Unraveling the Science Behind Why Volunteering Works

BY Christina Cook | May 22, 2023

Chris Jarvis divided the audience at From Day One's Dallas conference into two groups and asked us to engage in a thought experiment. He said, “Imagine a happiness scale that ranges from one to ten, where ten is an amazing day, ranging all the way down to one, which would be a pretty rough day. Now, on your way to the conference today, you come across a crisp, clean $100 bill on the ground. There is no one around, so you pick it up and you put it in your pocket. How many points did your happiness level go up after you found the money on the ground?” The audience members in the first group reported their happiness points going up about one point.

On the opposite side of the room, the experiment was similar, except instead of spending the found money on yourself, you have to spend it on someone else. I was in the second group, and my response was among the majority. My happiness went up about three points.

Why do humans help other people? This is a fundamental question, and the idea behind the company Realized Worth, of which Jarvis is co-founder and chief strategy officer. Why do we help others, and what happens when businesses include volunteering in company culture?

This question, and the thought experiment Jarvis offered springs from a study conducted by Michael Norton at Harvard. Whether Norton carried out the study at Harvard, in Africa, or among colleagues, the results were largely the same. When the money was used to help someone else, happiness points were higher. The act of giving is what matters.

Jarvis said, “It comes down to a process in our brain called the Reward System. Think of a runner's high. Those naturally occurring endorphins in your brain are part of the brain reward system, and that is built-in neuro-behavior.”

Jarvis led the Dallas session (photo by Steve Bither for From Day One)

In addition to the reward system, our brains have something called the pain matrix, and that means there are neurons in the brain that light up when you're in pain. But, these neurons can't tell the difference between being in pain and seeing somebody else’s pain. When our pain matrix lights up, we have one of two responses: intervene, or get up and leave. So, we feel compelled to help because it feels good to help, and we feel pain when we see somebody else in pain.

“But this last part presents us with a bit of a weird problem,” Jarvis said. “Because empathy is really only felt for those who are like us. It only works for our in-groups. What I mean by this comes from Social Identity Theory. Think of concentric circles of identity: Do we have enough commonality that we can connect? For every in-group that you're part of, it shares some of your interests and perspectives. And this is why we can feel great concern for people that are close to us in proximity and core alikeness.”

Jarvis continues, “For example, when catastrophe happens in another part of the world, we acknowledge it, but our pain matrix doesn’t light up. We are easily susceptible to dehumanizing those outside our groups. And this is the great crisis of humanity as a species, the ability to look at another group and say: We’re not safe because of them. They want what we've worked for.”

Luckily, there is a solution. “Because,” Jarvis said, “your brain tends to be plastic. It is incredibly flexible, like bones and cartilage when you're younger.” This flexibility is referred to as neuroplasticity.

In neuroplasticity, when we are confronted with a situation that doesn’t fit our expectations, a chemical called acetylcholine is secreted, and we grow new neural pathways. Jarvis said, “We need to have experiences that challenge the reality of what we think of as normal. And we need to be guided to this new place.”

When applying this concept to DEI initiatives in a company, Jarvis said, “Experience is key. You need to have the experience of the mind and the body, these two things together, for creating memories and for creating new neural pathways.”

For Jarvis, this is why employee volunteering is such an important feature of a company's program, especially regarding DEI. Without experiences to challenge the way our brains are wired, we can’t understand the human tendency to dehumanize another group.

Jarvis said, “Hidden biases stay quite hidden unless you go looking for them. And if the checklists are there, and we're meeting all the obligations, somehow, maybe we become more insulated. Because we have combined all of these external constructs, but never do the internal work. So, now we know just not how to show it, but that isn’t the direction we want to go. We want a workplace where we can bring your whole self, and we can belong.”

He said, “We need to inform people's experiences so that we don't carry these half understood biases and truths forward in life. Then, act. And that's where we'll see the behavior change. As a result of these experiences, we see ourselves differently in the world. Employee volunteering could be the best way to address this idea.”

Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partner, Realized Worth, for sponsoring this thought leadership spotlight. 

