Americans are volunteering less often and for fewer hours than they did two decades ago, according to a report by Americorps and the U.S. Census Bureau. This is despite the fact that research has shown that over 90% of people surveyed say they want to volunteer. So, what’s holding people back from volunteering?
There are many reasons why volunteerism has declined since 2006, such as an overall decline in religiosity, a delayed transition to traditional “adulthood” among young adults, and, unsurprisingly – not having enough time or flexibility.
Even if the vast majority of people want to volunteer in their communities, it can be challenging to find time between the demands of work and the stress of daily life. This creates an opportunity for leaders and organizations to step up and help employees give back.
Offering volunteer time off (VTO) makes it easier for your employees to contribute to the communities they live in and care about. At the same time, you’re making their work with your business feel more meaningful.
What is volunteer time off (VTO)?
Volunteer time off (commonly abbreviated to VTO) is a form of paid leave that enables employees to spend a work day volunteering for a cause or organization they care about – all while receiving their regular compensation. VTO empowers employees to give back to their community without giving up vacation time or a full day of wages.
As it stands, about 60% of American companies provide paid time off to employees to volunteer as part of their social responsibility program. One study found that companies that offer volunteer time off offer an average maximum of 20 volunteer hours per year per employee (i.e., about 2.5 days).
Should companies give employees time off to volunteer?
Giving employees volunteer time off is a win for most companies. By making paid volunteer hours part of your company policy, you can tap into the following benefits:
Improve levels of employee engagement. A key component of employee engagement is pride, and volunteer time off is one way to instill a sense of purpose that fosters pride in a company or job. Moreover, team members who work in the same city or region can volunteer together, improving collaboration, teamwork, feelings of connection and belonging – and, ultimately, company culture.
Increase morale. 70% of employees who participate in workplace volunteer programs believe that volunteerism boosts morale more than company mixers or other bonding events.
Attract more talent. Companies with volunteer programs are perceived more positively by current and potential employees. One Deloitte study found that 61% of millennials who rarely or never volunteer still consider a company’s commitment to the community when deciding whether to join the company.
Increase retention. Benevity found a clear link between how long an employee stays at a company and their participation in corporate purpose programs (e.g., volunteering and charitable giving). Specifically, they found that new employees participating in such programs are 52% less likely to turnover. Meanwhile, the 2022 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey found that about a third of surveyed employees want their employers to offer volunteer days as a way to improve the community and demonstrate their commitment to social responsibility.
Develop essential leadership skills. Deloitte found that 92% of HR executives agree that contributing time to a nonprofit can help employees improve their leadership skills. This makes sense, as volunteer work is still work. While volunteering, employees are learning and honing valuable workplace skills such as time management, cooperation, and delegation.
Improve workplace wellbeing. A UnitedHealthcare study found that 93% of respondents felt better and less stressed after 12 months of volunteering – which means less burnout, less absenteeism, and greater productivity for your company.
How to write a volunteer time off (VTO) policy
Every company is unique, so the “best” or “right” volunteer time off policy varies from company to company. That said, there are several key elements to consider when writing your VTO policy:
Purpose. Establish the program's goal and how employee volunteerism aligns with your company’s mission and values.
Amount of time. Decide how much volunteer time you will offer employees. Will they receive a set number of days or hours at the beginning of the year/when they join, or will it accrue over time?
Employee eligibility. Clearly establish who is eligible to participate in the VTO program. Are part-time employees eligible to participate in VTO, and if so, do they get the same number of days or hours as full-time employees?
Approval process and process. Define the process employees follow to take volunteer time off and any criteria for eligible causes, activities, or organizations. For example, some companies give employees complete flexibility when deciding where and how they will volunteer, while others provide a pre-approved list of specific activities and organizations.
Example: Culture Amp’s volunteer time off policy
Culture Amp offers its Campers (what we call our employees) five “Social Impact Days” every calendar year. These days are separate from our other types of paid leave and are intended to empower Campers to make a positive impact in the world.
Our internal handbook explains that Social Impact Days can be used for anything from volunteering with a registered non-profit, helping a neighbor or community member with housework or errands, voting, and more.
Following our value of “Trusting others to make decisions,” Culture Amp doesn’t ask employees how or where they will spend their Social Impact Day, though we do track how many days each Camper uses annually.
To take time off, employees simply submit a time-off request in the HRIS after gaining approval from their manager.
Permanent full-time and part-time employees are eligible to take all 5 Social Impact Days. Meanwhile, contractors receive a pro-rated number of days depending on the length of their contract and how many hours a week they work.
How to implement a successful VTO program
A workplace program is only considered successful if it’s widely adopted by employees. Here are a few ideas and best practices to help you improve the adoption of your volunteer time off policy:
Communicate the policy widely and regularly. Ensure your workforce knows that volunteer time off is available and that the policy details are easy to access. Offer regular reminders throughout the year and at critical touchpoints in the employee experience (i.e., onboarding).
Mobilize managers. Your managers get the most face-time with employees, meaning they have an outsized influence on whether an employee takes volunteer time off. For example, employees may feel like they don’t have time to take VTO or that their manager will judge them negatively for taking VTO when they could be working on a project instead.
To mitigate this, managers can actively help their direct reports carve out time to volunteer between projects. They can also communicate positively about the VTO program, clarify that taking VTO will not affect employees’ performance ratings, and use VTO themselves to role-model this behavior.
Organize group volunteer days. There is a high likelihood that many employees are new to volunteering and aren’t sure how to get started. Even employees who have volunteered before may not feel like they have the time or energy to find a suitable volunteer activity. Organizing group volunteer days throughout the year removes most of the friction employees experience when looking for VTO opportunities.
You can also ask employee resource group (ERG) leaders to set up days where ERG members come together and volunteer for a cause relevant to the ERG. For example, Camp Climate Crisis, Culture Amp’s environment and sustainability ERG, has organized collective Social Impact Days at the Billion Oyster Project and FABSCRAP.
Ask your employees. Keep track of how your employees feel about the VTO program by asking about it in your employee surveys. Customize your questions to target any areas of concern or interest. For example, you could ask why employees aren’t taking VTO, if they think the VTO program is effective, if they feel like the company is positively impacting the community, etc.
Incorporate skills-based volunteering. Help your employees maximize their impact by building skills-based volunteering into your volunteer time off policy. In this type of volunteering, employees use their professional experience and expertise to benefit nonprofits and other organizations. Skills-based volunteering allows your people to leverage their most valuable skills for the good of their community.
One step closer to building a better world
A volunteer time off program is one way that your company can turn its commitment to social responsibility into action. But remember: creating a better world – at work and beyond – requires much more than just a few days of volunteering per year. So, while VTO is a meaningful workplace perk, it is ideally only one small part of your company’s larger social responsibility and ESG programs and policies.
A truly better world requires companies to commit to reducing their carbon footprints, improving their labor policies, and focusing on socially and environmentally conscious investments. It requires companies to take measurable action to move the needle on diversity, equity, and inclusion. It requires real investment and real work.