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Key takeaways:

  • Volunteer ambassador programs can be a resource multiplier for CSR leaders working to create volunteer opportunities for thousands of diverse employees from various communities.
  • It’s crucial to create accountability and ownership among volunteer ambassadors to sustain long-term engagement. 
  • Remember to set clear expectations early on for employees who want to become involved. Furthermore, they need to be provided with adequate support in order to succeed.

Volunteerism is an essential component of any corporate social responsibility (CSR) program, and when done right can foster a positive and purpose-driven workplace culture. 

Still, running employee volunteerism for a company with thousands, or even tens of thousands, of employees, can be overwhelming. In this case, a volunteer ambassador program can be a resource multiplier for your team. 

An ambassador program has the potential to reinforce your company values, maximize engagement, and streamline your workload, but there’s no doubt that they take a lot of work to build.

During an ESG & CSR Board panel discussion, four senior CSR leaders at big brands sat down to share their experiences, best practices, and lessons learned in creating volunteer ambassador programs.

The benefits of an ambassador program

At Charles Schwab, volunteer ambassadors serve an integral role in making local volunteer opportunities happen across the country. 

During the panel, Tessa Anderson, Senior Manager of Employee Community Engagement, said the Schwab Community Ambassador Network encompasses about 200 ambassadors based out of their 14 largest locations, and they’re really viewed as an extension of the greater community services team. 

At a large enterprise like Charles Schwab, it can be difficult to create high-quality volunteer experiences for roughly 33,000 employees with diverse needs, Tessa explained. It’s improbable to fully understand the unique needs of every single community.

Instead, Tessa said the company aims to empower local ambassador teams who deeply understand the dynamics of their workforce to take the lead in coordinating volunteer efforts in their communities. 

“These ambassadors really help us activate locally on all of our strategic initiatives that come out of the foundation and the Schwab Community Services team,” Tessa said.

1. Recruit employees for your volunteer ambassador program

The benefits of building a volunteer ambassador program are clear, especially for a larger company, but where do you find those employees who are eager to step up? 

In some instances, Tessa said these employees who are already known to be passionate have been tapped on the shoulder by someone in a leadership position. However, oftentimes employees raise their hands to be a part of this program. 

The application process at Charles Schwab is not overly formal. Tessa said employees fill out an online interest form and then meet with a member or chair of the local team. Based on the employee’s interest and the unique needs of the local ambassador team, the employee will be placed in the program.

If you’re having trouble growing this pool of employees, Hilary Smith, Executive Vice President of CSR at NBCUniversal, said, “Fish where the fish are meeting.” 

You likely have employees who have already stepped up to serve the company or community in some way — turn to them. 

“We know that our employees who are in the employee resource groups (ERGs) are the ones who are particularly passionate about giving back to their communities so we’re tapping into a lot of them to be ambassadors,” Hilary said. 

Alyse Perkowitz, Manager of Community Affairs at Discover Financial Services, echoed Hilary’s advice during the panel discussion. She said her team works closely with the ERGs since many have their own community partnerships in place.

“It’s almost a branch of our volunteer program as well,” Alyse said. 

To further increase internal awareness around your ambassador program, Hilary also suggested leveraging strong communication tactics. 

At NBCUniversal, roughly 7,000 employees have opted into the social impact newsletter highlighting upcoming opportunities. Hilary also said she utilizes outreach on LinkedIn as well as screens posted around office communal areas.

2. Create accountability and ownership

Scaling your volunteer ambassador program is a huge win, but you also need to ensure that your program nurtures long-term engagement.  

To accomplish this, Tessa said it’s important to establish a sense of accountability among volunteer ambassadors. You may have employees who express interest and even attend a few meetings, but if they don’t have accountability for a specific task or goal, then it’s easy for them to drop off. 

Providing specific roles and job descriptions can create a greater sense of ownership and lead to sustained engagement, according to Tessa. 

Additionally, Tessa said that at Charles Schwab, fortunately, dollars follow their volunteers. Based on headcount, each team is provided an annual grant and sponsorship budget, and they have the autonomy to identify local community partners and needs. 

In return, the ambassador team gets to work toward a cause that really resonates with the overall employee base. 

“What are the things that they are passionate about so that it’s going to be easier to recruit and engage employees?” Tessa said. “Then our team helps them with resources and frameworks.

3. Communicate clear expectations

If your goal is to build a sustainable program, then it’s crucial to set clear expectations for your volunteer ambassadors, according to Tessa. Corporate volunteerism is much more than hosting fun activities and giving away dollars. 

“There are a lot of people who have a passion for this but maybe don’t understand that there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes on,” Tessa said. 

As a result, you should ensure that you’re extremely clear upfront regarding the expectations and guidelines each ambassador will need to operate within. Furthermore, these ambassadors need a solid support system in order to succeed, so Tessa advised leaders to be thoughtful about the time and resources they can offer. 

Additionally, there is a direct line of communication between the ambassador teams and the Schwab Community Services team, who meet regularly. 

“They all have passion, but many of them have never interacted with nonprofits or done strategic grant-making,” Tessa said. “Just make sure that they have the support to be successful in those roles.”

4. Start small and celebrate early wins

During the ESG & CSR Board panel, Leslie Parpart, Director of Community Relations at CarMax, also shared some advice for those embarking on this journey. 

CarMax also has a mature volunteer ambassador program, but it wasn’t always as robust as it is today, according to Leslie.

Referred to as the regional giving program, it began more than 10 years ago when the CEO empowered each CarMax location to accomplish one volunteer project a year. Leslie said the teams rallied around that original goal and were successful.

The CarMax team expanded upon this program and currently completes 1,000s of projects a year. Leslie shared that over time, they built upon this infrastructure and added opportunities.

Today, many of the regional chairs have moved into leadership roles and have pointed to their work rallying these volunteer teams as something that aided them in progressing their career journeys. 

Leslie’s advice is to start small and don’t forget to celebrate those early wins. 

“It’s definitely a journey, right? You don’t start and have a mature program. Find something that everyone can rally around and have that leadership can support and celebrate the successes and wins.”

Leslie Parpart, Director of Community Relations at CarMax

5. Learn from other CSR leaders

Fostering a culture of service at a large enterprise will take time and effort, and the journey will look different depending on the unique community needs and skills of the organization. 

Regardless of how mature your program is, advice from other CSR leaders can be invaluable. 

Leaders like Tessa, Hilary, Alyse, and Leslie already have a network of support in the ESG & CSR Board, where social impact, ESG, and sustainability leaders meet to have the challenging conversations they can’t have anywhere else.


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