Most Fortune 500 and Fortune 100 companies around the world offer some form of volunteering program to employees. These programs are offered by corporations for a variety of reasons, but they’re generally in place to encourage employees to give back to causes and organizations they care about, and to make a positive social impact in the world. These are both noble, thoughtful goals. But I think we, as human beings and collectively as members of society, need to continually be asking: What else can we do to improve human connection? How can we improve our sense of belonging? Be more inclusive? Better care for ourselves and others? And I think this is where empathy comes in.
There is a debate raging in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) industry around whether empathy is a skill or a moral inclination. I think it’s both, but I think our moral inclination can either be built upon by practicing empathetic behavior, or reduced by learning or being taught not to. And volunteering is an activity that makes teaching, learning and practicing empathy possible. So, let’s talk about that a bit more within the context of SAP.
Volunteering at SAP: The people who make it happen
I’ve been a Nonprofit-in-Residence with the Global CSR team for several months, and I work specifically on the Volunteer Ambassador program. I speak with Volunteer Ambassadors, Regional Ambassadors, and Regional CSR Leads around the world every day. I’m immersed in work that puts me in touch with people who are dedicated to social impact. It’s a privilege. Volunteer Ambassadors and Regional Ambassadors are the SAP employees who lead volunteering in their locations – these are your colleagues. They’re the colleague who pops their head into your office or cubicle to ask you, probably for the third time that month, if you want to help collect toiletries for the homeless. They’re the colleague who convinces your entire team of developers that you should work with schools in the area to teach kids how to code. They’re the colleague who somehow convinces you that picking up garbage in a park on the weekend is a good idea. They’re the colleague who talks about volunteering like it’s their job, even when it’s not.
These are the people who have come together as part of a global network of SAP volunteers, and they are the people on the ground who find volunteers, find volunteering opportunities, and bring people in their office together in service to our communities. I’ve seen that because these employee volunteer leaders are empathetic people themselves, they are natural teachers. Their empathy comes through in who they are and in how they act. Volunteer Ambassadors and Regional Ambassadors model empathetic behaviors, which help volunteers who attend their events learn how to listen, speak to and most importantly understand and put themselves in the shoes of someone who may live a completely different life. Volunteer and Regional Ambassadors help volunteers learn empathy as a skill.
“I am most involved in helping homeless people. In the past when I saw the poor begging, I thought that money can help them most. Based on my experience at the Community of Sant’Egidio, it is our mutual friendship that can change their lives.”
– Jan Janda, Volunteer Ambassador, Prague, Czech Republic
What does expanding empathy through volunteering look like?
As employees continue to volunteer, their empathy and understanding continue to grow, and along with it their compassion for others. Volunteering deepens their understanding of themselves as a person who not just helps their community, but belongs in it. Volunteering increases their drive to create lasting social impact. Volunteers bring this learned empathy, compassion and inclusivity to everything they do, and to everyone in their lives – friends, family, community members and colleagues. I’ve seen it happen over and over, and it is truly inspiring
“When you volunteer you encourage and motivate others to give back. Not only the folks that volunteer with you but also those who get the help - this is a multiplier effect.”
– Luis Colmenares, Volunteer Ambassador, Newtown Square, US
Our hope is that we can involve as many employees as possible in this program so they, too, can learn more about the importance of volunteering for our communities and for those who take part in volunteering. Because only by challenging the status quo of our own lives and comfort zones can we expand our horizons; if we want to build a more compassionate society, it means confronting our own preconceived biases and assumptions about society and social issues. And empathy – understanding – is the first step.
“A lot of the time, the news and the information we see every day shows us how troubled our world can be. That pushes me back to feeling that I’m unable to change anything. But, when I volunteer or engage with volunteers, I feel powerful and confident that I’m actually helping people and being part of the change I want to see.”
– Matheus Souza, Volunteer Ambassador, Buenos Aires, Argentina