Attract and retain top talent, boost morale, build brand awareness, give back to the community — these are among the most common reasons companies support employee volunteering, often through flexible scheduling or paid time off.1 But a new rationale is emerging: If managed appropriately, volunteer work for a charitable cause can help employees develop valuable capabilities that can be put to use at work.
Skills-based volunteering is a rapidly growing channel through which businesses engage in corporate citizenship.2 Traditional volunteer activities (serving people at a soup kitchen, for instance, or planting trees) tend to leverage general competencies. Skills-based volunteering, on the other hand, involves applying job-related expertise in specialized areas such as marketing, project management, and IT and often enables participants to acquire new skills along the way.
Several studies have found that there are positive outcomes for the volunteers, too (although research that focuses on skills-based volunteering is sparse). For instance, when employees frequently apply their professional skills, they find their volunteer assignments more valuable and report higher levels of skill development.5 And when they acquire new skills, they feel they are more likely to succeed in their jobs.6 The inverse appears to be true as well: When employees do not learn from volunteering, their job performance actually suffers.7
Ultimately, though, declaring skills-based volunteering to be a clear win-win-win is overly simplistic. Despite the positive implications overall for talent development, this body of research does not shed light on how people respond when their organization explicitly positions volunteering as a way to develop or acquire skills. But such positioning matters. Since employees can, depending on their outlooks, either embrace or derail corporate programs, we decided to examine their responses to employers’ efforts and messaging around volunteering.
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. The very notion of skills-based volunteering may, at least for some, undermine the purpose of volunteering: to give, not to gain.
We spent one year investigating two companies that deliberately folded volunteering into learning and development initiatives. Both had clear policies and internal marketing campaigns that stressed the link between volunteering and skill development, and employees were encouraged to note their volunteering efforts in their performance reviews. Alongside our observations and informal discussions with managers and with employees who were volunteering, we conducted interviews with the corporate relations teams, facilitated focus groups, and interviewed volunteers across different geographic locations.
The responses to our questions about developing skills through volunteering were surprising. Although prior survey-based research has found a correlation between skill development and positive impressions of volunteer activities, in our qualitative investigation, employees did not naturally make the connection on their own.8 In fact, many admitted that they had never thought about learning from volunteering before. For about two-thirds of our interviewees, the interview process itself helped them identify and articulate how and what they had learned.
Even more surprisingly, the remaining third of our interviewees responded defensively or expressed outright anger at the suggestion that volunteering could be used for personal or employer gain. These volunteers were enraged by the idea that volunteering could be anything more than giving back to the community and refused to view it as an opportunity to develop skills.
What explains the difference in responses? Our analysis suggests that it depends on how people interpret their employers’ motives. We’ll discuss why in more detail — but first, let’s take a closer look at each type of response.
When Giving Back Turns to Blowback
The interviewees who had the most extreme responses got angry when asked whether they had gained skills from volunteering. One volunteer was adamant that volunteering and skill development should be “completely separate” and snapped, “OK, I’m going to throw that back at you. … How would you answer that question?” In a sharp tone, he insisted, “I wanted to volunteer purely to offer my own personal assistance,” and he accused management of being immoral for suggesting that volunteering is a route to skill development. Another volunteer asserted that the motive for volunteering should be altruism and that “adulation from your manager or department … is totally irrelevant.”
These volunteers displayed what anthropologist Ward Goodenough would have called moral outrage: anger, disgust, or frustration directed toward those perceived to have violated one’s ethical standards.9 It seems that this response surged in some of our volunteers because they felt that our question challenged their moral identity and integrity: They questioned how the business could think that their work with charities was motivated by anything but a desire to help others. One volunteer who said, “[I want to] make my point very clear,” stated, “For me, it’s about putting into the community; it’s not enough to say, ‘Well, I am going to put into the community if I get something back out of it.’” Although these volunteers found their experiences meaningful and important, many said they were insulted by the suggestion that they or their companies could gain from volunteering. They happily donated their skills but were aghast at the thought of developing new ones in the process. With a raised voice, one volunteer argued, “It’s not about developing me as a person for the benefit of my company; it is about using my skills to give back to the community.” We found that moral outrage was strongly associated with outright rejection of the idea that learning could, did, or would take place.
