is at an all-time high. From Obama and Oprah to unemployment and
shrinking dollars for philanthropy, the United States is witnessing historic interest in volunteerism. This phenomena has been referred to as the ‘push and pull’ effect. The results are rather mixed, but generally speaking, I think this is a very good thing.
have been promoting volunteerism in one way or another for a number of
years. Recently however, we’ve begun to witness a shift evidenced by
the convergence of interest between employees, corporations,
communities, and governments. It used to be good to volunteer. Now, it
This past April 25, more than 50,000 Comcast volunteers turned out for 500 projects in neighborhoods across the United States. Comcast is the largest cable company in the US, employing some 100,000 people. The mammoth event, which began it’s annual commencement in 2001, is known as “Comcast Cares Day.”
While official statistics are virtually impossible to find, it’s safe
to say that this event is one of the largest, single-day, corporate
volunteering efforts in the country.
So…why do it? The
logistics involved in organizing an event like this are staggering and
the monetary costs are huge (think of the t-shirts alone). On top of
these costs, Comcast donated an additional 1.5 million towards the 500
projects and organizations they worked on April 25 weekend.
If you ask Brian Roberts, the CEO of Comcast, he’ll tell you he believes this event is, “great for the company.” In an interview given to Fox News
on April 23rd, Roberts stated, “It’s great for the communities where
we’re their company and broadband provider. But, most of all, in these
tough times, it just makes you feel connected to institutions, whether
they are schools or rec centers or police athletic leagues, where
people volunteer all the time. And, so, for Comcast, this is — it makes
it so special.”
But are special feelings enough?
the question to Charisse Lillie, Vice President of Community Investment
and Executive Vice President of the Comcast Foundation.
Except…instead of asking about “special feelings” (that seemed weird)
I decided to go straight to the roots and ask, “What are the measurable
outcomes?” A lot of good work is being done – and for a relatively high
cost. I figured it’s fair to assume that the results of such an effort
are being measured.
But, no. While Lillie seems to
wholeheartedly agree that metrics are vital for long-term success, she
admits that Comcast is not at a stage where they are collecting that
information. One reason for this is a simple lack of good tools. The
technology used to organize “Comcast Cares Day” could not have allowed
them to effectively collect the data – even if they wanted to.
Essentially, Comcast boasts the biggest corporate volunteering effort
out there….and yet, there are no measurable outcomes and no means to
collect data. Now that doesn’t mean they haven’t thought through
priorities and effective strategy. For example, Comcast has identified
youth leadership development, volunteerism and literacy as priorities
for their community investment. But good priorities do not ensure
Is this a bad thing?
As my readers
know, I am a strong proponent of good data collection. What’s more, I
firmly believe that unless employer-sponsored volunteerism is tied to
the functional strategies of business (such as HR or Marketing), it can
easily be relegated to peripheral niceties. In order for corporate
volunteering programs (and Corporate Social Responsibility as a whole)
to fully realize the associated costs, they must begin to function as a
business strategy – not as philanthropy.
Yet, most companies I interact with find this kind of integration extremely difficult. Elaine Cohen, a CSR reporting consultant with Beyond Business,
argues this difficulty is not due to lack of data, but the fact that
the essential information is often mixed in with data being collected
for other reasons. The field is so new that standard methods of
collection, aggregation, and reporting are not yet established. In
fact, Cohen believes that the very practice of reporting will force
better methods while underscoring the importance of developing these
Fortunately, these new methods are already becoming available. A company I work with, True Impact, offers an online tool which effectively tackles the problem of ROI metric collection. True Impact’s CEO, Farron Levy,
believes his online tool will not only help companies with the problem
of metrics, but will also aid in the movement from a “charity” mindset
to one that acknowledges the business benefits of CSR.
the widespread lack of reporting methodology, technology, and standards
companies like Comcast have decided to follow their instincts and “do
good.” And this is not a bad thing. This is, in fact, an
extraordinarily good thing.
