Did you know that having a comprehensive employee engagement strategy is more important to achieving higher CSR program participation than having a CSR strategy?

Neither did we … until Wespire published its 2018 State of Employee Engagement Report. And then we did our homework.

We hear a lot about “employee engagement” in the CSR world. We think about it in terms of volunteer programs, but do we really know what it means? After all, isn’t anything “employee engagement” related really a concern for your company’s HR department, not Corporate Social Responsibility? And furthermore, when it comes to our CSR responsibilities, does employee engagement really matter? When CSR Matters talk with clients about employee engagement, often we end up addressing two questions: (1) “What is employee engagement: Is it fact or fiction?”, and (2) “If it is fact, what does it have to do with CSR?”

My really short answer to those questions would be: it is a fact … and it is measurable … and it may be the single most important ingredient to successful CSR programs! How’s that for a shocker! And if you need help figuring out the why’s and how’s and what-to-do-about-it’s, call us and we can help. But I’m jumping waaaaayy ahead. Let’s take this one step at at time.

Begin at the beginning … What exactly is employee engagement?

Let’s start our search for answers with a definition of employee engagement. You can find any number of websites, articles and experts that define the term something like this:

Employee engagement is the emotional attachment employees feel towards their place of work, job role, position within the company, colleagues and culture, and the affect this attachment has on wellbeing and productivity.

At CSR Matters, we recognize there is overlap in the practice of Corporate Social Responsibility and employee engagement, especially with regards to volunteer activities. As found in our glossary of CSR terms, we share the concept expressed in the first definition, but we express it from the point of view of the company:

Employee engagement refers to the efforts by an organization to fully involve its employees in the programs, practices and operations of the organization, including charitable and sustainability activities.  The goal is that employees will take positive steps to further the organization’s interests or reputation, while creating a culture that encourages new hires and employee retention.

Before we conclude that employee engagement is so clearly definable, however, I am reminded of what Liz Ryan, an HR expert featured in Forbes, wrote about employee engagement not long ago. While stating her case that the term employee engagement “makes no sense” because employees do not have to be engaged in the mission of the company in order to be happy and productive, Ms. Ryan made two important points:

HR is all about working for someone who wants everybody on the team to feel valued and respected.


If employees are happy and busy, they’re engaged … (and) … I’m okay with that definition (of employee engagement).

If we take away from Ms. Ryan that we want employees to be valued, respected, happy, and busy (I would prefer the term ‘productive’), then I think our more commonly found definitions of employee engagement are not too far from a fair criticism of the concept.

So it sounds like employee engagement is ‘a thing’. But if it is ‘a thing’, then it should be measurable. Let’s look at that next. (And note to self, I want to revise our CSR Matters glossary definition to give some deference to Ms. Ryan’s important points about employees being respected and valued.)

Measuring employee engagement

The above definitional exercise aside, it turns out that employee engagement must be ‘a thing’ because industry experts conduct some really important quantitative research on the topic. Furthermore, three research projects in particular will help establish the relevance of employee engagement to CSR.

From Gallup, who conducted a worldwide study of employee engagement in 2016, we learn that:

  • 87% of employees worldwide are NOT engaged, and
  • Companies with highly engaged workforces outperform their peers by 147% in earnings per share.

Without diving into the differences between “engaged” and “highly engaged”, let’s accept this finding: there is a cause-effect relationship between (a) happier, better respected, more highly valued employees and (b) productivity and earnings.

Moving to our second piece of research, the widely quoted 2016 Cone Communications Employee Engagement Study. Several key findings:

  • 93% of respondents want to work for a company that cares about them as an individual.
  • 51% won’t work for a company that does not have strong social and/or environmental commitments.
  • 75% say their job is more fulfilling when they are provided opportunities to make a positive impact at work.
Quick recap, then on to research #3

Gallup is telling us that most employees are not engaged with their work, and by extension their employer. Cone is telling us that most employees WANT to be engaged. They want to work for a company that cares about them and helps them connect to the world around them that they care about. That is really good news, by the way.

Employee Engagement Programs

Our third piece of research, then, gives us insights into how companies can help their employees become more engaged. From Wespire, an employee engagement software company, we have the 2018 State of the Employee Engagement Report. In it, we learn a lot about companies that have developed specific employee engagement strategies:

  • Companies have more types of employee engagement programs to offer than ever before. The image to the right show a list of those programs, the percentage of respondent companies offering them, and the participation rates of employees.
  • Other than health and wellbeing programs, Charitable Giving and Volunteering – i.e. CSR staples – are among the most popular.
  • Employees at companies with engagement strategies are participating at rates of 40% or higher.
 The good news gets better

Wespire’s research digs in further. And as CSR professionals, we need to know this.