Others made comments that amounted to what behavioral scientist Chris Argyris would have called defensive routines: actions or responses designed to avoid threat. As Argyris pointed out, defensive routines prevent learning because they inhibit reflection, stop conversations short, and deflect attention from a perceived attack.10 “Oh, that’s interesting,” is one example that came up repeatedly in our interviews. Others included “Right, OK,” “It could be a good idea,” and “Aha.” Such replies, coupled with defensive body language (crossed arms and body shifts to the sides of chairs), signaled indifference, filled in the blank spaces of a conversation without supplying substance, and ultimately shut down the discussion. When probed about learning from the experience, many volunteers refused to engage and simply reiterated their personal moral motive: “You don’t volunteer for the benefits for you.”
Making Sense of Learning From Volunteering
Now let’s consider the approximately two-thirds of volunteers who responded with curiosity rather than hostility or defensiveness. For instance, one stated, “I have never thought about volunteering as me learning something; volunteering, in my mind, is always like giving up my time to help others.” At least initially, many volunteers did not focus on the fact that activities such as participating in mentorship opportunities, delivering job preparation workshops, or serving on a nonprofit organization’s board enabled them to leverage their existing skill sets or gain new ones.
As the interviews progressed, though, we noticed that these volunteers embarked on a sensemaking journey.11 They reflected on their experiences, rationalized their activities, connected the dots between volunteering and learning, and acknowledged that volunteering had changed their behavior at work. Sensemaking is critical for learning; research shows that people who don’t deliberately process their experiences are much less likely to learn from them.12 Our respondents noted how the interview process aided their sensemaking. One pointed out, “I think that just talking to you, what I am realizing is that we are doing this volunteering and most people participating probably aren’t understanding what they are learning from it, including myself.”
Once interviewees started to make sense of their experiences, they were able to articulate how and what they had learned. Take, for example, a business manager who discussed his volunteer experience as chair of a nonprofit group that supports vulnerable youth who are called to legal hearings. “Absolutely, volunteering has given me skills to bring into the organization. I think the biggest skill is facilitation,” he said, noting that he has grown by “developing empathy and [an] understanding of other people’s circumstances and bringing that to my day-to-day role.”
Many volunteers emphasized the acquisition of soft skills, such as resilience, leadership, and team building, rather than technical skills. For instance, an HR manager who volunteers in a mentorship program for young entrepreneurs commented that seeing progress in her mentee “has given me confidence that my advice and skill set [are] helpful.” She acknowledged that “volunteering makes you a much more compassionate person” and that as she gets older, “it becomes much more important to flex those skill sets.” Developing soft skills is an important benefit to identify, because such skills are hard to teach in a training environment and transfer into practice — and leadership skills in particular are more likely to be acquired through action and reflection.13
Sensemaking not only enables learning but also prompts individuals to springboard into action and ask, “What now?”14 We found that volunteers discussed the potential to gain and share skills in ways that they had not considered before. For instance, a customer service analyst, who volunteers as an event facilitator (selling tickets, distributing flyers, and orienting guests) for a children’s hospital, felt that her business skills were underutilized. She stated, “I think some skills-based volunteering would be really rewarding. … I think that would be really good, actually, to do something like that.” She mentioned that she would look for opportunities to volunteer as a mentor to “help somebody in Excel skills … which is stuff that I do day in and day out.” She thought that mentorship could also develop her people-management skills by providing her with opportunities to appreciate different learning styles and to practice communicating clearly. Once interviewees had made sense of skills-based volunteering, many suggested that they would seek, as one put it, “volunteering that fits in with what I want to give and gain.”