivia: That’s helpful. And it made me think of a question that I’m wondering if I even stepped over that — I’m thinking to myself, if I were asked by an executive to join a team to put together a, this type of volunteer program, I would be happy. But I would want to know — well, why? What’s the message that the top level or executive needs to communicate to employees about what are the motivations for doing this. And I think I am only asking this now because I’m putting myself through the paces as you describe, and realize, I would want to have a message from the company that leads me to believe it’s more than a PR stunt.

Chris: Yeah, I, again, brilliant question. And I think one that probably if you restated it, could be applied to CSR in general. I think there are a lot of companies that are getting on, well, you know it’s probably good that we used less water, it’s probably good that we turn off our lights when we’re done; it’s probably good that we reduce our waste. Right? And some of those have an immediate, obvious value. We pay less for trash collection. That’s a good thing. You know. We use less water, business saves money. So that’s pretty obvious. But if you’re going to go beyond that, if you’re going to go beyond those obvious connections, then you’re right. You need to start asking questions about who we want to be and what we can do and how important it is for us to be the kind of company that is building value back into our community. And, you know, it really comes down to that. It comes down to somebody who is a decision maker who has the ability to say, “Okay, if we want to be the kind of company who is building value into our community — we want to exist at that level. Or we have a CSR program and we want to notch it up a bit. We want to get, we want to rally the troops and corporate volunteering within the community with our employees — is one of the best ways to get people active and get them involved and realize some of the potential. I very rarely hear of a company that is so convinced of the business benefits before they get involved in employee volunteering — that it’s a no-brainer for them. Yeah, I mean I could sit down and talk until I’m blue in the face about how if you reduce sick time and you increase productivity by 1 percent, we’re talking about this times x dollars and millions of dollars a ___, right? It’s really hard to demonstrate that. I mean, it’s just really hard to demonstrate that. Although, I think there are programs in place where those kind of metrics can be realized to some level or another, and they get better all the time. But companies that get involved in employee volunteering do it because someone who has the authority to make that decision knows at an intuitive level it’s the right thing to do. And I think the way society is going right now. I think there’s a push-pull effect around volunteering. And I think more people are interested in it, but I think the reasons for it come afterwards. I think we make an emotional decision and then we find the facts to justify it later.

Olivia: That certainly seems to be the way that I personally operate. So that’s interesting that you say that [Laughter from Chris and Olivia]. So, with this volunteer team then? The considerations that they want to balance are a cause and a partner that aligns with the company’s brand image. And I agree that that really is important. It’s something that I’ve spoken about and written about. And so, but then they also have to take the pulse of the employees in the company in terms of what their personal interests are and see if there’s something that can, can bridge those differences. And do that as best they can. Is there anything else in terms of focusing on an issue or choosing a nonprofit partner that you would say, or any other processes that you encourage companies to use?

Chris: Well, I think one important thing is, when you — after you’re done vetting and there’s a way to vet, I think it’s all just simple common sense about — call people you know (of the nonprofit); ask around; ask other nonprofits; get a sense of the reputation. You know, take them out. Ask them questions too. After you get your short list together. I wouldn’t do that at the very beginning, but after you get a short list together of two or three nonprofits — you know, bait them a little while. See what they’re like. Try to, try them out a little bit. And even do a one-off volunteering event. I think that’s a good example of when a one-off could be a good part of a long-term strategy. But once that’s done — once you’ve, once you think “Okay, this is the group for us” — then sitting around the table and saying “Okay, we want you to know, we’re not just looking for a photo op, we’re not looking for a one-year only thing, we are interested in your goals and your expectations. But we have some goals and expectations too, for our business, because we’re shooting to be more sustainable, more vigorous, more vibrant, more differentiated, stronger, faster, bigger, better.” You know, that kind of thing. I mean, businesses need to do that. They need to have those priorities in place on behalf of the shareholders and themselves. So, put themselves on the table. And craft together a memorandum of understanding, if you want to call it that, where you share objectives. The business has objectives; the nonprofit has objectives; and then there are objectives for the employees as well. There’s kind of, you’ve already taken a pulse. You know kind of what they’re after. What kinds of things are interesting them? So include those together. Find the overlap between those three circles. That’s the thing to put at the point of your goal setting and whatnot. Those are the things you’re all in together on. But then everybody has to have a sense of your priorities or my priorities. So the parts that don’t overlap, they have to be committed to those long-term as well. So the company has to be committed to, say, the fund-raising efforts of the sustainability of the nonprofit as well. Otherwise, they are forming a partnership that’s limp, that won’t last kind of thing, and they’ll be investing in a dead-end relationship. So you need to get to that place and spell those expectations out. What does that mean? Is the business going to be putting money in? Is the business going to be offering skills and expertise? When? Now? Later? As we go? As we get a sense of it? What can the nonprofit offer us? Nonprofits have a lot to offer businesses beyond just a volunteer opportunity, as well. In terms of advocating for them in the community, including them in newsletters, letting, you know, hosting back and forth. Even shared best practices. It is always interesting what businesses can learn from people in the trench making a go of it. With, you know, band-aids and paper clips — and that’s, you know, nonprofits are guerillas out there. And they can — they have a lot to offer as well. So, but, a memorandum of association, of understanding, I think would be a real important piece in that whole process.

