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Do this, Not That - Volunteering


Do this, Not That - Volunteering

Kelly Salance

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Megan Trotter, our Senior Global Community Programs Manager at Zendesk, shares her insights on volunteering in the workplace.

Raise your hand if your company has done a “Day of Service.” You know, the day where 50+ employees volunteer at a local nonprofit, clad in their company t-shirts, picking up garbage, painting a playground, cleaning up a beach. Typically, a barrage of tweets and Facebook posts follow, touting a staggering, albeit impressive number of volunteer hours they’ve managed to wrack up in a single afternoon. Yep, we see a lot of hands.

Name any company and I’m sure that this has been their go-to for engaging in their communities. We’ve done it too. While this can seem like a quick and easy way to engage your workforce in the community, large-scale volunteer events often do not work because they are taxing on the nonprofit and do not promote authentic, deep community participation.

As a former nonprofit program manager, I know the amount of work, time, and energy that it takes to help a company participate in a large-scale volunteer activity.

“Oh, you want to bring 100 employees to my program that only really needs 20 volunteers, you say.”

Cue headache.

The problem is large-scale volunteering usually involves creating new programs, new projects, and new ways to get people engaged. In other words, these are one-offs that are out of rotation with what a nonprofit typically offers. While sometimes, this can result in new, exciting, and innovative programming, more often than not, it's just busy work to make the employee feel like they are making an impact. Why would we want to make our nonprofit partners work harder to meet our demands, rather than let them lead the way? Moreover, big days of service usually mean the nonprofit “benefitting” from all that time and attention has to create a special time of day when the guests or clients they serve aren’t around. This means you can’t make that emotional connection with the people you are actually trying to serve. If your dream is to rebuild a school’s playground, it is a certainly worthy cause, and I’m not suggesting you don’t do that. But the chances you’ll meet the kids and teachers who benefit from such a project are zero to none. So if you can’t do anything but go big, do your best to go small later on. You’ll actually meet the folks on the receiving end of your generosity, and that is a moment so powerful, you’ll be energized to do more.

A group of four Zendesk employees volunteering at our non-profit partner,  Curry Senior Center,  in San Francisco.

A group of four Zendesk employees volunteering at our non-profit partner, Curry Senior Center, in San Francisco.

At Zendesk, we have developed a model that is more adept to meet the nonprofits’ needs while also allowing our employees to have an opportunity to go deeper and feel more connected to their impact. By offering more regularly scheduled smaller group opportunities (3-8 employees), we allow our employees to make real connections with individuals. Rather than having a passing interaction, as one of a mass of people participating in activities, our employees get the time to sit down have a conversation, find a commonality, and build community. In moving from a “day of service” model to an “everyday is service” model, we’ve been able to increase engagement, develop smaller niche opportunities that better respond to the nonprofit needs and employee skill set, and really embed ourselves in our neighborhoods.


In 2018, we have challenged our employees to commit to investing 6 hours of service into small-scale volunteer activities to help our global communities. It’s amazing the impact a mere 6 hours can have across your workforce and how its cumulative effects can impact nonprofits.Join us in this challenge and send us a tweet at #6hours to keep us abreast of your progress.