Creating Volunteer-Friendly Workplaces

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Creating Volunteer-Friendly Workplaces

Labor policy expert Akie Nakamura explains why corporate volunteer programs are important and what companies can do to expand employee participation.

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More than ever, the world is counting on businesses to leverage their financial, human, and technological resources for the mitigation of society’s complex and growing ills, from poverty and environmental degradation to isolation and the technological divide. Such concepts as CSR (corporate social responsibility) and CSV (creating shared value) have been around for some time, but the number of Japanese businesses reporting CSR policies and initiatives has been on the rise in recent years, spurred by announcement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the rise of ESG (environmental, social, and governance) investing. Indeed, dedicated CSR departments, partnerships with nonprofits, integration of CSR into core business activities, and employee volunteer programs have all become fairly commonplace among big Japanese corporations.

Despite such progress, most CSR officers acknowledge that they have hit a wall in terms of expanding active participation in CSR activities beyond a core group of dedicated employees. This enthusiasm gap does not affect programs implemented within the company’s CSR department, nor does it have an appreciable impact on sustainability policies that are integrated into the company’s business processes. However, when it comes to participation in such optional activities as employee volunteering, the divide is conspicuous and persistent.

My interviews with corporate managers and employees suggest that the divide also runs quite deep. Employees outside the inner circle of corporate policy planners and CSR personnel often tell me that volunteerism is something they simply “cannot relate to.” Moreover, a surprising number seem to view it as an escape hatch for office misfits, slackers, and others with too much time on their hands. In the following, I explore this attitude gap and suggest ways to close it.

Why Encourage Employee Volunteerism?

Of course, there are many ways that companies can act on their commitment to CSR and address social problems. Why single out employee volunteer programs? My reasons for focusing on this area can be boiled down to four.

Reason 1: High Latent Demand

The first reason relates to the surprisingly large number of corporate employees who say they would like to do something (apart from their work) to serve society yet have never translated that impulse into action. In a survey on social awareness conducted annually by the Cabinet Office, the percentage of respondents who “normally think about wanting to serve society in some way as a member of society” rose from 47% in 1986 to 65% in 2016. Yet another government survey on time use and leisure activity found that over the same three decades the percentage of people engaged in volunteer activity rose negligibly, from 25% to 26%.

Figure 1. Wish to Serve Society and Actual Volunteer Activity, 1986 and 2016

Sources: (Top row) Cabinet Office 1986, 2016; (bottom row) Statistics Bureau of Japan 1986, 2016.

Moreover, a report on a 2016 Cabinet Office survey of citizens’ contributions to society found that, broken down by employment status, regular company employees were the group with the lowest rate of current or past volunteer activity—a mere 12.9%. Time factors might be adduced to explain the higher frequency among temporary, part-time, and other nonregular employees (14.3%), full-time homemakers (20.2%), and students (21.9%). But corporate employees also volunteered at a substantially lower rate than self-employed persons and family employees (24.1%); civil servants and nonprofit employees (27.1%); and licensed professionals, such as doctors and lawyers (22.6%).

Figure 2. Volunteer Rates in Japan by Employment Status (percentage reporting volunteer experience)

Source: Cabinet Office 2016a. 

Reason 2: Lifelong Career Design

The second reason for my interest in corporate volunteer programs is that volunteer experience can be a major plus in terms of lifelong career building, an ability that has taken on increasing importance as life expectancies continue to rise.

Figure 3 charts the results of an analysis of the relationship between subjects’ self-assessed career prospects and the communities with which they identify, based on a 2018 questionnaire survey (Recruit Works Institute 2019). The graph shows the factor score for “career prospects,” a composite variable reflecting the level of subjects’ agreement or disagreement with the statements “I can make my own way professionally,” “I approach things proactively,” and “I think my prospects are bright.”

As the figure indicates, the group with the lowest average score consisted of those whose community affiliation is limited to coworkers in their own sections or departments. The group posting the highest average score, by contrast, comprised those who identified as members of volunteer or nonprofit groups.

A plausible explanation for this disparity is the relatively high level of social skills, flexibility, and initiative required for volunteer work. People whose social lives are confined to the workplace function in a relatively constant setting with essentially the same group of people, in a hierarchical organization that simplifies relationships and decision making. By contrast, those who volunteer outside the workplace gain the experience of joining other communities and building new collaborative relationships for the purpose of achieving something measured by non-monetary criteria. As a result, they are likely to have greater faith in their own ability to take action and accomplish things in a changing environment, which doubtless gives them confidence to face an uncertain future.

