I still remember the first time I felt “heard” at work. I was in my early twenties, working on Wall Street shortly after the September 11th tragedy. My colleagues were organizing volunteer and donation drives to support the individuals directly impacted by the terrorist acts. Initially, those efforts were rightly and intuitively focused on the families of those who lost their lives that day. A fellow colleague and I wanted to advocate to include Muslim families — who were suddenly subject to increased discrimination and hate crimes — in our company’s efforts.
Our first proposal was denied on the premise that we needed to focus our limited time and money on those who had the most critical need. So we came back a week later with our facts in hand – we had a handful of nonprofits where we could direct our support, the shocking numbers of rising hate crimes against Muslims in the city and a way to increase our pool of funds with the broadened support so we weren’t operating in a zero-sum world. We got an immediate yes, as well as gratitude from our employer that we had done our leg work. It was my first real glimpse into the power of education combined with persistence and it transformed how I viewed my relationship with my employer and my own voice far beyond the community efforts.
We’re now in a moment of unprecedented power of employee voice and advocacy within companies. According to Edelman’s 2021 Belief-Driven Employee research, employees are considered a company’s most critical stakeholder and, in turn, “my employer” is the most trusted institution (above companies, nonprofits, government and media). It goes on to cite some eye-widening statistics, such as 50% of employees surveyed say they can get a company to change anything about itself, and 76% say they will take action to produce or motivate urgently necessary changes within an organization.
This represents a fundamental shift in the nature of the relationship between employees and their employers – from transactional to strategic, from hierarchical to collective decision-making, from disconnected to interconnected. While many employers haven’t fully recognized the opportunity in this changing dynamic, the role of employees is indisputably evolving — as is the role of companies within society.
But you don’t need to look at the statistics to know that. We’ve seen this shift in our daily headlines – from Disney employees pushing a strong response on Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, to the employee-initiated and led union wins at Amazon and Starbucks, to the employee pressures on companies to focus their benefits on supporting their workforce in the likely overturn of Roe v. Wade.
Despite the groundswell we’re seeing at a national level, many employees are left wondering how they – individually and practically – can shape their own voice within their workplace. This is where volunteerism and service provide an incredible gateway to accessing the power that’s resident within each and every worker. Volunteering with the organizations on the frontlines of social change is one of the best ways to educate yourself and your company on how to support the communities in which you live and work. Still, translating your volunteer experience into broader support and advocacy for the issues you care about requires real intention.
Get your message down: It can be tough to quickly explain complex social issues and what needs to be done to address them. The nonprofits you’re supporting usually have that message down – ask them for their “pitch,” any ear catching statistics and suggestions for how your company can help support the cause, beyond volunteerism and philanthropy. Once you have that core message, make it personal (why do you care about this?) and get to practicing it in your work conversations. It doesn’t need to be formal – start with responding to a colleague's Monday morning inquiry, “How was your weekend?” with recounting your time spent with a nonprofit. When you get a company-wide email, look for ways in which you can respond and connect the issue you care about to the business priorities of the day. There are a ton of micro-opportunities to gain visibility for your cause – you just need to be on the lookout for them.
Make it a “+1”: There are a lot of opportunities that your company offers – conference attendance, training, tools and platforms that you can extend to community leaders to amplify their voice. You’ll be providing your colleagues an incredible opportunity to learn from community experts, increase the focus on their work and open avenues for additional support. Community challenges can often feel so far away, even if they’re happening right outside our doorstep. By bringing the faces and voices of our neighbors who are confronting those issues every day into our meetings, gatherings and board rooms, the imaginary walls between business and community start to disintegrate.
Be a resource for your company’s community team: Most corporate social impact teams are constantly working to better educate themselves and their employees on the social issues they support with their time and treasure. Still, the telephone wires between employee community know-how and their company’s social impact strategy are full of static. We need to move beyond the volunteer and employee engagement survey feedback. Figure out how to connect with your social impact teams, understand how you can support them, and encourage forums (focus groups, quarterly conversations, etc.) that will strengthen the tie between corporate strategy, employees and the community.
This is just the tip of the iceberg – volunteering is a gateway to meaningful change within your company, not just out in the community. How have you developed your voice within your company? What are the ways you’ve used volunteerism to increase visibility on critical issues within your workplace? Thinking about these questions and sharing what has worked for you – or what roadblocks you think you’ll face – can be the first step in bringing your workplace volunteering into your workplace voice.