Sometimes we just need to change our way of thinking about something. And Workplace Giving is no exception. For more than a decade in the CSR industry, we have talked about “raising $4 billion or more in the workplace”. That is our commonly cited fundraising number. Sounds like a lot of money, right? Well, maybe not. I believe we can do better. Remember the Ice Bucket Challenge? It raised over $100 million for ALS in the summer of 2014. I believe that Workplace Giving needs a shot in the arm. We should be raising billions more. And to do that, we need a Workplace Giving Challenge.

And I hope that by the end of this call to action – this call for change in our industry – I will have convinced you to join me!

Throwing down the gauntlet starts with ‘a gauntlet’

In recent weeks, my CSR Matters colleague, has written two blog posts that I hope will ignite a exciting, new conversations about the future of Workplace Giving. In Increase Employee Participation: Change the World, Gary Carr issued a big challenge to all of us by pointing out that current Workplace Giving fundraising totals are just a fraction of our potential. Furthermore, he pointed out that for every 1% of the workforce that we engage in giving through work, we can generate as much as $1 billion for our neighbors in need, our communities, and the charities that serve them. So while current annual Workplace Giving totals of $4.8 billion sounds respectable, we have new information … better data … to suggest that we can do much better than this. I ask all of us:

Is $4.8 billion the best we can do?

In a second recent blog, Here Comes The Flexible Giving Account, Gary brought attention to something that has been talked about on the periphery of CSR but not acted upon until now. Through proposed legislation working its way through Congress, every employee could have a Flexible Giving Account for making pre-tax contributions to charity. Imagine the impact on charitable giving by offering every employee the opportunity for (a) pre-tax contributions through (b) payroll deduction, possibly (c) further incentivized by a common CSR giving technique, the corporate match!

So I told my colleague that he has thrown down quite a gauntlet. And then my own words got me to thinking: Bigger expectations for Workplace Giving plus better vehicles through which to give represent both challenge and opportunity. Big challenges inherently require people to change their way of thinking … to break out of old ways of doing things in order to achieve greater goals.

And so I have concluded that we, the CSR industry, need to come up with a Workplace Giving Challenge. Not a fundraising event like ALS did. We need something more, something bigger … something that requires the input of more than just a single consultant … something that spurs an entire industry to action.

It starts with conversations, lots of them

If you haven’t read the two blogs mentioned, please do. I hope they will be the catalyst for meaningful conversations about the value of Workplace Giving … in fact, the necessary role that Workplace Giving plays in encouraging all of us to do more.

I know the standard criticisms of Workplace Giving, however, and I am tired of their uninformed negativity. I will admit to sometimes feeling like a lone voice in advocating for more active giving programs at the workplace, with more aggressive marketing. But I’m not giving up. And the data tells us why this is such an important time for charitable giving. Workplace Giving has the potential to raise more than $140 billion annually. In my 30 years in this industry, no person or organization has even attempted to measure the capacity of the workplace to give. But Gary has done that, and measuring our collective capacity to give is an eye-opener!

Critics, on the other hand, are quick to call out the demise of Workplace Giving. And they don’t have to look very far to find superficial data that supports their opinion. They point to the decline in employee participation which is now estimated to be under 20%. When I began my career with United Way, it was common for companies to have participation rates well above 50%. Low participation rates, producing stagnant fundraising results in turn have focused too many eyes on leadership giving – gaining more dollars from fewer donors. That is a self-fulfilling prophesy of decline. A recipe for disaster, in my opinion.

Focusing on leadership giving kills the very sustainability of Workplace Giving. We need more givers, not fewer. Or perhaps better put:

The sustainability of Workplace Giving demands greater employee engagement and participation, not less.

And we need to talk about this … a lot.

Looking more carefully at the numbers

Lower participation rates and even stagnating results do not mean that employees are refusing to participate or give through the workplace. In fact, employee engagement research by CSR companies such as WeSpire tells a very different story. Employees want to be engaged, and they respond positively to thoughtful, employee-first engagement programs. So if your company’s participation rates are down for one or more CSR programs, it means either they don’t like the program, you aren’t marketing it, or both. As WeSpire has observed, employee participation rates in giving programs can be twice as high in companies that wrap their Workplace Giving into a larger, more holistic employee engagement strategy.

How is that for encouraging us to think hard about a Workplace Giving Challenge?

Workplace Giving has evolved a lot over the past 10 or 15 years. CSR and Workplace Giving programs are characterized by lots of choice, employee-first initiatives, third-party software, fluid communication, and more. But even these positive trends are not enough to drive up engagement by themselves. We need to do a better job of listening to employees to ensure that we are expressing their values through our giving programs. We need to challenge our thinking even more.

Reasons to be optimistic

Like WeSpire, my own research tells me that we have lots to be optimistic about. But it also tells me that we need to direct more CSR attention on the employees themselves … their charitable interests, their desires to work for an engaged company that cares about things like community and sustainability. Most importantly, my research has always re-enforced the basic concept that employees care about Workplace Giving. Today’s employees, however, may express that caring differently than working generations from the past.