Christina Cook is a freelance writer based in Dallas, TX, where she covers a variety of topics, with favorites including Art, Film, and live Theatre. Her work can be seen on Rawckus.com, RedDirtNation, and DallasArtBeat.com. Christina is also a creative writer. Her children’s book Your Hands Can Change the World was a 2017 regional bestseller.


RELATED STORIES

Optimizing Tech and Data to Recruit Top Candidates

With every new wave of tech, there comes the fear that it will make some workers obsolete, but when it comes to artificial intelligence eclipsing recruiters, they needn’t worry, said Steve Bartel, CEO and co-founder of AI-powered recruiting platform Gem. “AI is nowhere close to completely replacing jobs. I think for a long time, maybe forever, AI is going to be more of a co-pilot. My read is that AI is going to really speed us up.”Bartel, whom I spoke to during a From Day One webinar on how employers are using the latest in AI to make hiring more effective and efficient, says there are two reasons AI will help rather than hinder talent acquisition.First, companies are drowning in applications. “Thirty percent of our customers are seeing 1,000-plus applicants for a [single] job,” he said. Second, at the same time applications are flowing in by the thousands, talent acquisition teams are being asked to do more with less. “They’re being asked to backfill tons of critical roles. As hiring starts to pick up, a lot of recruiting teams are left under-resourced and under-budgeted.”For overloaded teams, well-deployed AI can be like a rocket booster for recruiting programs, letting humans do what they do best. Artificial intelligence will automate the most manual and painfully tedious parts of the job: for instance, writing the first draft of an outreach email and even personalizing that copy. It can conceive and deliver candidate nurture campaigns that support long-term client relationships. But it can’t fly alone, nor should it. Ultimately, only people can recruit employees into companies.“A lot of us got into recruiting because we really care about bringing great people into the organization, we really care about forging amazing relationships with candidates,” he said. “AI is not going to be able to replace the human touch. In fact, it’s going to free us up to provide a better candidate experience.”Journalist Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza interviewed Steve Bartel of Gem during the From Day One webinar about recruiting top candidates (photo by From Day One)According to Gem’s own research, 73% of companies today are exploring investment in AI for recruitment automation. A few years ago, the share of employers with such plans was a fraction of that. Directives are coming down from the C-suite, and the imperative is to start using AI–but many still aren’t clear on the use cases or where it’s most beneficial.At the mercy of vague orders, talent acquisition teams are moving quickly to comply, and they risk making mistakes. The first mistake Bartel sees is not fully vetting a vendor or tech platform; one way to do that is to look under the hood at the information feeding it and the tech powering it.“A lot of AI demos really well, but when you actually use it in practice, that’s where you run into making pretty silly mistakes, quite honestly,” Bartel said. “Try to run a real trial based on your own data and use cases. Talk to customers to validate that it actually works once you deploy.”A good recruiting platform also works with your current tech stack. If it doesn’t, recruiters risk cold-contacting current candidates, recent event attendees, or runners-up for interviews. You may end up spamming your existing talent pool, and ultimately damaging your employer brand.Further, some platforms may be running on outdated information. “A lot of vendors are still on these legacy AI stacks that they’ve invested 10 years into building, but that are suddenly obsolete,” he said.But recruiters don’t have the time to be bogged down with stale information. “My number-one theory continues to be that recruiting teams are being asked to do more with less and that they’re overworked,” said Bartel. Tech should take a load off the shoulders of recruiting teams. The standard is now a customer-grade candidate experience, and unless talent acquisition is given the room to provide it, recruiting will suffer.Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partner, Gem, for sponsoring this webinar. Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance journalist and From Day One contributing editor who writes about work, the job market, and women’s experiences in the workplace. Her work has appeared in the Economist, the BBC, The Washington Post, Quartz, Fast Company, and Digiday’s Worklife.