Olivia: Is there an optimal size of a nonprofit? Or does it, or is there, should the corporate and nonprofit partners be of, their sizes should they relate to one another?

Chris: Yeah, you know that’s interesting. I, and that question comes up, unfortunately, for a lot of companies it’s just not going to be very — you know — there’s a handful of nonprofits that they can connect with. So sometimes you can connect with a cluster. Besides, like Habitat or something like that. Which I’d go to. Or Junior Achievers.

Chris: So sometimes you can connect with a cluster besides like habitat or something like that, which I go to before junior achievers. That kind of thing. They’re big enough, they can handle it. For a company who wants that kind of, you understand size, you understand infrastructure, you understand bureaucracy, then that’s a good merge. Some more innovative companies are actually clustering nonprofits and share similar objectives with them in the city. So you have like three non profits around homelessness, that’s different non profits too cause they can skill up a little in terms of their visibility and they kind of get away from competing with each other which you know the best of us don’t do in the non profit world. And you can afford some the associations that give strength add value to each other. And companies I think can lead the way in doing that if they cluster nonprofits around a cause. Sometimes if that doesn’t work out, you know, it’s like everything in life comes down to personalities. It’s still a good idea.

Olivia: That’s interesting to cluster the nonprofits, and I can see that being very helpful for the community. My next question is kind of how long does our essay have to be? What is the minimum number of words? But I think it’s a question that people consider. Volunteering for employees. Do you council it should be done on work time? Paid time off? Weekends? An arrangement? People’s personal time and their work time can be hot-button issues. So how does that fit into a company volunteer program?

Chris: ok, you’re right. This is a hot topic. In terms of non profits, I know some die hard, you know feed to the wolves, hard core believers when a company shows up on company time and are getting paid to be here. It is not volunteering. Other nonprofits think are you crazy when a company shows up and are paying your people to be there I can’t think of a more committed investment. I mean company is actually doing that, they’re spending their money on it. So from the nonprofit perspective, it is kind of a hot topic in certain circles. From a business perspective it kind of runs a gamete. From a slap on the back out the door to you’re doing a great job volunteering in your own time don’t be late after lunch. To where we offer our people sabbaticals, paid sabbaticals. Statistically I’ve seen any proof that one beats the other. However, having being apart of this 6 drivers successful and volunteering program research, I would say that companies that need help and are in a place that can say, ok paid time off, you can volunteer 40 hours a week, throughout the year whenever you want or as part of our program, we’re putting skin in the game. Those companies are more successful. I don’t think they’re more successful because people are take advantage of it in the end. I think they’re more successful because they just are making a strong statement of we want you to volunteer and are standing behind it, we going to create as much space, as much opportunity as it takes to make sure you get involved in the community. I think that that kind of statement is important. I’m not hearing so much is what is done as a kind of company that is comfortable of doing that is going to be more successful. Because it’s a tell tale sign of the culture and climate of that company where they are willing to stand behind their employees in terms of community investment. Now say that and a lot companies will say no that that’s not true, that’s my personal perspective on it.