Figure 3. Self-Assessed Career Prospects by Community Identification

Note: “Career prospects” is a composite variable expressed by a factor score. The score is based on subjects’ responses to the statements “I can make my own way professionally,” “I approach things proactively,” and “I think my prospects are bright.”
Source: Recruit Works Institute 2018.

Reason 3: Benefits for the Companies

The third reason is that companies benefit from their employees’ volunteer experience, as attested by multiple studies.

In his work on cross-boundary learning and career building, Nobutake Ishiyama (2018) found that employees who engaged in pro bono work outside the company enhanced their diversity-management competencies, including the ability to reconcile different viewpoints and build mutual trust among diverse group members. A survey of participants in a major manufacturer’s employee volunteer program established that, in the wake of their experience, volunteers felt more positive about their jobs and more attached to their employer (Fujisawa 2015). In the results of a questionnaire survey of corporate managers by Recruit Management Solutions, those who reported a high level of involvement in activities outside of work were more likely than those who did not to assert a “positive spillover effect” on their job performance, by a margin of 60.3% to 39.4% (Fujimura 2018).

Figure 4. Managers’ Perception of Positive Spillover from Outside Activity

Note: Spillover was scored by averaging responses to three questions. Individual scores were then grouped according to whether they fell above or below the median.
Source: Fujimura 2018.

Reason 4: Promoting Mutual Aid

The fourth reason for spotlighting volunteer work is the need to expand the role of mutual aid in Japanese society as the population ages and dwindles, in order to relieve the burden on both the individual and public services. Volunteerism is the very essence of mutual aid.

As Japan’s demographic structure shifts, it is becoming increasingly difficult to meet the needs of the elderly and others requiring assistance through public spending alone. At the same time, it is unrealistic to expect individuals to maintain independence throughout their lives without greater support from the community. This means we need to promote the healthy growth and development of various mutual aid systems.

One particularly good way to do this is to create an environment in which corporate employees who are interested in volunteering can easily do so, particularly if they have not volunteered before. The focus, however, must be on opening up more options to the individual, rather than fewer. Unless such programs respect the individual’s freedom to choose, they are likely to be viewed as a strategy for reducing the costs of social responsibility by shifting the burden from the company to volunteers. Government policies that seemed driven by such aims have come under harsh criticism in the past.

However, as long as corporations respect each employee’s freedom to choose, employee volunteer programs offer benefits for the individual, the company, and society as a whole.

Workplace Culture as an Obstacle

Unfortunately, while corporate volunteer programs have proliferated, participation has stalled. A 2014 survey by Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) found that more than 80% of responding businesses already had some system in place to support volunteerism, with more than half offering “volunteer leave” (Keidanren 2015). Yet even now, it is rare for employees to take advantage of such programs. Wherever I go, people tell me that they cannot possibly take days off from work and that their superiors and coworkers are not likely to approve.

Noboru Hayase, chief executive officer of the Osaka Voluntary Action Center, says that effective corporate support for volunteer activities is a three-step process that involves (1) creating a positive climate surrounding volunteer activity, (2) removing psychological and other barriers to volunteering, and (3) establishing employee volunteer programs. Japanese companies, he says, are apt to start at step 3, neglecting the preparation needed to foster positive attitudes toward volunteerism in the workplace.

The tendency for corporate culture to lag behind policy is a persistent pattern in Japanese business, seen also in industry’s slow progress on work-style reform and diversity management. The creation of a volunteer-friendly culture is key to increasing participation in employee volunteer programs.

Figure 5. Japanese Corporations’ Adoption of Employee Volunteer Programs, 2014 (questionnaire, multiple response)

*Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers.
Source: Keidanren 2015.

Best Practices at Toyota and Nippon LIfe

Not surprisingly, the corporations with the highest rates of employee volunteerism are those that have worked actively to foster a volunteer-friendly workplace culture.

In 2017, which marked the eightieth anniversary of Toyota Motor Corp., some 45,000 employees—roughly 60% of the company’s total domestic workforce—volunteered, up from 30% three years earlier. Toyota achieved this twofold increase through a combination of support measures, including a simplified signup system that makes it easier for busy employees to volunteer and a “matching donation” system whereby volunteers earn points that translate into charitable donations from the company. It also emailed individual employees to publicize these initiatives.

