Bring your organization together and benefit your local community by organizing a volunteer service project with your coworkers. For extra points, put money allocated for company BBQs or holiday parties back into the community and host a service project instead!
In 2001, global visual computing company NVIDIA began directing funds originally intended for their annual holiday party in December toward volunteer service projects that involve employees, their families, and the community. Since then, they’ve hosted “a party with a purpose” on a Friday and Saturday each December. The party-projects impact schools and community farms, among a variety of other local programs.
How you can do it
NVIDIA’s Project Inspire is pretty large-scale and takes place annually around the holidays, but their idea can be replicated with any size team and budget and at any time of year.
Do your homework. Find out if your workplace already has time and money set aside for teambuilding and/or social activities, such as happy hours or holiday dinners. If it does, find out who makes decisions about how this time and money is spent and if employees can offer their input. If your workplace asks for employees to join a planning committee for these activities, join it! Once you’re at the table, you can propose a volunteer service project as a new option. Or, if your organization doesn’t have a committee, you might suggest that one be started.
Get leadership buy-in. NVIDIA’s President & CEO Jen-Hsun Huang not only supports Project Inspire and encourages employee participation, he also serves alongside his staff on project days. Having buy-in from senior leaders, who are also willing to be real-time ambassadors, is key.
Ask employees for their thoughts. In some workplaces, employees may have the opportunity—or obligation—to step up and help organize service projects. Survey your fellow employees about the types of projects they’d most want to do so you’ll get the most enthusiasm and commitment from your crew.
Decide on markers of success. Think about how you want to measure the success of your program. NVIDIA charts it through participation rates and post-event surveys (which we’ll get to a little later), but also through leaving the nonprofit with complete, high-quality work that can remain useful over time.
Decide if you want help from a planning partner. NVIDIA employs City Year’s Care Force team to identify service sites, do the event planning, and lead volunteers on the day of service. If you’re forgoing a holiday party or other organization-wide event, these funds can be used to contract with a nonprofit that can help you plan and execute your project professionally, and with no additional burden on your employees.
Research potential service sites. Nonprofit organizations often have space available to accommodate large volunteer groups doing service projects. Resources to check for spaces in your area include: HandsOn Network, Rebuilding Together, Habitat for Humanity, local United Way offices, local food banks, and of course Idealist. Check for things like age-appropriateness (whether kids are welcome, if your project is family-friendly) and any special attributes of the space (is it ADA-compliant? is there enough parking for everyone? etc.).
Make sure the project fits. If you have 50 employees and five hours to devote to a service project, look for one that will keep everyone busy for the entire time. Volunteers want to walk away feeling like they’ve made a measurable impact and that their time was well spent. Do site visits to service locations, meet with volunteer coordinators, and understand what employees will be doing and how they will be led. If you decide to use a service partner, make sure you feel confident that they’re similarly committed to making the project a success.
Promote the event to staff. While no one is required to serve, you will want to encourage participation. NVIDIA gets the word out through staff emails, posters, and digital signage. The CEO and other leaders talk about it during meetings leading up to the event, and make their messaging deliberate—like letting everyone know that registration is open, telling the story of the service site they chose, and describing not only what they’ll be doing, but the impact of their service, too.
Communicate with the service site. Make sure to stay in touch with your nonprofit partner(s). Let them know how many people are coming and if that number changes, and make sure you know if you and your team need to bring anything. Be clear about who’s providing supplies and sustenance.
Have logistics in hand for employee volunteers. Prior to the event, share details with your volunteers: what time to be there, directions (or instructions, if you’re providing transportation), what to wear, what to bring, etc.
Make it fun!
Set goals or create incentives for employees to register early, have a reward for the team with the highest participation, or raffle off prizes to attendees.
Food always works. Provide coffee in the morning to get things going, a tasty lunch, and maybe a fun treat (ice cream, cupcakes, popsicles) to celebrate the end of the day. Water throughout the day is always appreciated, too.
Create a t-shirt to give all employee volunteers. Wearing the same thing during the day goes a long way toward creating a sense of team, and the souvenir is a great way to commemorate the event. If there’s no budget for this, ask all folks to wear a company shirt or even a company color.
Have employee volunteers wear nametags. This encourages people to talk and get to know one another, especially if they’re from different office locations or departments.
Gather feedback. After the event, survey employee volunteers for their feedback on how the day went, and use it to make future service days better. At NVIDIA, when the event was held on one day only, a Saturday, feedback showed they’d get increased participation if they expanded to a two-day event over a Friday and Saturday. Allowing participation on Fridays for those with weekends commitments, and keeping Saturday to allow for those who couldn’t spare time out of the office or wanted to include their family, was a great way to improve their model. NVIDIA continues to iterate each year.
Communicate success. NVIDIA also tracks the progress of their service partners. For example, they’ve helped out a few community farms over the years. When their efforts have helped the farms triple production or work more effectively, that’s worth communicating company-wide to show the true impact of what they can accomplish together. Capturing before and after photos to show visual impact can be another compelling way to show volunteers the difference they made.
In 2013, 1,500 people from NVIDIA headquarters in Santa Clara, California contributed over 7,500 volunteer hours to the company’s two-day Project Inspire event. The tradition is now starting to expand to other NVIDIA offices around the globe.
Project Inspire has become one of the most important events NVIDIA holds each year. Employees are excited to share the values of service and giving with their families and children, and serving alongside members of their work team and other colleagues has been a powerful tool for connecting internally and building stronger working relationships.
When possible, have volunteers serve directly with people the project will benefit so they can connect directly with the community they’re serving. This will help to impress upon them the real meaning of their service.