Olivia: Yeah some of the companies that have well known volunteer programs like Patagonia or birds bees or Timberland and birds bees does the type of paid sabbatical or internship for their employees, I’m sorry Patagonia. And Burt’s Bees and Timberland I believe do paid time off, or paid time to volunteer. I see more companies adopting that so I guess it’s a personal decision between every company and it’s employees.

Chris: Yeah, exactly. One works for one won’t work for the other. Statistically, I can’t say one is better than the other. It’s what’s behind it that’s driving it it’s what really matters and if a company can demonstrate clearly to their employees that they’re behind it and their not just riding the backs of the employees good efforts or good will. Because that will destroy the employee volunteer program. And we’ve examples of that happen, that makes a difference. If a company can clearly demonstrate they are supporting it in a meaningful and when I say meaningful money. Or resources type way.

Olivia: And a way that shows sacrifice, yeah. How do you deal with measuring the outcomes –given the benefits that we talked about, there are a lot of outcomes that can be measured. What do you counsel corporations and businesses to do around this area?

Chris: I usually, for one thing, I say you got to measure it. If you’re not measuring it, if you don’t know what you’re achieving, and then I stop and think, OK, and I don’t mean how many people showed up. That’s input. That’s not the output mission we’re after. It’s important to know how many people showed up and how much time and everything, but we want to get to actual results. What’s being achieved? 

And I think that means in the beginning with that memorandum idea, you have very clear goals, you’ve been in conjunction with your non-profit partner, and you set goals for the next few years of what you want to achieve. And you make them measurable. 

Picking the right goals is far more important than picking goals that can be measured. We can figure that out later. And there’s a whole lot of good organizations out there that can do that. Andrew Mercy with Angel Points, Angel Points has two great programs online right now for getting your employees engaged in your CSR and for measuring volunteering impact programs. That’s fantastic, he’s out of San Francisco and they’ve got a great program.

Olivia: And you’re saying that he can help measure the benefits of a company on these types of programs?

Chris: Absolutely. Yes, absolutely. Mission Measurement is another one. True Impact with Fran Levy in Boston is a great one. They have an online toolbar that’s very easy to use. And I know LBG in Canada, hosted by Sympac, they’re doing good work around standardizing inputs and outputs so companies can understand what’s effective.

So there are organizations out there that specialize in this. They have good data, they have good connections and good communicates, and they’re already offering it. It can be done. So there’s no real excuse for a company that can’t say in their annual report or online using social media, you know, We gave out 10,000 basketballs, and here’s how our community’s better. That translates to kids being involved in sports which keeps them in school which means that our drop out rate over the last two years has dropped by 20%. And kids who stay in school are less likely to end up in jails and that kind of thing, which saves our state X amount of dollars.

So just to take the next step and actually begin to measure beyond how many volunteers showed up and trying to estimate what the value of their time is, this is far more important and companies need to be able to do it. Which if we can do it in every other area, we certainly need to do it here, and the tools are available to do it.

Olivia: That’s terrific that the tools are out to [xx] upon a business and that’s exciting. And I’ll put the links to some of these in the post. But does the business have to measure their social outcomes or can they say, Hey, non-profit partner, you take care of that and I’ll weave that into my end of year report and my CSR report. Does it need to be measured together with a non-profit, or is it two sets of measurements? And this again is talking about the impact of the service project.

Chris: Yeah, no that is an excellent question. I know of some businesses that’ve kind of left it to the non-profit to measure. And those non-profits do the best they can. But I think again, we’ll leave a little bit of value on the table if the business isn’t stepping up to offer their expertise, their network connections, their skill sets in measurement.

And I think the business misses some realities of that process in terms of, Wow, we are doing this or We aren’t doing that. And in the end, it’s one company that I’m thinking of, they left the non-profit to do the measurements, and in the end they get a bunch of Excel spreadsheets, because it’s a volunteer from who-knows-where, trying to fill something out for a company that they don’t even understand what the company needs. So it didn’t work well in that case. 

And I don’t know, if we’re talking big non-profits, if that’s a good idea. I think you just miss an important aspect of the relationship. So doing it together, in my mind, would make a lot of sense because there’s a lot to be achieved there.

