By: Chris Jarvis, Co-Founder, Chief Strategy Officer, Realized Worth, Executive Director, RW Institute;

The Science Behind Why Employee Giving & Volunteering Works

– Typical human resource theory and practice has suggested that the best way to strengthen employee commitment is through benefit packages that appeal to the individual’s self-interested motives to receive. New research is beginning to show that this is only half the story – and possibly not the most important half. 

Turns out the well-known phrase “it is better to give than to receive” is profoundly true when it comes to employee engagement.

Prosocial Sensemaking

Whether we are award of it or not, as employees, we are continually trying to answer the question, “Who am I within this organization?” This is a natural process that all people use to make sense of their experiences within a given context or organization.

Prosocial behavior is defined as: “A voluntary behavior intended to benefit another” and is usually expressed through acts of sharing, donating, and volunteering. These two concepts of prosocial behavior and sensemaking come together when companies launch employee giving and volunteering programs. Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School and author of the upcoming book “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success” suggests:

The act of giving to support programs strengthens employees’ affective commitment to their organization by enabling them to see themselves and the organization in more prosocial, caring terms.

This is a stunning assertion.

If Adam Grant and other researchers are correct, it means that the billions spent by corporations in typical HR benefit packages may not be enough. In fact, by comparison, the ROI of these benefits may be less than those of a robust workplace giving and volunteering program at a fraction of the cost.

 It’s about the brain; not the wallet.

In a recent article, “The Neuroevolution of Empathy” published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, author Jean Decety conducted research that clearly demonstrated that:

The fronto-mesolimbic reward network is engaged to the same extent when individuals receive monetary rewards and when they freely choose to donate money to charitable organizations.

Decety found through behavioral and functional neuroimaging studies that prosocial actions release dopamine and make us feel good (we’ve written about this effect before). What is most fascinating about Decety’s work is that she is able to offer an explanation why our brains are hard-wired to reinforce prosocial behaviors such as giving and volunteering.

Turns out it has been a survival tactic among humans for millennium. Obviously, we are instinctively set to look after our offspring and immediate family members, but the groups of people and cultures that thrived throughout history are those that expanded their care-taking beyond their own family unit. Those who stayed primarily focused on family at the expense of others in the immediate group failed.

Which means that today, we have evolved to the point where nearly all of us are capable of choosing prosocial behavior, even when it means the wallet takes a hit.

The ROI of Prosocial Behavior

Given our predisposition to care for others, we value cultures and organizations where this is our experience as well. Nobody wants to feel like they are a ‘means to an end’ or just a ‘cog in the wheel’. Instead, we desire to know we matter and will be cared for in an ethical and just way. Equally important, we desire to be a part of groups that allow us to demonstrate our commitment to care and act justly toward others.

When companies offer their employees space to act in a prosocial manner they began to ‘make sense’ of the organization and their place within it in a positive manner. This is prosocial sensemaking.

Grant conducted multi-method research at a Fortune 500 retail corporation and found that offering employees the opportunity to give within the workplace:

“strengthened affective organizational commitment by triggering prosocial sensemaking about the self—a process through which employees interpreted their personal actions and identities in more caring terms.”

Workplace giving and volunteering is a practical step companies can take to prove they care, “signaling that helping, giving, and contributing behaviors are valid, acceptable, and encouraged.” As employees interpret these signals, they begin to form an identity that will contribute to the overall productivity and profitability of the company. Here’s how:

1. Productive

Giving triggers a “process of prosocial sensemaking about the self and the company that strengthens employees’ affective commitment to the company.” Affective commitment is key to driving down absenteeism, encouraging engagement and facilitating teamwork.

2. Ethical

When companies provide the opportunity to act in a prosocial manner they encourage employees to view themselves as ethical, prosocial people. This self-identity creates value systems to support that identity and guide decision making processes.

