Shaking up employee volunteering for Gen Z

Today’s job seekers are looking for more than stability, a good pension and a free gym membership.

Today’s job seekers are looking for more than stability, a good pension and a free gym membership. Increasingly, they want to feel connected to the work they do and the company they work for. They want a sense of purpose: our research in Singapore found that 72% of Gen Z (16 to 20 year-olds) believe businesses should make doing good a central part of their business and not just by giving to charity.

But how to do this, and how can employee volunteering contribute? The best practice examples are a far cry from planting trees or painting fences once a year. Done well, employee volunteering is a superb channel to create an engaged corporate culture to attract and retain top talent, allow employees to expand skills and build strong teams. It also creates a positive impact on the community in which the volunteering takes place and bolsters corporate reputation.

In Patagonia’s environmental volunteering scheme, the lucky employees are sent into the field for up to two months to volunteer with nonprofit environmental groups. Employee retention at Patagonia is high compared to industry averages in both retail (turnover is only 20%–30% a year versus a typical 100%) and administration (administrative turnover is running at ~5%, sometimes 3%). However, not all employee volunteer programmes are created equal. Some have low rates of participation and little impact on corporate culture. Others confuse employee volunteering with philanthropy, and misunderstand what Gen Z are looking for at work. What makes a successful employee volunteering programme, in line with the changing expectations of the world and the demands of Gen Z?

Lifebuoy, Unilever’s health soap, runs one such programme. Since 2008, Unilever employees (as many as 41,000 a year) go to local schools to teach children the importance of handwashing with soap. With the highest ever employee engagement in a Unilever Sustainable Living Plan initiative, it has now been rolled out to the public in five countries: Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Singapore and South Africa. University students in these countries volunteer for #just1hour a week for four weeks to teach Lifebuoy’s “School of 5” handwashing programme to children. Being able to offer its volunteering to the public has required Lifebuoy to invest in infrastructure and training but the benefits are large – an army of committed and driven brand ambassadors made up of not just employees but consumers too.

Here is why we think it is so successful:

  • Clear link to the business or brand. Lifebuoy champions the importance of handwashing with soap to reduce deaths due to preventable diseases such as diarrhea and pneumonia. There is a clear link between the volunteering activity – teaching handwashing with soap – and the brand and its campaign – Help A Child Reach 5.
  • Training equals engaging. As well as having strict criteria for volunteers, Lifebuoy has developed a simple and fun online training for immersion into the School of 5. All volunteers must also attend one of Lifebuoy’s face to face orientation sessions where they are taught the handwashing curriculum which is designed to make learning enjoyable with superhero characters, games, songs and comic books.
  • Partners help scale. Partnering with public and private sectors around the world, Lifebuoy wants to transform handwashing with soap from a good idea to a habit. For the volunteering programme, Lifebuoy partners with youth networks, Universities and local schools to build teams of volunteers and conduct the lessons within the children’s curriculum.
  • Lasting impact. Young volunteers are the parents of tomorrow and their volunteering experience will help ensure they remember the importance of handwashing with soap – especially for babies and children – when they build a family of their own.