“That’s The Way We’ve Always Done It”: Moving Workplace Giving From Okay to Great

April 1, 2014 benevity

We posted this article earlier this week at theCharities@Work Blog, as part of their Technology Series.

I tripped over a little quote the other day that got me thinking (sadly I never stop!) about the landscape of workplace giving programs:

“The only difference between a rut and a grave is their dimensions” – Ellen Glasgow

Despite an increasingly changing landscape, a lot of WPG programs are in a bit of a rut. Most of the people that run the programs know it (and if they don’t, their employees likely do). Even some of the higher performing programs (in terms of participation rates) that we run across, aren’t necessarily fully delivering on the engagement goals that could get better notice in the C-suite. We’re talking the talk about all the right things – engagement as the goal rather than just fundraising, for instance – but many are not yet walking the walk.

Companies (and their targeted users) need and deserve best-in-class technology and passionate, responsive service. That goes without saying. If you’re trying to enlist the willing participation of an increasingly distracted, time-constrained and webby demographic and you don’t have a compelling, easy-to-use, user-centric solution, you need to get one. Throughout history, people with better tools prospered and those who failed to upgrade and to meet market needs are mostly no longer with us (think about that as your company phases out your Blackberry, if they haven’t already :)). Today, technology is our tool of choice and it is changing so rapidly that the ability to adopt and adapt new technologies is becoming not only a critical differentiator, but a survival mechanism.

But a compelling user experience and great client service are just necessary, not sufficient. We also need to freshly examine the way we think about corporate Goodness Programs, how/when/why they are executed, the distribution models and eligibility policies behind them, and the fact many of them haven’t changed in many years…

How Did We Get Here?

I’m going to mention the elephant in the room and acknowledge that there is an unprecedented level of dissatisfaction with legacy software vendors in the employee giving space. There have likely been more RFP’s issued by companies around corporate giving and matching programs in the past 24 months than may have occurred in the preceding 10 years. That this is happening speaks volumes about the passion and energy that community investment professionals have to improve and increase the impact of their programs, but it also points to a landscape that has been allowed to tread water for a long time.

As a provider of some of the required innovation, it’s nice to be a beneficiary of that change, but the reality is most of us are working in this area to put a dent in the philanthropic universe, not just reshuffle market share or to help people do the same thing as before with a shinier partner. We need to create more and better programs, grow the number of companies that have them, increase the grassroots nature of the participation and impact through user-generated content, crowdsourcing, creativity, and doing more and better Good. (How’s that for stating the obvious?).

Let’s give credit where credit is due: the United Way was a huge influencer upon the existence and nature of workplace giving programs. The original once-a-year, limited choice UW model has persisted for decades, and even the more open programs and much of the software that has prevailed for many years were variations on the UW pledge form theme.

The thing is, everything has changed, and continues to. Think about the content we read about around this space these days (lots of it right on the charities@work blog): the growing business case connection between employee engagement and corporate giving programs; the increasing relevance and needs of Millennials and the uber-empowered multi-generational workforce; the importance of giving and volunteering in creating meaning in one’s work; the power of seeking and creating shared value, etc. It is all great stuff.

Yet despite the compelling logic, very little of it is capable of being leveraged in the conventional annual giving campaign model, at least as they have been historically executed.

Where Do We Go Next?

Companies, administrators and even many charities (and the federations that work for them) are enthusiastically seeking change in the workplace giving program paradigm. And that’s encouraging on all fronts. But it’s not just about changing partners, we need to think about ‘digestible disruption’ while we’re at it.

We all seek stability. We want to hold things constant, thinking that if we do, we can control them. But the one thing we know is that everything is changing, so that’s a disconnect. Innovation is all around us, and we can see it 100 times a day as we do a stunning variety of things on our mobile devices.

So what makes us think that we can continue with fundraising and workplace giving practices that haven’t really changed much in more than a decade?

Where we go next involves embracing (if not running screaming toward) change. Not just a new product or provider, but the cultivation of an ethos and culture that seeks it out and gains energy from it. Even if they may not tell you (or even know it themselves), we can’t hope to engage today’s employees and consumers around community investment with more of the same – even if the metrics you’re fetching seem ‘okay’.

Most people seem to accept that we have a different ‘why’ for workplace giving programs than we used to – it’s all about engagement. But on one analysis, one should consider engagement as an exercise in constant attraction. It’s hard to fit that concept into the AGC! It involves examining the ‘how’ and ‘when’ as well…

Matthew Nelson’s post on managing the transitional aspects of a new vendor selection was insightful, practical advice. We all know how challenging it is to navigate through today’s large enterprise culture, and having great project management and cross-stakeholder communication are key.

But don’t forget something else: if your company is of any size, you will have gone to a fair bit of process to change your vendor; don’t forget to take the opportunity to examine everything about your program while you’re at it. Buying a sophisticated, compelling and versatile (notice I didn’t say expensive?) new outfit doesn’t make much sense if you wear your old coat over it.

Focus on constructively disruptive questions, not fear of change. Many of the answers are historical or legacy technology-based limitations, rather than best practice logic.

Ask why your program is restricted the way that it is, or has minimum donations or minimum volunteering thresholds when the empirical data is clear that it is not the amount of giving or volunteering that matters in creating meaning for people, it is the fact of it.

Question your boss if he or she says: ‘we only want our people to think about giving back once a year’ or are preoccupied with what senior leaders think about making changes to the giving program. Neither perspective is sensible in the context of modern engagement theory. Unless they’re in HR or community investment, the chances are they don’t take much time to understand the real motives, opportunities or success factors involved in taking your Goodness Programs from okay to Great. It’s your core competency, not theirs. If you have to sell them, do it (or let others help you do it). If you can’t sell them, show them. The results will speak for themselves.

And most of all, dig deeply into any issue or component where the answer to the question is: “That’s the way we’ve always done it”…your people, your program, your partners and the social impact you hope to make will all be the better for it!

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