Nippon Life Insurance has been able to enlist about 70,000 of its employees in volunteer activities for three years running. Nippon Life views promotion of volunteer activities as an integral part of its human resources development policy, and its volunteer programs are featured prominently on the company website. Executives participate actively in such programs, and local initiatives are profiled in companywide newsletters distributed via email.

At both companies, efforts to promote volunteerism are an integral component of business management, not the exclusive preserve of a dedicated CSR unit. By not only establishing support programs but also sending a positive message about volunteerism, management has created an environment in which employees can take advantage of company programs without fear of disapproval from their colleagues. (For more on volunteer programs at Toyota and Nippon Life, see Recruit Works Institute 2019).

Countering Stereotypes

By contrast, the workplace culture at some companies is so hostile to volunteerism that employees are reluctant to take advantage of company programs, and those who do are sometimes at pains to keep it a secret, according to the results of a recent questionnaire survey by the Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training (JILPT 2019). All this suggests that, at many companies (even those with employee volunteer programs), attitudes toward volunteerism are sharply divided between the believers and the skeptics.

Chieko Kobayashi was among the first to identify these cultural obstacles to participation in employee volunteer programs, noting that “even when adequate systems are in place and are well publicized, employees may refrain from participating out of fear of being labeled as dispensable or because of a lack of consensus on the value” of such programs (Kobayashi 2016). She pointed out the need to counter “the stereotype of volunteerism as an act of pious self-denial” and lower the cultural and informational barriers to employee participation. While Toyota and Nippon Life have achieved this through a systematic, company-wide, top-down management policy, few Japanese companies have made such a commitment. As a result, the only proponents of volunteering are members of the CSR office and a sprinkling of other devoted employees.

Contrasting Images

In Japanese society at large, volunteers have received plenty of positive publicity in recent years. The critical role of volunteer groups in helping communities and individuals recover from major natural disasters is widely recognized. The media has highlighted the volunteer activities of certain celebrities and feted the heroic actions of ordinary citizens, such as the “super volunteer” who found a missing two-year-old boy. It is no wonder, then, that a substantial number of people find such activity deeply meaningful and rewarding. In the Japanese business world, however, those people still represent a small minority, and the fraction has barely increased despite the spread of employee volunteer programs.

Some sense of the perception gap between the core group of volunteers and the non-volunteering majority can be gained from remarks made by non-volunteers in the course of the interviews I have conducted at various companies. I offer here a representative sampling:

• “Volunteering is what high-minded people do.”
• “I think volunteering is admirable, but it’s not for me.”
• “I barely have time for my kids, let alone volunteer activities.”
• “Some executives think that anyone who volunteers must have too much time on their hands.”
• “The employees who volunteer do it because they hate being at the office.”
• “The participants are second-rate employees with nothing better to do.”

While the first three comments reflect the notion of volunteerism as something involving a high degree of selfless sacrifice, the last three are indicative of the low opinion of employee volunteers that exists in some corporate settings. Dedicated corporate volunteers might find it hard to believe, but I have encountered such views over and over again outside the bubble of CSR management. The existence of those prejudices, particularly among managers, makes it all the more difficult for anyone but the truly dedicated to participate and contributes to the polarization of attitudes that divides the typically small group of employee volunteers from the nonvolunteering majority. The key to expanding participation is to close this gap by dispelling the negative stereotypes harbored by skeptics.

Perhaps the first step in the process is to ascertain whether there is any truth to those stereotypes.

Volunteers Make Good Employees

I recently participated in an analysis of data from a survey of volunteers for the Tokyo Olympic Games, motivated in part by the desire to address this question of whether employee volunteer programs attract incompetent or unmotivated personnel with time on their hands or an aversion to the office.

Our analysis of the data strongly suggested that this is a groundless prejudice. We found that employees who engaged in volunteer activities worked as many hours, on average, as their nonvolunteering counterparts. We also found a high level of company loyalty among volunteers. A large percentage believe they are contributing to something important and that their activities have a positive spillover effect on their jobs. At some companies, moreover, employee volunteers receive above-average ratings in job performance and engagement (Fujisawa and Nakamura 2019).

Our conclusion is that employee volunteers are actually high-potential personnel, though they are often underrated by colleagues and supervisors. This should not be surprising in view of previous studies that have shown how volunteer experience can contribute to the development of job skills and competencies.

