Corporate Volunteering: A Transformative Approach with Realized Worth

In this episode, we delve into the transformative potential of volunteering and how organizations like Realized Worth and the RW Institute (RWI) are harnessing this power to drive collective impact. Our focus today is on their innovative approach to volunteering, which integrates insights from neuroscience, social psychology, and transdisciplinary research. Join our host, Virginia Tenpenny, Chief Impact Officer at Goodera, as she delves into the evolution of transformative volunteering with Chris Jarvis, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Realized Worth, Executive Director of RW Institute, and Angela Parker, Co-Founder and CEO at Realized Worth. Discover how principles from neuroscience, social psychology, and behavioral neuroscience are transforming volunteering from a transactional activity into a meaningful, impactful experience.

Virginia: How did you arrive at infusing volunteering with disciplines from neuroscience and social psychology?

Chris: That’s a fun question because I’m not a scientist and, while I don’t have a degree in any of these things, but it is definitely about psychology, which is a very old discipline (and by comparison the same as neuroscience) and it looks at the individual's reaction to their environment and the influence of the environment on the individual. But it stays in its lane. However, I think that social psychologists and other psychologists tend to think within the field of psychology only. 

Versus neuroscience, which is a rapidly developing field which looks at what is exactly going on in the brain or the nervous system when triggered by the environment. So it covers a couple of different disciplines to think that through. 

Whereas, neuroscience is a rapidly developing field which looks at what is exactly going on in the brain or the nervous system when triggered by the environment. So it covers a couple of different disciplines to think that through. 

For behavioral science, on the other hand, it has a very wide lens and it is fairly transdisciplinary. It wanders all over the place, but I find it to be one of the approaches that tends to stitch everything together. All of these fit very well in evolutionary science and we are going to see a lot coming out of this space in the coming years. 

Virginia: What does transformative volunteering mean to you when you think about how these different disciplines and concepts impact our thoughts about volunteering, and to really evolve that into a transformative experience that has an enduring impact? 

Chris: We definitely began with a utilitarian approach. We knew what worked better for us. One thing can be transactional, something that once done can be forgotten and the other can be transformative, however we are not sure why. Hence, we wander into transformative learning theory, experiential learning, neuroscience, and a lot of other things that we use. This content wasn't available 20 years ago. The entire vocabulary that we tend to use did not even exist 50 years ago. We're basically keeping pace with science today. That is fundamentally the difference now between transactional and transformative. I think transformative carries a little bit more of a scientific approach, although originally it didn't. It was meant to talk about the change that happens in a person when they are able to act prosocially.

Virginia: Is there a traditional model of volunteering that maybe did not deliver some of these experiences? How does it look when it is done right? Can you take us through a specific example. 

Chris: If you do not know a lot about prosocial behavior or volunteer prosocial behavior then you might not notice any difference at all. However, once you actually get to know what is going on and you see everybody getting into this state where there is some sort of framing. Like, we ask the entire group to stand and form a semicircle. This is to introduce a proximity principle that brings us closer to the people whom we are benefiting, hopefully because we want to put ourselves in their place. This is majorly because based on the science from multiple fields, we know that the human bias towards self interest is key to things like empathy and prosocial behavior. 

So in that semicircle we talk about what we are going to do, why it matters and how exactly we are going to do it. 

We're trying to take the person who’s there to volunteer and transport them in their mind over an imaginary dividing line between the people we are helping and us. However, the danger with that is objectifying the poor, turning it into a poor zooIt's white saviorism. But that is not what we are doing. 

Here, one positions the actor in place of the other, and in that trying to trigger some neural plasticity that will allow me to change the boundaries of in and out. All of us have a very clear boundary of who's in my in group and who's in my out group. This comes from social identity theory. In order to break that down, I've got to see the other person as myself. And so this proactively suggests that we take ourselves and put ourselves in the place of the other. Now, if I can work with the other person, then awesome. If I can imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes, fantastic. All of that triggers empathy. That's key or at least in part key to neuroplasticity. Physiological change in a human being where they grow a new set of neural pathways that allows them to actually see the world differently from that, is the fundamental axiomatic thing that happens at a volunteering event. That is what makes it transformative. 