Olivia: And then do you work with companies on structuring their message? Once they have this program in place, and it’s well oiled, the non-profit’s and the employees’ and the company’s objectives all seems to be getting met, how do they communicate it to the public? And how do they receive that benefit of the program, which is the public knowledge and awareness of it?

Chris: Well, as you know [laughs] I’m a big supporter of and believer in social media. I think we formed a partnership with 3BL Media just for that because taking this message out to some of the most interested, some of the most active people out there that are in social media who are engaged in this topic I think is a really easy win for companies. It’s great. 

Write the CSI report, hand that out, mail it out, that’s fine. But let’s go to the next step and let’s make it a dialog. Let’s interact with our stakeholders, let’s interact with the broader public.

Because in the end, isn’t that why we’re doing it? Isn’t that what we’re doing to demonstrate, to clearly demonstrate a benefit to the community? I mean, doing the good thing. But if you’re doing the good thing and not talking about it, again we’re missing some opportunities there in terms of being a leader. In terms of creating a bit of gravity pull towards other companies saying, “You know, we should be doing something, too.” 

And I think that’s an important thing for companies to realize. When they’re doing something good in the community, the more they can communicate that effectively to audiences that want to hear about it and will talk about it and spread the good word. The more we can create sort of a pull, a gravitational well toward this different way of doing business, where we pay attention to people, profit and planet. But people have to know we’re doing these good things. Just doing them and being quiet about them, there’s a value to that. But we miss the opportunity to draw other people in and get them excited about being involved as well.

Olivia: I totally agree. But a lot of companies out there are thinking, How do I do this? I don’t want to get my wrist slapped for looking like I’m cause-washing, even though I’ve followed Chris, and I’ve gotten all these stakeholders involved. And we’re creating this company and we’re measuring our results but the communication is a scary thing. Because all of a sudden, you’re putting something that feels personal to your company out in front of the public for their evaluation.

Chris: Right. And I’m probably not going to say anything different than your other guests who have discussed this. And that is if you’re going to get involved in this in a real meaningful way, it’s just the same as having a conversation over coffee. The person who’s listening to you has to be allowed to ask questions, which may be, “Really? Honestly? That’s what happened?” or “How is that good?” 

And you’re right. That can be very scary for companies that are used to having one way conversations with the public. But we’re moving past that now. I mean, that’s an old era. That’s pre-printing press type of thinking and now that social media is out, and now that we can have these two way conversations, I think companies that can get practiced in it and adept in it are going to be out ahead and lead.

So how do you do that? I think it’s not so much about having the perfect strategy, although you got to see through that. I think it’s about taking incremental steps. So start slow. Start with just a moderate presence in social media. Get to know some of the people. Learn, listen, watch, engage, offer something valuable. Everything you need to know about social media is free online. But there are people you can hire too, to help you move faster than you would on your own. 

And the community out there, as you know, Olivia, the community out there in social media around corporate social responsibility and sustainability and green issues, is by in large a very friendly, positive, “we want things to be better, we want to help people get better.” The only time people go crazy is when you have a case like Nestle, where they had a bad video go viral and then they tried to control the conversation. And in social media, you aren’t controlling conversation, it actually comes across as trying to control people. It’s just awful. 

And those things can be great opportunities for companies. But you may want to engage some extra [xx] just to think through some of that. But it’s not as hard and it’s not as [xx] as you might think, once you get in. And you know this from personal experience. You’re very adept in social media yourself.

Olivia: Thanks, that was a good explanation. What about the size of a company who wants to create a program? Even if they’re small, 10 employees or under. Still a good idea? Still powerful?

Chris: Yeah actually, probably a little easier. I’m going to be in Toronto talking to a group that the average size of the company is 5 to 12. But there you’re going out like a little family to do your volunteering and so you don’t have to worry about things like participation rates and getting people to show up because I mean it’s a tight knit group and I thinking the benefits are also quickly realized because you can share the experiences and you get to institutionalize the experience and you probably don’t need to worry about a team, a leadership team to form partnerships because in one way or another everybody in that company is probably doing something to make sure that it works, that business works, so that translates over so I think that’s a great opportunity for small companies and I think it’s a very successful opportunity. And I think there are some real easy wins for a small company over a large company.