Employees today give in different ways, with different frequencies, to different causes. But they will give through the workplace!

When disaster strikes, employees want to give … but they want to know that their employer is a caring company that leads the effort. Consumers too, by the way. Research continues to demonstrate that consumer attitudes about a brand are affected by the company’s efforts to be a good corporate citizen, especially in times of crisis or disaster.

Last year I collaborated with America’s Charities to produce their Snapshot 2017 Report. Through that work, we learned a lot:

  • Nearly 60% of the survey respondents indicate they volunteer their time through a workplace-sponsored program;
  • As much as 50% report that they donate through company-sponsored giving programs;
  • Workplace Giving programs are a valuable tool for attracting and retaining talent, as employees indicate that it is imperative or very important to work for a company where mission and values align; and
  • Employees prefer to work for a company that gives the opportunity to support their personal charitable giving interests and passions and to engage with colleagues in supporting charities.

Hence my optimism. Findings from reports such as those from WeSpire or America’s Charities lead me to conclude that employees still value CSR programs and especially Workplace Giving. So the challenge is not “Will the employee participate?” but rather “How does the employer best engage the employee?”

We need to change our thinking. We need to consider new Workplace Giving models. Or perhaps as I put it, we need a Workplace Giving Challenge!

Changing our thinking for a Workplace Giving Challenge

Like the man says: You can’t spell “challenge” without “change”. As I mentioned above, Workplace Giving has been undergoing change for 15 years or more. But clearly those changes are not enough.

So you might ask: “What is a Workplace Giving Challenge? What would a new Workplace Giving model look like?” I’m glad you asked! I have four ideas …

#1: Make it more personal. Choice has already won the day. “One-size fits all” campaigns are gone. But growing giving requires much more than charity choice. It challenges us to use the existing fabric of personal, social communication and expression. For example, I believe that future gains in Workplace Giving will be led by peer-to-peer giving campaigns. What is more personal than enabling employees to launching giving campaigns – in partnership with their employers – to address the causes they care about? Engaging friends, colleagues, even family outside of the workplace. Spreading the cause to consumers, customers, and more. I’m not talking about a wild, wild west of giving. But we have got to get outside of the confines of a company intranet to be successful. And to do that, we need new giving technologies … perhaps where Workplace Giving campaigns are created and launched over multiple mediums based on personal, employee interests.

#2: Make it even easier. Convenience remains one of the most important drivers of donations. Technology is supposed to make things easier. Does our current state of CSR software make it easier to give? Or is it re-enforcing old, bad habits that need to change? I’m torn on this one. I’ve been around online Workplace Giving since my colleague architected one of the very first online giving systems in the United Way. Sometimes I think a lot has changed since then, sometimes not. And here’s something …

Food for thought for our CRM vendors: does your donor management software track and support giving relationships that are indirect or disintermediated by a corporate workplace or some other third party software provider?

If not, how about tackling that opportunity? Without that innovation, how do you plan to manage and grow giving through the workplace?

#3: Create more incentives. How are we incentivizing our employees to participate in charitable giving? WeSpire points out the importance of holistic employee engagement strategies within companies. We know that corporate matching programs spur participation and often double the donations. But what more can we do? One thing I am convinced about is that the Flexible Giving Account – if the bill becomes law – will revolutionize giving through the workplace. FGAs represent a tremendous set of incentives for employee and employer. It is a creative solution to encourage more giving through incentives. What more can we do?

#4: Reach new markets. We have more than 18,000 businesses in the U.S., with over half qualifying as small businesses. Yet those small businesses employ half (or more) of our 129 million FTE workforce. Put differently, we have huge market potential for Workplace Giving. So why do CSR software vendors, United Ways, federations and every other player in the CSR industry focus the majority of their time, attention, marketing and software on the Fortune 500 or Global 1000? I know why. You know why. But that is a big reason why the Workplace Giving market is not growing. Everybody is chasing the same potential donors. We need to reach new markets, more companies, new donors. Small companies and their employees care about our communities and our neighbors in need, they are about sustainability and engagement, just as much as large companies.

Isn’t it about time we rolled up our collective sleeves to focus on the small and mid-sized markets with newer, better, easier to use Workplace Giving solutions?

Bringing it home

Are you convinced? We have tremendous untapped potential for giving through the workplace. But we need to change our thinking. And let’s start with the recognition that we are not doing enough – that gauntlet has been thrown down. It is not a criticism of any one person or company. Rather, we should consider that as a collective admission of the current state of our industry. Remember, I also pointed out that there is lots to be optimistic about … so we have even more incentive to change.

Let’s create a new model. Let’s create our own Workplace Giving Challenge that inspires our industry to go after all that potential. Let’s aim for the $140 billion, knowing that we won’t get there, but that by aiming high we will travel much farther.

What do you think of a Workplace Giving Challenge? What about my four ideas? I meant it when I said we need lots of conversations about this. So … what are your ideas?

Give us a shout!