Virginia: You have seen the evolution of the numbers of volunteering decreasing, and now the quality of volunteering is improving that too in ways that have a broader impact, which is not just about that one session, the number of hours, the number of people, but actually the bigger value to the organizations. What do you see in terms of evolution? What makes you hopeful about the future?

Angela: It's interesting to see how companies have become more mature, more strategic in the way that they're offering volunteering programs and other employee engagement programs. There is also some frustration popping up around those metrics, as you mentioned like hours, dollars, events, etc. Knowing that, we're smart enough as a human population who works at all of these companies to know that, this alone doesn't necessarily indicate impact. It doesn't necessarily mean we are getting the results we all hope for in these programs, or even the results that we hope for coming into social impact jobs. People want to see something meaningful happen. That's why they got the job in the first place. There's discouragement or frustration happening across the field, which I actually find hopeful, because it's forcing people to ask questions like what is the point behind what we are doing? Why are we doing this? If we're just seeing people go out, do an activity, and then we report numbers, then what does that really mean? It can't possibly be good enough. What we're all trying to do here is extend the impact of employee volunteering beyond the timeframe of these events. Whether it's an in office event, or outside, whether it's either an hour long or even 2 weeks long, whatever it happens to be. What does it mean, or what does it look like to infuse the human being who's doing the volunteering with the change that we need to see happen inside us. So Chris mentioned neuroplasticity, empathy, and othering, and hence what we're doing is going into a space where we have “othered”, meaning made, or looked at someone else, or an issue as “the other”, as something separate from us. Then we're getting proximate to those people and their issue in order to understand that it's ours, too. Whether the issue affects us or not, this is important so that we begin to explore “in what ways are we complicit with creating this issue, even if it horrifies us?” If we don't ever encounter such an issue, if we don't ever interact with it or get proximate to it, then we might continue to believe that we have nothing to do with it. However, if we go out and do a volunteering activity to help fix it, we sometimes become more separate from it. Then we can say that we did what we had to do and that we have helped with that issue as opposed to getting close enough to think how close we actually are to these other people. That begins to change our attitudes and behaviors over time. 

Virginia: What do you think are the key enablers for organizations that really help bring this to life and remove some of the barriers like when people say that they wish to do something but they don’t end up showing up? 

Angela: As mentioned, one can’t objectively look at a transformative volunteering event and know the difference, however they can still be in it and feel the difference. One will always feel the difference, and that is the advice I would like to give among other things around making programs more strategic. You need these programs to align with business initiatives. You need to get people involved, train them, make sure they're well equipped. There is also this need to emphasize the “the see it to believe it” idea. 

I know for me personally, I understood cognitively what people like Chris Jarvis meant when they said that there is a change that can happen in volunteers when they volunteer, when the program is framed appropriately, when it invites people to challenge their assumptions, to be guided through an experience, and finally to critically reflect on it when it's over. I believe and certainly understand those things, but I did not change or become an advocate for this approach until I went over and over to a transformative experience and not just one that is meaningful, but an experience that has the potential to grow those new neural pathways. So to go there, to feel a sort of disorienting dilemma presented to you, to have your assumptions challenged about a group of people, interact closely in order to get proximate to those people that we have othered, and then repeatedly doing that inner work is the “see it to believe it” idea. 

Just recently we took 60 companies out to show them and teach them the transformative approach. Yesterday I met with one of them, Megan Baker from Stryker. She said that she wanted her volunteer champions to have that experience, because that will change everything. 

