Five questions about the new Starbucks ‘volunteering’ initiative

Just a few weeks ago my attention was drawn to a headline in The Guardian newspaper, ”Paying employees to volunteer could be key to keeping millennial staff”.

The article reported on Starbucks who, in the USA, have partnered with the Points of Light Foundation to create an initiative designed to attract millennials to work at the coffee chain. As The Guardian reports:

“18-34 years old are quickly becoming the largest group of employees in the workplace. Business owners, both big and small, are trying to come up with innovative benefits to attract the best and the brightest people of this generation to their company as well as keeping existing employees happy and motivated.”

In response to such challenges, Starbucks is running a six-month pilot program where thirty-six employees in thirteen US cities will continue to get full pay while working at selected non-profit organisations for half the work week. These so called ‘service fellows’ will put in twenty hours at their Starbucks store and then another twenty hours at a local Points of Light affiliate. This non-profit will be doing work that aligns with Starbucks’ social impact priorities. According to The Guardian, the stated goal of the pilot is to accumulate a total of 17,000 hours work before the end of February 2019.

Having pondered this scheme for a few weeks, here are five questions I have about it.

1 – Is this really volunteering?

There are some people who do not consider any time given by any employee during the normal working day to be volunteering. The argument is that they are being paid by their employer and, as financial benefit is excluded from the definition of volunteering, such activity can’t be volunteering.

It’s not a viewpoint I agree with. If you are an employee, then your employer pays you for the time you take as holiday (it is sometimes explicitly called paid leave) but you wouldn’t consider yourself to be at work on the beach with a drink in your hand. Why should volunteering been seen differently?

But I digress slight. Getting back to the Starbucks pilot, it is interesting to note that the money being used to pay for the time spent working at non-profits will come from the Starbucks Foundation rather than direct from the company. Does this make a difference?

Similarly, when it comes to defining what they do as volunteering, if the millennial Starbucks employees participate of their own free will (and perhaps even choose the non-profit they will work with), does this exercise of free will help classify what they do as volunteering?

Will participating non-profits make a meaningful distinction between this scheme and, for example, a business releasing employees for a couple of hours a week to perhaps help kids who are struggling to read? Or will they just gratefully grab 20 hours a week of someone’s time that they don’t have to pay a salary for?

Definitions of volunteering are notoriously unhelpful and vague. So is this volunteering or not, and does it matter?

2 – Who is creating and funding the 20 hour a week roles for these millennial Starbucks staff?

My second question is for those Points of Light affiliated non-profits who take part in this scheme. You are getting 20 hours a week of time from a (hopefully) enthusiastic young person. You’re not having to pay for that time. But how are you funding the creation of the roles these people will do?

Who is paying for the time your staff will have to spend identifying the work, creating the role, providing equipment like a desk, computer etc. and of course providing day-to-day management of the ‘service fellow’?

Where is that time and money coming from?

What mission-focused work might not get done because your colleagues are focused instead on giving Starbucks some good PR?

3 – What are the implications for volunteer management in the host organisations?

As I just mentioned, the Starbucks ‘service fellows’ are going to need management support. I can’t see many HR departments falling over themselves to step up to that job. Nor can I imagine most current managers are going to thrill to the idea of having another person to line-manage, especially a millennial part-timer. Inevitably, whether we think this scheme is volunteering or not, it’s the Volunteer Managers who are going to be asked to step in.

If Volunteer Managers get involved in this work, do they have the time and resources to take on this extra responsibility? Remember, most people who lead volunteering are not employed full-time in that role. Most are lucky if they get a few hours a week to focus on volunteering because their main job responsibilities come first. What will not get done if they now manage Starbucks ‘service fellows’? Will support for other volunteers suffer?

Finally, whether it is the Volunteer Manager or someone else who ends up managing the ‘service fellows’, will Points of Light be vetting the participating affiliates to make sure they have good volunteer management practices, especially for engaging millennials? After all, we don’t want to put people off volunteering by giving them a bad experience!

4 – What are the implications for volunteering and paid jobs in non-profits if initiatives like this supply volunteers who work 20 hours a week?

Let’s say this scheme is a success. Starbucks are happy, their employees are happy and the non-profits they work with are happy. The scheme is extended. Great! But would it be?

I can see many non-profits stampeding to avail themselves of 20 hours a week of ‘free labour’. They would prefer these ‘service fellows’ to those annoying regular volunteers who: sometimes don’t turn up; gripe if their expenses don’t get paid; moan when nobody thanks them for coming; and are a huge risk because they don’t get paid and so can’t be trusted or relied upon.