Why? Well, while Lillie may not be
to summarize the success of the day with a report-worthy mathematical
ratio, she knows that all across the United States, Comcast Cares Day
changed lives for the better. She knows this because she picked up
trash along the Chickamauga Creek in Tennessee at the Creek River
Rescue project and as she did, she could just envision the little 5th
grader who would walk along this river after having spent his entire
childhood in the confines of the inner city. For a kid familiar only
with asphalt and storm drains, an experience on the banks of a river is
formative, and Lillie knew the “river rescue” could be add beauty to
that child’s life.
hopes of a better future are often difficult for upper-middle class
people to grasp, especially those whose lives are a plethora of river
banks and cities alike. I agree with Lillie’s perspective, but only
because I, too remember the experience that helped me understand. I was
in a car with an 11-year old, driving to a picnic event in the country.
Unbelievably, this child had not traveled 10 blocks away from his
apartment complex, must less out of the city. As we drove, I had a
increasingly difficult time watching the road as this kid’s world grew
and his life changed. You should have seen his face when he saw his
very first cow! He kept repeating, “Look at the moo’s!” Now, you can
blame all this on the education system if you like, but the fact was,
this boy had never seen animals other than cats, dogs and rats before
that day. I guarantee you he never forgot it! And while “Blue Planet”
is an amazing production, you can’t quite beat connecting with nature
directly. Information is helpful, but experience changes us.
each have a responsibility to share these experiences with others in
our context. In the workplace, and particularly within an employee
volunteer program, “story” is one of the most effective methods for
changing the culture of business. Comcast Cares Day put a strong
emphasis on story and has already seen significant benefits resulting
from this effort. Unfortunately, many companies fail to capture an
event’s momentum, enthusiasm, sense of purpose, and energy. When the
event is over, the experience is over. Instead, companies need to
collect and share stories. Only when employees have a chance to talk
about their experiences and reflect on what happened, will the enormous
benefit of the event be realized. The optimal way to achieve this is to
create intentional space once the event is over that is used solely for
the purpose of story-telling and reflection. (And I say provide good
eats! Food makes every story better!)
“intentional space” however, should not (never, ever) look like a
stuffy awards ceremony, or a memo that says, “staff reflection in 15
minutes.” We’re in a new era that has provided fun and innovative
methods for communication. Comcast, for example, used two familiar
forms for connecting: Twitter and Facebook. They set up a twitter
account @comcastcares, and then encouraged the employees to send tweets throughout the event. A Facebook page allowed employees in St Paul to post comments and pictures all day long. At caresday.net, Comcast combined video with a twitter stream.
Friends and family were also able to access these feeds and sites.
Think about it! 50,000 people, each with unique online networks. That’s
an audience of at least a few million. Add to that the rest of us, plus
secondary networks, and you can see why Comcast Cares Day found it’s way to the top 10 issues discussed on Saturday. That’s pretty amazing considering the attention being given to the Swine Flu and other pressing economic and political issues.
Why not check in directly with some people who were tweeting the event?
Ask @shaunacausey about Social Media training for 15 nonprofits in Seattle
@foleymo would probably tell you about showing The Seattle Arts council in benefits of Social Media
asked Charisse Lillie if Comcast had any concerns about putting
themselves out there like that. Wasn’t Comcast afraid of a Domino’s
debacle? What about screwing up and looking like Amazon, “the internet
company that doesn’t understand the internet”? Lillie’s answer was
insightful. She said, “you know, we trust our people. If we can’t trust
them for something like this, then we’ve been hiring the wrong people.”
Could something bad have happened? Yep. But it’s not about that. It’s
about what kind of company you are. And frankly, I trust companies who
trust their staff.
I can’t help but feel pretty impressed by Comcast Cares Day – despite
the lack of metrics. Comcast captured stories in a way that allows that
stories themselves to become part of the Comcast culture. This
consequently influences the culture and allows for new perspectives and
understandings to be institutionalized into the company. In addition,
Comcast managed to free up the social networking power of their
employees and tap into the latent social capital that companies their
size would do well to utilize, particularly while we have less economic
Wait a minute…..did we just find the metrics we weren’t looking for?
on a great day Comcast. We’ll see you in the neighborhood next year.
Bring an extra T-shirt, maybe some of us will even help out.