Chris: I would like to add this little metaphor based on the explanation given by Angela. Like I signed up for a gym and there are these trainers, lots of other people, machines and equipment. Now I go to that gym on a regular basis and I have just figured out how to lift weights. Now my goal is to go there 7 days a week, an hour a day. However, when I am actually supposed to do that I stand around, walk, look at my phone or just lift really light weights. After about half a year of doing this, I'm not going to see the changes in comparison to somebody who's going to the same gym and is intentionally thinking about a result that goes beyond just how many hours they're spending at the gym, how many times they lift a weight to certain body parts, changing their diet, and most importantly being sore. The soreness is a lead indicator that something great is happening. Similarly, in transformative volunteering you could experience a difference if you're open to it, and you might even end up feeling bad. One of the sources of that bad feeling is that you begin to explore the complicity of the issue. Transformative volunteering also necessitates that you have people in place who can help you on that journey. I think most of us are measuring how many hours and how many days I'm spending at the gym, and how many times I lift a weight versus the changes that are happening inside of me.

Virginia: How do you get people to come back when it might feel bad and uncomfortable? As mentioned, like if I was sore after lifting those weights and in the context of volunteering, if someone is in that uncomfortable space which means that they are doing it the right way, then how do you build the psychology that will make them want to return? 

Chris: Conceptually for me, using the metaphor, the idea would be that you have great trainers who when you are lifting weights, will actually correct you and instruct you well. You might feel uncomfortable and then the trainer might say that, that is actually the point. You've never practiced this move, and to build your muscles and avoid a couple of problems with your shoulder later, you've got to start doing it in the correct manner. Hence, I need better information to make sense of what I'm feeling. So I need somebody who I feel I can trust, that means a system that I can trust, wherein when I see a trainer, then I know that the trainer is trustworthy. Then the individual themselves should have a certain amount of knowledge and practice in order for me to believe that they know what they are talking about. That demands intention, and this is a struggle that a lot of companies have. The more intention we can bring, the more trust we build in our culture. 

A major reason why people also do come back is that they are curious. There is a need to stoke the curiosity of new people so they can come back and transition to a place of meaningful discovery. This means that they have a destination in mind but they still have some unanswered questions, and that is why they wish to come back. 

Virginia: What is a champion? How can someone who is just starting to build out a champion network, work towards it? 

Angela: You need to focus your energy on finding the right people who genuinely want to champion community engagement. In the book, “Good To Great” he talks about how most of your time and energy should go into getting the right people on the bus to get where you are going, because then everything else becomes easy. Volunteer leaders with different levels of experience, engagement and ability to lead have different indicators for who those right people are. Some leaders who are typically the regional or business area leads will think strategically to build around the program. They become almost mentors for a group of regular champions who are out there executing events. Champions are people who are not just enthusiastic about volunteering, but they are also willing to fill out an application to really qualify and to demonstrate that they have the experience, in addition to the enthusiasm to learn what it is to frame a volunteer experience and create space for transformation. They are required to meet certain requirements, however sometimes they are either not willing to or unable to meet the same due to life or business. It is easy to identify the enthusiastic people. If you start with a strong group of people that are already volunteering at your organization, and that is typically from some sort of a CSR list, or even your DEI people and then ask them to go through an application process, then you can get people doing the right things, move from there into some of those KPI’s and accountability practices. This helps in scaling the network without any effort as a social impact practitioner. Thus, it is always about getting those right people in place first. 

Virginia: What is the role of HR when we talk about training? Is there a way to correlate the training and experiences that champions get to broader leadership, development, and opportunities within an organization or usually does this sit independent of the HR? 

Angela: It often sits independently, however things are changing currently. If the HR or the CSR unit work together, then that is great. However, even when they're not working together, it seems like that is becoming a focus for social impact teams to coordinate directly with the HR team. What we're seeing is that, let's say, for Abbott's Future Well Kids program after around 2 years, their volunteer champions did the same work each year and became trainers of other volunteer champions that were incoming. However, it felt like they had hit the ceiling. Hence, after coordinating with HR, a growth path was created for the volunteer champions that align directly with HR’s leadership development initiative. At this point in the program, volunteer champions can follow and develop very specific skills. They get recognized and rewarded when they hit a point where it's clear that they have improved those skills. The HR department is also very interested in that process because it feeds exactly what they're trying to accomplish. These teams should be in lockstep along with DEI teams, because they're all trying to reach the same things. We are seeing more and more of that but it typically takes quite a few conversations.

Virginia: What content is most relevant or influential to get other internal stakeholders on board with volunteer programs?