3. Grateful

When companies create opportunities for employees to give and volunteer the employees develop strong emotional bonds with their employers. This is because when “employees engage in prosocial sensemaking about the self, their commitment is based on gratitude to their organization for facilitating their own giving behaviors and caring identities.”

4. Proud

Similarly, when companies enable employees to gain a positive sense of themselves through volunteering and giving, the employee transfers a positive image back on to the organization. This positive image is expressed through feelings of pride resulting in stronger allegiance.

Action Steps

Start with something simple to give your employees the chance to be prosocial. For example, Charity Giving Cards. There are a number of options from great organizations:

  1. Network For Good offers the Good Card® which is a charity gift card with stored value that can be redeemed as a donation to more than 1.2 million charities. Good Cards can be distributed physically or via email and can be completely private labeled by corporate partners. Call Allison McGuire (888.707.8950) to place your order.
  2. The TisBest Charity Gift Card is a donation gift that works like a conventional gift card but instead of buying stuff, the recipient “spends” the TisBest card by selecting which of our 300+ charity partners receives the money. Personalize any TisBest card with your own message, image and/or company branding. Contact – [email protected] or 206-501-3005.
  3. Benevity Charitable Gift Cards: Create charity gift cards where recipient redeems to give to cause(s) of choice at branded redemption site. The Benevity platform is a highly customizable “giving engine” that helps companies attract, retain and motivate customers and employees.


Some Notes

“A recent neuroimaging study sheds light on a possible biochemical explanation for the positive psychological effects of helping others. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, it was found that the brain’s mesolimbic system was active in participants when they chose to donate money. The mesolimbic system also shows activation in response to monetary rewards and other positive stimuli. Thus, choosing to donate to charity results in an activation of a brain region that produces feel-good chemicals that promotes social bonding, increases happiness and promotes prosocial behaviour.”

^ Moll, J., Krueger, F., Zahn, R., Pardini, M., de Oliveira-Souza, R., & Grafman, J. (2006). Human fronto-mesolimbic networks guide decision about charitable donation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 103, 15623-15628.

“The reunification of Germany caused the collapse of much of former East Germany’s volunteer structure. Controlling for other variables, Meier and Stutzer found that reduced opportunities for volunteer work led to a decrease in happiness.” More here.

“Furthermore, prosocial motivation is a theoretically and practically significant phenomenon because it has a substantial influence on employees’ work behaviors and job performance. Recent research suggests that prosocial motivation can drive employees to take initiative (De Dreu & Nauta, 2009), help others (Rioux & Penner, 2001), persist in meaningful tasks (Grant et prosocial Motivation at Work 2 al., 2007), and accept negative feedback (Korsgaard, Meglino, & Lester, 1997).” More here.


Some ways we can help

Most of the blogs we write are geared toward managers responsible for employee volunteering, workplace giving, and sustainability programs. Our intention is to help you be more successful – whether you engage us formally or not. The work you do is critical to addressing the huge social and environmental issues facing our global society. The role you play in the company you work for is key to humanity’s future.

If you’d like our help with your employee volunteering or workplace giving program, please feel free to drop us a line at [email protected], leave a comment below, or call us at 855-926-4678. You can also reach out to us on Twitter,  LinkedIn, and Facebook.

Chris Jarvis, Co-Founder, Chief Strategy Officer, Realized Worth, Executive Director, RW Institute

Chris Jarvis co-founded Realized Worth in 2008 with his partner, Angela Parker. Chris’s research and presentations focus on corporate citizenship as a powerful mechanism to address the critical social and environmental issues facing our global society. Chris’s work and thought leadership are all geared toward helping practitioners strategically grow and scale their employee volunteer programs. He provides one-on-one guidance to C-suite executives on the strategic alignment of CSR and business objectives. Chris assumed the role of Executive Director of the RW Institute in 2017 and is a key founder of IMPACT 2030. Realized Worth is a global agency that specializes in employee volunteer training, program design and employee engagement.