Addressing Unconscious Bias

What accounts for this tendency to underrate the job performance and potential of employee volunteers? I believe the phenomenon can be explained in terms of “unconscious bias.”

Unconscious biases are the deep-seated, unstated assumptions that can color our attitudes toward members of various social groups (including women, seniors, and racial and ethnic minorities), even though we are unaware of them. In recent years, diversity studies have highlighted the negative impact of unconscious bias on individual choices and personnel decisions, even when there is no conscious malice or intent to discriminate.

I suspect that something similar is happening with regard to employee volunteers. People who have never participated in volunteer activities and regard it as meaningless are unconsciously biased against participants and unable to see their high motivation and potential.

A Win All Around

The environment in which Japanese businesses operate is constantly changing. Amid advancing digitalization and globalization, corporations must continually adapt, launching new businesses geared to society’s shifting demands. What they require from their personnel, accordingly, is not adherence to tried-and-true formulas but the ability to pick up on signs of impending change, form new partnerships, and foster innovation.

Employees who take part in volunteer activities exhibit the initiative, problem-solving capacity, and flexibility needed to power such change. Some companies are already discovering that their employee volunteer programs offer valuable information on the untapped human resources they have at their disposal who can be assigned to take on greater responsibilities.

Volunteer work is often regarded as altruism, but in fact it offers benefits all around: for the individual volunteers, for their companies, and for the community and society as a whole. In order to increase participation going forward, it is vital that we confront and dispel unconscious biases and build a comprehensively volunteer-friendly corporate culture.


Cabinet Office. 1986. Public Opinion Survey on Social Awareness, 1986.

Cabinet Office. 2016. Public Opinion Survey on Social Awareness, 2016.

Cabinet Office. 2016a. Shimin no shakai koken ni kansuru jittai chosa (Survey on Citizens’ Social Contributions), 2016.

Fujimura, Naoko. 2018. “Kanrishoku no shagai katsudo wa shokuba ni oyobosu eikyo to wa” (The Impact of Managers’ Outside Activities on the Workplace). RMS Message, no. 51 (August 2018).

Fujisawa, Rie. 2015. “‘Panasonikku NPO sapoto pro bono puroguramu’ sankasha e no chosa kara no hokoku” (Report on the Survey of Participants in the Panasonic Pro Bono NPO Support Program).

Fujisawa, Rie, and Akie Nakamura. 2019. “Tokyo 2020 Olinpikku/Pararinpikku ni okeru shain borantia taikai-zen chosa” (Pre-Games Survey of Employee Volunteers for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics/Paralympics). Nippon Foundation Volunteer Support Center, December 11, 2019.

Ishiyama, Nobutaka. 2018. Chokyoteki gakushu no mekanizumu: Jissen kyodotai o okan shi kyaria kochiku suru narejji broka no jitsuzo (Mechanisms of Cross-Border Learning: Knowledge Brokers Who Build Careers by Circulating Between Communities of Practice). Fukumura Shuppan.

JILPT (Japan Institute of Labour Policy and Training). 2019. “Shogai gen’eki o misueta parareru kyaria to shakai koken katsudo: Kigyojin no zadankai” (Volunteer Work and Parallel Careers for Lifetime Employment). Reference Material Series, no. 215.

Keidanren. 2015. Summary of the Survey on Corporate Philanthropic Activities in Fiscal 2014. October 20, 2015.

Kobayashi, Chieko. 2016. “Shain ni yoru kigyo borantia sanka ni kansuru genjo to kadai” (Employee Participation in Corporate Volunteer Programs: Current Status and Challenges). Zenrosai Kyokai.

Recruit Works Institute. 2018. “Comyuniti no tayosei ga umu kyaria tenbo” (Diverse Communities Yield Career Prospects.” In Do kawaru? 21 seiki no raifu kyaria dezain. (Lifelong Career Development in the Age of Centenarians).

Recruit Works Institute. 2019. “Kojin no kyaria o yutaka ni suru kigyo no shakai koken katsudo” (How Corporate Philanthropy Can Enrich Individual Careers). Works Report, 2019.

Statistics Bureau of Japan. 1986. Survey on Time Use and Leisure Activities, 1986.

Statistics Bureau of Japan. 2016. Survey on Time Use and Leisure Activities, 2016.

Akie Nakamura

  • Senior Researcher, Recruit Works Institute