Chris: The most persuasive way is to have a peer with equal stature, standing, and an experience that is undeniable. Human beings don’t mimic as much as we emulate. Human beings have this interior world that we come into on this planet with where we can imagine that you know something that I don't know. That is also why we look at influencers. We emulate influencers, because we are designed to do it. There is something going on in their experience, transferred socially alone that we don't understand yet, but we unconsciously know that. Thus we do that. So when you meet a senior Vice president who is incredibly successful and they volunteer, then I cannot say that it doesn’t work. Now, you present me with research that shows a million people are volunteering but that also might not be convincing enough. Thus, bringing a senior leader in whom they admire and emulate, especially when you get to higher levels of power in our brain. Now we begin to develop a bit of a disorder where we don't relate to others the same way or as effectively and that's absolutely needed. So there's no research, but I would say there are a number of people that I could give research to and empower them to talk more loudly and specifically on the topic.

Angela: Social impact leaders have the temptation to take a business case with numbers to senior leaders. Sometimes doing that gets them out of the conversation because their leaders think that they are doing work. However, the best thing is to take them somehow to have the experience and or to make them the champion of your program, so that someone who has had the experience just happens to be an advocate for it, and then they can make the case. Without having had the experience, you are not going to have somebody that is going to open the doors for you. You can maybe get out of doors being closed with research, but the experience is going to help you open the doors. 

Virginia: What do you say to people on the inside, who are designing an experience with somebody who may not be naturally inclined to give attention and create that conscious experience that needs certain guidance to get there? How do you coach the internal planners of those experiences to make sure you give it the best shot? 

Chris: We design every experience as the first stage in the sense that we just assume the majority of people are coming and everybody else will figure out who they are at the event. We will train the champion to do that, or the Goodera host, and then they can be met at their highest level of contribution. The space, however, is built for somebody to just walk in and say what's going on here.

Angela: The temptation of social impact leaders in those scenarios is to keep the passerby’s attention. Whatever they tell them has to be quick, efficient, and reflect how productive they are. 

I really think that we need to maybe ask that person to reflect on what happened later. If you want that person to reflect on what happened later and think we need to do more of that. What we want obviously, in those situations for that person is to have an experience wherein they do not know what this feeling is, but everybody here needs to have it. So I teach this stuff all the time, and I have to be reminded of this.

I had an experience like this where, when I joined, I wanted to give my team a good experience. So I thought, we're going to be efficient. The person that was leading it challenged my assumptions by starting the entire activity where we were supposed to paint houses. He started out by saying, “Thank you so much everyone for being here today. I just want to let you know that your presence here is entirely unnecessary.” He then proceeded to explain how the community was actually fine on their own, and we were not going to make a difference when we painted their homes. So we were not there to just get a task done but it was actually an opportunity to be present with people that we are never present with, and we are never going to interact with them. The aim was to see what we can notice about us, about their lives, about our interactions with them, and just be there with them. That alone just shocked that CEO, since this is not what he expected and it is the greatest opportunity you have to get them to put their phone down.

Virginia: How do you provide practitioners ways to capture the value that is being transferred in these experiences? 

Angela: A couple of things that help people move beyond the typical numbers, which by the way makes sense, are thinking about things like the number of volunteer champions that we have, the number of volunteer champions who have completed the training, the number of volunteer champions who moved from your created space for people to move from being a first stage volunteer forward in their journey, number of unique volunteers they were able to bring to the events, etc. Thus, asking better questions to gain better information. Once we have better information, then we can start to ask things like, in what ways are you thinking about things differently, what have you learned about yourself through the issues that the company addresses.

In order to measure transformation, we have 3 major indicators. That is done in typical ways like focus groups, spot check interviews, surveys, but really consistently and sometimes it helps to have an outside group come in and do some of that conversation with your volunteer champions with them to find out what's really going on and what they're learning over time. 