Olivia: Ok. And we’ve been talking about programs that have been, that include company and employee buy in, but there are some companies out there and I’ve done some research and I think Zappos looks like one of them. Zappos is the online shoe retailer a terrific company, really cutting edge in a lot of regards in terms of their employee appreciation and customer service and it seems that they have community service programs but they don’t seem to be formalized. In this case what is the company missing out from having a formalized program and instead just having maybe an informal committee of volunteers organizing event several times a year.

Chris: In Zappos case they’re probably not missing out on anything. They’re a crazy company, they’re a great example engagement and of hiring the right people having the right people on the bus. A-level players in a level jobs. They make mistakes, but they’re phenomenal and if they can.. They know the rules so well, that they can break them and still be good as gold. So, I haven’t looked into specifically how their employee volunteer program works but I would say in terms of the four conditions they are playing hard ball, they are major leaguers and whether they formalize their approach and have all that extra structure around it I think they’re just at a place where that’s so internal they don’t need it anymore. A bit like when you’re learning mathematics, arithmetic, you have to write it out long hand and then later on when you know it you can do it in your head, I think that’s where they’re at.

Olivia: Glad I asked. That’s interesting.

Chris: That’s just my opinion based on how I see corporate volunteering affecting cultures within companies.

Olivia: I think I’ve got maybe one more question for you and this is an interesting one that came up during our conversation because we talked about for example an consultant company that goes and plants trees and there’s really a lot of value that’s not being tapped. What have you noticed from volunteer projects that are more service and work and hands related to more white collar volunteer projects and is there one that fits a company better, are they both credible do employees feels the same type of benefit and engagement from doing a more white collar volunteer project than one where they are going out and attending a drop-in centre as you said.

Chris: That is an excellent question and one that most people don’t think to ask it. I have a strong bias towards to proximity. That means that when you’re volunteering the closer I can get people to other people or the issues you are working with. The more dirt I can get under your fingernails and I mean that metaphorically, unless it’s an environmental thing, regarding the program or the community issue or whatever, the more that is going to sink inside of a person, the more opportunity people can have to personalize. Because remember that’s what we’re after. We’re after people to move from external motivation to internal motivation, personal intrinsic motivation. And that’s facilitated by getting them in the field, getting them to be a bit of a practitioner. So I’m not a big fan of getting people from a company and sticking them on the board. I always wonder do you get what these people are all about and so will other people on the board and I guarantee. That non-profit is always wondering too. That person has worked alongside their volunteers …and they actually know, Bill’s name or Bob’s name. They actually have gone out and seen what kind of issues they’re addressing in the community. Whether its pollution or whether it’s planting trees. Anybody who’s got the street credit and then is on the board is far more reliable, far more authoritative, far more helpful, far more, just better across the board, and better for that employee too. So, that’s my bias. Having said that, there are some companies that lend themselves to white collar type work as you mentioned. And there are non-profits that are crying for these kinds of skills, accounting or…

Olivia: Right, I think Deloitte is great. they’re a great example. They’ve had their program in place for years.

Chris: Yeah. But, even with Deloitte, I would say, the best people..(?) have done a little of both. Like go in and help them with their strategic thinking. That’s great. Be the consulting…but ladle some soup out on a Saturday. Really, really get it inside of you because again, that’s always what we’re after. We’re after that epiphany, that moment where the person goes Ah! You know, I see something now! And sometimes, its hard to get when you’re sitting on a board or doing some consulting in a nice room with people who are a lot like you.

Olivia: You know I will share a quick experience myself. That’s basically the feeling that I’ve had I’ve been doing what I refer to as pro-bono work for this new non-profit that is a fundraising platform for other nonprofits online and social media. And it really is volunteer work but it doesn’t have that same type…I believe in their mission, but I’m doing things that are very high level that I would do in my other paid positions so there is certainly a very, there’s an emotional component that’s not getting tapped. So I don’t even consider it volunteer. I say, sure I guess I’m a volunteer. But really, I’m doing pro-bono work for them.