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza | May 20, 2024

Elevate Employee Engagement: Smart Strategies for Thriving Teams on a Budget

Employees crave meaningful experiences. But with limited time and budgets, how can companies build more purpose into the work experience? Fifteen minutes at a time, says Ben Sampson.Sampson is chief evangelist of social impact and employee engagement at WizeHive, which offers software platforms for managing scholarships and workplace giving, as well as immersive volunteer experiences via WeHero. At a From Day One’s webinar, Sampson spoke to the idea of how turnkey volunteering can increase employee engagement on a budget. Kelly Bourdet of Apparata Media interviewed.Coming from a volunteer background, Sampson knew how engaging it can be to help others.  One thing led to another, and he eventually co-founded WeHero to help facilitate opportunities for employees to engage in volunteering experiences through their workplace. “We're constantly looking at what employees need,” he said. More and more, he’s learned that employees want to work for a company with purpose. They want to go to work and feel like it makes a good social impact. Some potential employees even ask about those opportunities during hiring. On the flip side, employees are also extremely conscious of their time. “How can we be time sensitive to get employees engaged in our companies, and give them a good experience of continuously engaging over and over again?” Sampson asked. In the past, companies would typically ask employees to go out and find their own volunteer opportunities, then spend time out of the office. While employees love giving back, putting the burden of doing all the legwork doesn’t fit within time constraints or even company budgets. The key, Sampson and his team have learned, is meeting the company and the employees where they are and giving back their most valuable resource: their time.Journalist Kelly Bourdet interviewed Ben Sampson of WizeHive during the From Day One webinar (photo by From Day One)Companies big or small, hybrid or in-office, local or global, all can better engage through impact experiences. Having WizeHive take care of the burden of logistics allows employees to enjoy the process of volunteering without a lot of extra time while maximizing their impact. “Bite size volunteer opportunities make a lot of impact,” Sampson said. “Maybe that's building a water filter for 15 minutes out of your workday, maybe that is answering a video call from someone that’s visually disabled that needs help finding the bus stop. Volunteering can be a great way for engaging employees in a low-cost mechanism.”At one company with an office and a warehouse, Sampson says the warehouse personnel generally didn’t have the time to participate in volunteer projects. So they set up a station where all employees could put together backpacks with supplies for kids during lunch or a break. Warehouse employees felt more included and engaged.“They even got to see the kids picking up the backpacks, so that was really special,” Sampson said. Even though the project took very little time and employees didn’t even need to leave the workplace to do it, the project still had a big impact on the community.One thing to focus on when rolling out opportunities is showing the clear path to impact. What will be the result of putting in their time? Virtual events are especially popular, Sampson says, as more people can participate in them and they fit most budgets. Sampson’s team can also help match people with specific skills to volunteer opportunities. Doing transcription work for the Smithsonian or Ancestry are just two examples of something people can do that have a clear path of impact—saving pieces of history and helping people connect with ancestors. Leadership buy-in is crucial for success, Sampson says. Companies where leadership is engaged and participating in impact projects correlate highly with employee participation and engagement as well. Mercedes is one company where the CEO works alongside employees during their volunteer experiences, connecting employees with leadership and allowing them to see each other outside the typical work setting.But sometimes getting that leadership buy-in can be challenging. “What is something the HR side can use to argue for the value?” Bourdet asked Sampson.To understand what’s most important to that leader, likely profitability for the company, then offering metrics or other reasons why volunteerism is the answer. If that leader is focused on employee retention, Sampson has a metric for that. “What are the costs of employee turnover? For a lot of businesses that we work with, it’s millions of dollars.” So, if employee engagement improves through these impact projects, it could save the company money. For one company they were working with, Sampson predicted a $26 million savings over 12 months, if done effectively. “There is so much positive emotion when people volunteer.” One employee who was able to volunteer for the first time told Sampson, “It’s cool that my employer has given me the opportunity to do this.” Now that’s employee engagement. Editor’s note: From Day One thanks our partner, WizeHive, for sponsoring this webinar.Carrie Snider is a Phoenix-based journalist and marketing copywriter.