Management skills can also be brought to those things, like what I want to see in the next 5 years is multiple companies who are able to say, the best managers, the most effective, highest ranked managers in our companies are at that level because of their experience in the volunteer program, and then be able to directly correlate management skills to the things they're learning in the program. We are not there yet as an industry, but those are the types of things that are relatively easy to measure. It just means we have to force ourselves to think beyond those number outcomes.

Chris: Transformative learning theory basically says that teachers and students learn together. There are 12 things that you have to go through in order for this to happen, and it maps really well to neuroscience. And so the 3 shifts are firstly, psychological change. Things like how I see myself in the world, etc. This has to do with positionality and intersectionality. 

Secondly, we have a convictional change. Questions like what all I believe is true about the world, etc. Now we're going to go into the 180 biases that are a bit wrong - My stereotypes, my prejudices, things that I am so used to that I think of them as just me. This isn’t an inherited cultural gene code. I came into the world, with DNA, my parents, and all of my ancestors before them, and our common ancestors, etc. However, I also inherit all of the cultural gene coding. It's just contrived to keep us together and functioning, cooperating, surviving. However, there are a bunch of mistakes in both. 

Lastly, there is a behavioral change, which is the only thing you see. Are people showing up, are they inviting others, etc. These are things that tell us that there's a lot of value being brought to it, but you can again bring intention and cultivate that through conversation and reflection. If you want to actually have a physiological change.

It is not now, nor has it ever been as simple as let's go do a good thing and then measure the impact. That's a bit of dust on the street. It is there, but it's not going to be there for long.

Virginia: Who are you seeing in this field that's really inspiring you? What tips do you have for those out there trying to work hard internally, maybe among leaders who aren't quite there yet? 

Chris: Dr. David Wilson and some of his collaborators wrote a book called “Pro Social’. If you're a leader in this space and when you think of corporate social responsibility, committee investment, then ESG standards for the SEC, etc come to your mind. On the other side you have things like “The Friday Pizza Volunteer” which is basically the content that you're trying to make sense of. 

The book will unpack everything and allow you to go well beyond those. These are trivialities that you want to go past. There's way more at stake than you're aware of, and the other thing that you should be aware of is that the research suggests good volunteering largely in a transformative way, using science, can lift your culture. Whereas, bad volunteering, transactional at best, maybe inauthentic, will undermine your culture 10 times as fast, it will go up by one and go down by 10 because humans are always looking for answers to questions like, is this real, is this true, etc.

Starbucks is dealing with that reality right now, and that can happen in any company. Trust is absolutely key, and trust is conveyed through intention. You need all of these ingredients together, otherwise, employee volunteering doesn't ever come out as well. Nothing will happen except you will either go downtown or you will go up one.

Angela: Two people that I would like to mention are wonderful examples to me, because they do what my coach always tells me to do, and that is whenever you're worried about people or something wrong happening, she always brings it back to me. She says, “lead the way you do” and the thing that I know needs to be done to internalize the work, and others will follow. I see Megan Baker at Stryker. She is an obsessive learner. She goes to every webinar and does not play solitaire or check emails during the webinar. She listens hard, and I know it's exhausting to her, but she deeply believes in listening to others, taking that in, deciding what to do with it. She reads books, she learns, she goes to conferences, she listens.

Then I would like to mention Allie Ottoboniat at eBay. She is an incredible leader. She, like unlike so many people, has not for once stopped doing the hard inner work of anti-racism. She works hard, and she calls other white women out in the kindest way. That is a core element to the work we're all trying to do together in social impact. She follows through in her personal life, and I just think watching people do that hard inner work, the personal work of being a pro social person maybe, is the hardest part of all of the jobs that we do.

Those 2 are incredible examples of how to do it well.

About the organization
Realized Worth is a global CSR consultancy that designs scalable, measurable, and meaningful employee volunteer programs. They are the sector’s only consulting firm that offers customizable employee training focused on Transformative Volunteering. Realized Worth works with companies to provide expert strategic advice, implementation planning, training, and effective measurement frameworks. Having worked with a wide range of clients including the Gates Foundation, Deloitte, AT&T, Netflix, Airbnb and others, Realized Worth's experience is uniquely suited for the corporation seeking success in its community engagement programs.
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