Would non-profits start to think differently about their paid workforce too? After all, if they can have people work there for twenty hours a week for six months (or maybe more in future) and someone else pays their salary, doesn’t that mean more money for the mission rather than those blasted admin costs and overheads that the media and public always complain about?

Whether employee or volunteer, if I was at the participating non-profits I’d be worried.

5 – It’s all about Starbucks, isn’t it?

Isn’t the emphasis and implied benefit here all about Starbucks and their ability to attract and retain millennials? As my other questions suggest, the impact on non-profits might actually be harmful – job losses, increased costs, volunteer turnover etc..

Remember, the goal by which the pilot’s success will be measured is whether seventeen thousand hours of time is spent by ‘service fellows’ in partner non-profits. Nothing is said about the impact those millennials will have on the missions of those organisations. Sigh.

So, what do you think?

Have you got an opinion on any of these questions?

Have you got additional questions you’d like to ask?

Engage in the debate by leaving a comment on this article or the your social media network you found this story on, using the hashtag #questionsforstarbucks


8 thoughts on “Five questions about the new Starbucks ‘volunteering’ initiative

  1. Reblogged this on volunteerplaintalk and commented:

    My brilliant colleague, Rob Jackson and I have been chatting about corporate volunteering and in particular, the Starbucks initiative. We both are getting the feeling that this is like the first pebble to skitter down the mountain, signaling an avalanche of change is coming.

    I’m re-blogging Rob’s original article here and this coming Friday, we will issue a joint blog outlining more questions and thoughts on corporate volunteering’s direction and what we need to do now to get ready. I hope you will join us in prepping for this trend.



  2. This, for me, is key:
    “Who is paying for the time your staff will have to spend identifying the work, creating the role, providing equipment like a desk, computer etc. and of course providing day-to-day management of the ‘service fellow’?”

    This sounds like another unfunded mandate for nonprofits, one that’s actually going to cost them money rather than save anything – but that won’t stop Microsoft and Points of Light for assigning a dollar value to each employee hour given at a nonprofit, calculating it all together and saying, “Look, we gave xx million in support to nonprofits!”

    And then there is the reality of just how hard it can be to create work for someone specifically, just because they are from a company that says, “Here’s this person! You’re welcome!” Twice I have had conversations with different nonprofits who have “won” an executive on loan, someone working 30 hours a week or more for a full year, and what they thought would be an amazing opportunity has turned into a disaster: the person doesn’t understand how nonprofits work, doesn’t understand that their activities have to be mission-based, doesn’t understand the needs of the clients, and has an attitude of not being under anyone’s supervision – they are their own “executive” within the organization.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great questions Rob! We always need to reflect on intentions of corporate engagement. However, I think/know the time is right for non profits to embrace this type of service. The face of volunteering is changing the Millinials are GAME CHANGERS – and the generations after them. Philanthropic contribution is changing too, it is not about $$ it is about engagement, impact and outcomes. For profit and the social/nonprofit markets are merging and holding space for that transformation is important for business and society. I love the questions you posed and am so grateful people are talking about these things! Super great stuff….can’t wait to read more.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks Rob, for spelling out the questions that need to be asked on this particular case. Same, same when volunteers are enticed by the promise of a tangible (eg, tickets for a concert or show) reward. I have been bothered by ’employee volunteering’ for some time: yes, corporates can offer significant contributions, but if the employee is ‘volunteering’ in paid work time, is it still volunteering? I am thinking we will have to stop being so precious about definitions of volunteering, become more inclusive and diverse, as we have done in other instances. The fishhook, the one big risk I never want to see happen, is for civil society organisations (all our non-profits) to become just like any another business. All of which demands clarification on our uniqueness, our points of difference. What say you?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed! Being less precious about our definitions does not mean we have to lose our uniqueness. As with much in life and volunteerism it will require us to find a balance.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Rob;
    That is interesting. What about liability. If the volunteer gets hurt at the non-profit on “volunteer/work time are they a volunteer or a Starbucks
    employee? I assume that these are full time Starbucks employees.


  6. Thanks for this thoughtful response, Rob. I too was struck by the lack of emphasis on the results of the experience for Service Fellows. Maybe they are going to measure impact at the nonprofit & individual employee level and just didn’t mention it, but I doubt employee retention by itself is a metric that’s useful for Starbucks, Points of Light, or the affiliate partners. I am hopeful that this move will prompt leaders of volunteers to begin to consider how they might meaningfully engage corporate volunteers through skilled or pro bono volunteering on an ongoing basis. Right now, the focus with corporate volunteers is on large, one-time group projects. How much more impact could we as a social sector leverage if we tapped into the unique skills, perspectives, and energies of our corporate partners to create ongoing volunteer opportunities?

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s