Carrie Snider | May 17, 2024

Navigating the Future of Business With Resilience and Innovation

When Amy Letke, national practice leader, HR consulting at Marsh McLennan Agency talks about innovative HR strategy, she points to one of her clients as a perfect example. This company has a workplace with harsh conditions that most of us would find unattractive. It’s a meatpacking company where employees often find themselves working in below-freezing temperatures and less-than-competitive pay. Yet its attrition rate is remarkably low.The client told her, “We’ve invested in our people, we’ve conducted leadership training, we’ve had to reorganize. We’ve [also] had to go back to our leaders and say, ‘You’ve got to like your people, to talk to them, and be compassionate to their needs.’” Letke shared this story in a thought leadership spotlight at From Day One’s D.C. event. By offering a holistic benefits package and engaging not just the employees, but also their families with a welcoming company culture, this organization convinced workers not only to stay, but to thrive in a very tough job.In a dynamic business environment, adaptation is essential to stay competitive. Organizations face unprecedented challenges and opportunities, demanding a blend of resilience and innovation. Letke offered an enlightening presentation on how to navigate and excel in this landscape, with insights, strategies, and actionable advice to thrive amid evolving industry trends.Workplace Challenges in 2024Letke says employers face three major challenges this year, each of which offers opportunities to be more effective with your HR benefits strategy. First, is attracting and retaining talent. The second, she says, is getting more done with less. And finally, the third is the rapid technological advancement happening.Covid prepared HR teams to deal with rapidly changing circumstances, she says. “HR teams have to be resilient. And we always are renewing and invigorating ourselves.” She offers several hallmarks of a resilient HR structure, including a coaching for leaders, a handbook that addresses time off and other work policies, up-to-date job descriptions, and a readiness to handle tough conversations, among others. By consistently analyzing your infrastructure and making sure the latest trends and policies are incorporated, you can stay ahead of any challenges coming down the line.Creating an Effective StrategyIn addition to staying on top of trends and keeping HR infrastructure updated, it’s also about attitude and company culture. “When we become a leader, we’ve got to realize what we’re signing up for,” Letke said. “It means we have to be compassionate, caring, [and] we have to listen.” This sometimes requires training, she says.Amy Letke,  National Practice Leader, HR Consulting at Marsh McLennan Agency led the thought leadership spotlight in D.C.Resilient infrastructure can create a resilient culture with exceptional supervisors. These leaders give the frontline workforce the support that they need and can often make an organization more attractive even when the pay is not as competitive due to budget cuts in a challenging economy. It also means that leaders should be held accountable for employee turnover, as their attitude and care should be driving the culture that inspires retention and loyalty.Workers satisfied with every element of the employee experience are happier and feel more successful, appreciated, and have a greater sense of belonging, Letke says. These elements include pay and compensation, purposeful work, culture, and flexibility. “This list shows how we as leaders can deliver care throughout our organization,” Letke said, and should be a guiding principle behind HR strategy.Having an Effective Benefits Strategy“Offering good employee benefits is just basic, everybody expects it,” Letke said, especially post-pandemic. So she encourages leaders to be more creative with their benefits strategy in order to stay competitive. A recent Marsh McLennan study showed that one in three employees would forgo a pay increase in return for additional well-being offerings for themselves and their families. “Being able to support your employees’ well-being is something we are seeing as an emerging trend, so thinking about those benefits is a way you can differentiate your company from others,” she said.Letke identifies four key areas of focus as opportunities to be more effective with your benefits strategy:Personalization: Give employees choices.Segmentation: Understand the different segments of employees and their needs. Centralization: To curb spending, there will likely be a centralization of tech platforms and human support options for HR teams. Empathy: Be there for your employees.A comprehensive benefits program incorporates the needs of every generation in the workforce, whose needs can look quite different. For example, Gen X might want remote work, flexible scheduling, caregiving benefits, and retirement planning, while Gen Z might prioritize student loan repayment, financial planning assistance, and training and development.Many workplaces have multiple generations represented among the workforce, so “managing to the needs of these generations is critical,” Letke said.Ultimately, HR success is about cultivating a mindset of innovation, Letke says. If HR has become a “check the box” compliance function, you’re doing it wrong. “Our job is to lead, inspire, and help others understand the impact they can make on the employee experience,” Letke said.Intention, compassion, and empathy is how winning organizations do it. A holistic approach to leadership that includes every element of an employees’ experience – both at work and at home – can make for a sustainable, forward-thinking, and highly attractive workplace.Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partner, Marsh McLennan Agency, for sponsoring this thought leadership spotlight. Katie Chambers is a freelance writer and award-winning communications executive with a lifelong commitment to supporting artists and advocating for inclusion. Her work has been seen in HuffPost and several printed essay collections, among others, and she has appeared on Cheddar News, iWomanTV, and CBS New York.

Katie Chambers | May 09, 2024