At 39% for Volunteering and 43% for Charitable Giving, average CSR program participation rates for companies with employee engagement strategies are double the participation rates found in the industry reports published by CSR vendors. Think about that for a minute – that is astonishing.

Charitable Giving participation rates routinely peak at around 25% to 30%, depending on the size of the companies sampled. For example, leading CSR software provider YourCause recently released the 2018 YourCause Industry Review. Sampling a large number of client programs representing more than 1 million employees, participation rates for charitable giving ranges from 12% to 35%, depending on the size of the company. Volunteer program participation rates were even lower. America’s Charities Snapshot Reports typically report similar results.

Why the difference?

At CSR Matters, we think this is a big deal – an “AHA moment”. Ever since workplace giving evolved from top-down CEO driven programs supporting United Way to bottoms-up programs supporting donor choice, CSR program participation rates have languished. From CSR professionals to the charities benefitting from employee generosity to the CSR vendors designing the software, everyone has been trying to figure out the key to improving employee participation.

But before we declare “gold has been struck”, let’s ask one more question: Why the difference in participation rates in these industry reports?

We believe we have that answer. The difference between Wespire’s research and the results reported in CSR vendor reports is that Wespire focuses on companies with employee engagement strategies, whereas CSR vendor reports are “engagement agnostic” when it comes to strategies. In fact it appears that what matters most when it comes to achieving higher CSR participation rates is that – as Liz Ryan and Cone would agree – employees want to feel respected and valued by their employer. 

We spoke with the CEO of Wespire, Susan Hunt Stevens, and she echoed this same observation:

Higher participation rates in CSR programs come from having a broad employee engagement strategy rather than a just a CSR strategy. It is the inclusive focus on the employee first and their relationship with the company.  It is not just communicating about the CSR efforts, but creating comprehensive initiatives that drive employee activation, learning, and participation.

In addition to that important finding, we learn something else that larger employers in particular need to know: the size of the company matters when it comes to employee engagement … and by extension, CSR program participation. From the Wespire study:

  • Large companies without employee engagement strategies are 14 times as likely to have disengaged employees, whereas small companies are only 2 times as likely to have highly disengaged employees.

CSR vendor research validates this. From the YourCause report, we learn that:

  • Participation rates in giving and volunteering programs are twice as high in companies with fewer than 5,000 employees when compared to companies with 100,000 or more.

This makes sense, doesn’t it? Larger companies need to work harder at building a culture. Fostering a commitment that the company cares … about its employees and its communities … is hard work. Things just have a way of getting lost within large organizations.

What do we do about this?

Employee engagement IS ‘a thing’. It matters. We measure it. And companies feel its impact in all sorts of places … starting with the obvious, employee hiring and retention.

The really interesting part for CSR professionals, however, is that employee engagement might just be the most important factor when focusing on CSR program participation. All of us want higher participation rates, right? We want to experience the positive impact of everyone’s hard work. We hope to see more volunteering, more giving, more help in sustainability initiatives. The challenge for us is always: how do we move the needle on those participation rates?

Now we have an interesting if not exciting new answer. While CSR professionals are busy focusing on achieving better CSR results, the answers in employee engagement, not within the CSR programs themselves. And if you suspected this was true before, now the data is in.

So start asking questions such as:

  1. Does our company have a comprehensive employee engagement strategy that it manages, communicates, and measures?
  2. Are we focused only on better execution of our CSR programs (like better fundraising techniques) to produce higher participation rates?
  3. Do we have employee engagement and CSR strategies, but managed from different departments that do not work together collaboratively?

Or maybe you are wondering what a CSR strategy or employee engagement strategy looks like, or how they are measured. That’s okay, too. It’s a starting point from which we can move forward.

So it turns out we have been missing a key ingredient to CSR program participation all along. Who knew? Well, now we all know … at least, everyone reading this post.

Bringing it home

As you work on your CSR programs, as you plan for this year and next, take a step back and think about the relationship between CSR and employee engagement. Yes, I know, there is overlap everywhere in these business concepts. But don’t let that distract you. Separate them. Focus on each.

Then take a hard look at how CSR and employee engagement strategies can help each other. And for starters, consider our findings: if you want to improve CSR program participation, stop thinking “CSR first” and think “employee first.”

Need help? Give us a shout. CSR Matters is standing by to assist.