Chris: Great. And there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you have the other parts of the continuum. So you have a sense of movement and a sense of accomplishment and you’ve internalized your motivation. And that’s fine, but I agree you kind of need…you need both for it to be really meaningful.

Olivia: The last question I have for you is if a company doesn’t have a corporate volunteer program, what is…if you could distill it down all the great benefits you share, but what’s the biggest thing that they’re missing out on without such a program?

Chris: Better people. Hands down, that’s the thing: Better people. Somebody’s had the opportunity. Isn’t that what we want with leadership? Don’t we want to be the kind of people, as a leader, to say, You know because I was in this role as a leader, I facilitated meaningful change. I made a meaningful contribution. People’s lives were made better. The world is better. Isn’t that, when we are put in the ground when we’re in that box at the front of the church and that person stands up, you do not want that guy to say, He made great choices in terms of what he bought and what he didn’t buy. He had great lawn furniture. He had a lot of money in his account. He made our company billions and we all had more vacations because of it. That is not what we want said at the end of our life. What we want said is, This person made a significant impact on my life. I would not be the same without him. She has just, she offered me so many opportunities to become more who I was meant to be. That’s phenomenal. I will miss her dearly. That’s what we want said at the end of our life. 

As leaders we can offer that to people. All these people who show up and punch the clock under our watch in a company (?) that’s what we can offer as leaders. That’s what we can contribute to the world. That’s when we start writing our obituary every single day and this is where we can make some huge strides. When we offer people the chance to have these epiphanies not everybody’s going to have it, but you create the space where people become more of who they are and realize their true value and their true worth that’s where we get the name for our company. When people realize their worth and they realize the value and the worth of the people around them, and the axis of the earth tips a little bit and the world’s a little bit different and a little bit better because you were in that role and you made that possible, that’s important. That’s really what matters. That’s what its all about. So, better people. That is the most important reason beyond money, beyond anything else that we’ve talked about. That’s it. Number one.

Olivia: Chris, do you like your job?

Chris: (laughs) I’m totally uninterested in doing anything else. So I guess that means yes.

Olivia: This was just fabulous. I will say, at the risk of offending other people, this is one of my favorite interviews. And, I know I took a lot of your time because I had so many questions.

Resources mentioned in the interview:

AngelPoints Software to track volunteer programs and evaluate their impact

Mission Measurement Measurement and evaluation services

True Impact Online tools and support services

LBG Group of companies working together to measure corporate community involvement

Book mentioned:

–“First, Break All the Rules” by Marcus Buckingham

Tags: , , , , , ,


Leave a comment
  1. Lalia Helmer July 11, 2010 at 4:40 pm #

    Thanks Olivia for this interview with Chris Jarvis. I am great fan of his and his innovative approach to employee volunteerism.

    It’s not surprising that he mentions Marcus Buckingham, (one of my heroes) who went on to write numerous other books after First Break All the Rules, and who perhaps can be credited as starting the “strengths movement” in management and other areas, including education.

    Applying many of these management principles , like Marcus Buckingham’s and others, to employee volunteer programs can help companies integrate them into the overall employee experience as opposed to treating these programs as “extracurricular activities”. This kind of integration ultimately leads to improved overall productivity and workplace satisfaction.

  2. admin July 11, 2010 at 7:15 pm #


    I really admire Chris and his work as well. First Break All the Rules is now on my reading list! I share the approach, but it would be great to read Buckingham’s thoughts on it. Thanks for the comment–and the reading inspiration.


  1. The Fundamentals of Building An Employee Volunteer Program - April 9, 2010

    […] can listen to our audio interview and read a full transcript of it here.  This post outlines the benefits, process and common questions around creating an effective […]

  2. Better Employees, Finances and Image: Why and How to Create A Corporate Volunteer Program–With Chris Jarvis « 3BL Media's Commentary and News - April 12, 2010

    […] Click here for the full article and MP3 interview. […]

  3. A Vital Connection: Executives & Employee Volunteers | Realized Worth - October 13, 2012

    […] to ask questions and bring issues forward. Great, right? Realized Worth refers to Gallup’s Two Factor Theory, “what makes employees happy at work is not the same as what makes them unhappy.” They could […]