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How To Build an Inclusive Volunteering Program

By Laura Steele

How To Build an Inclusive Volunteering Program

By Laura Steele

Published 07-12-23

Submitted by Submittable

A person in a wet suit helping another in a wheelchair on a beach.

If you don’t build accessibility and inclusivity into your corporate volunteering program, you risk undercutting your efforts. That’s because the very benefits of volunteering hinge on all employees feeling invited and included. Done right, an inclusive volunteering program provides a deeper sense of meaning for employees, strengthens relationships across the company, and improves company culture.

The good news is that an inclusive volunteering program is achievable, no matter what kind of resources you have. The key is avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, design your volunteer opportunities to meet employees where they are.

Inclusive volunteering starts with a conversation

To learn what prevents people from volunteering, ask.

Start this conversation early so that you can build opportunities that make room for everyone. If you only guess at what keeps people from participating, you’ll likely overlook a lot of unique experiences. 

There are many barriers to volunteerism, including physical, mental, and circumstantial. Some may be obvious and others are likely invisible. Creating real accessibility is all about being sure no one is excluded, so start by being as informed as possible. Taking this step is not only good for boosting participation. Inclusion has a direct effect on employee happiness—and retention.

Begin by asking your employees—we recommend using anonymous surveys—about the kinds of challenges they face in participating as a volunteer. Let people speak up freely and safely about what they need, and what feels restrictive. Listen closely. Use this feedback to tailor your programs to meet their needs. Be mindful not to put employees in a position where they feel pressured to disclose anything about their disability status or mental health they prefer to keep private.

Inclusive volunteering means putting accessibility first 

Accessibility and inclusion look different at every organization—as they should. Every employee has unique needs, so offering options and accommodations is essential to give everyone an entry point.

For example, people with physical disabilities may have trouble even getting to a volunteer location outside the office. Consider things like wheelchair accessibility both in transportation (and provide it if needed) and also in and around any volunteering location. And be sure that the volunteer activities you choose have options for a wide range of physical abilities. Having wheelchair accessibility doesn’t mean all that much if the volunteer activity is packing and moving heavy boxes.

Not all disabilities are immediately visible. People with mental health challenges or social anxieties may need more support to be successful. For example, those who identify as neurodivergent may do better volunteering in shorter chunks of time, or in a one-to-one setting rather than in a large group.

Circumstances also play a big role in accessibility as well. Someone who relies on public transportation might not be able to get to volunteer events without assistance. Or an employee with children might not be able to participate in events that take place after work hours.

Some general best practices to keep in mind:

  • Offer flexible scheduling options for all different types of abilities
  • Provide training on how to support people with various types of disabilities, and education about how to reduce implicit bias
  • Explore virtual volunteering activities (there are more than you think!)

Accessibility starts with the sign-up process 

As important as it is for volunteer activities to be accessible, the sign-up process is the first touchpoint employees have with your volunteer program. It needs to be an inclusive experience.

Make sure employees have all the information they need up front. If employees aren’t sure whether a volunteer event will be accessible for them, they likely won’t sign up. Give as much detail as you can about what participants should expect, including information about transportation, parking, and any necessary clothing or equipment.

Providing explicit instructions can help put anxieties at ease for everyone. If employees worry that they’re going to wear the wrong thing or show up at the wrong place, some will likely opt out.

The social aspect of volunteering is important as well. Give employees visibility to see who has signed up for a volunteer opportunity. Knowing who they’ll be working alongside can help people with social anxiety and can be the boost new volunteers need to get involved.

Include options for one-to-one & virtual volunteering

One of the best ways to make your volunteer program more accessible and inclusive is to create one-to-one opportunities (whether virtual or in-person) and to embrace the concept of virtual volunteering in general.

One-to-one volunteering can feel less pressurized. These are moments for volunteers to work directly with someone else in a more personal setting. Some examples include:

  • Tutoring: Make connections through a partnership with a school or nonprofit.
  • Mentoring: Mentors meet regularly with mentees to discuss progress at school, at work, at home, in their community, etc.
  • Workshops: Hosting a monthly workshop can be a great way to share skills.

What’s more, nearly 83% of companies offer virtual volunteering—and for good reason. Virtual volunteering is an organic, natural way to offer skills-based volunteering, such as:

  • Online research for an organization
  • Making phone calls to garner support
  • Creating content for a nonprofit (videos, social media graphics, copywriting, website visuals, etc.)
  • Donating accounting skills or advice to small businesses
  • Setting up an online fundraiser

Virtual volunteering provides a channel for nearly anyone at any level of access to give back. It’s inclusive by default, and very familiar in today’s world of work. Online volunteering can be used for fundraising, phone or text banking, event promotion, spreading awareness about causes, writing blogs or newsletters, managing social media accounts, developing research and surveys, publishing articles, and so much more.

Seek feedback and measure results 

Once you have programs up and running, it’s important to keep track of the results. Otherwise, the impact of your decisions is very hard to grasp.

Seek employee feedback often and listen closely so you can adapt. This shouldn’t be a one-time check-in. View it as an ongoing conversation. Questions to ask include:

  • Do employees feel sufficiently supported in volunteering?
  • Are all employees who are interested in volunteering able to participate?
  • How many people continue to volunteer after their first time?
  • How can you simplify the volunteer time off (VTO) approval process?
  • What suggestions do employees have to improve your volunteer program?

Employee feedback is the best way to find opportunities to improve your program, not just in terms of accessibility, but impact too. Seek feedback from all employees, not just the ones who volunteer. That way you get a full picture of how everyone views the program and clarity about what prevents people from getting involved.

Better accessibility improves the experience for everyone

No matter what stage your volunteer program is in, focusing on accessibility and inclusivity is a smart move. Because true accessibility doesn’t just give more people a way into your program, it actually improves the experience for everyone.

A focus on accessibility helps make the sign-up process seamless, ensures participants have all the information they need up front, and keeps the feedback loop strong. That’s good for all employees and for the company as a whole. To help you build an inclusive volunteering program, look for CSR software that’s certified for accessibility and includes features that empower employees to lead the way.

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Submittable is a growing social impact platform used by thousands of companies, governments, and philanthropic organizations to manage their social impact programs and maximize their impact.

Submittable has helped big and small organizations worldwide run 134,000 programs and collect nearly 22 million applications to date, and is backed by Accel-KKR, Next Coast Ventures, True Ventures, Next Frontier Capital, StepStone Group and a few other amazing investors.

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