Employee Autonomy in Corporate Citizenship at Sun Life

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With the ever-evolving landscape of employee philanthropy and volunteering, corporations are asking how they can successfully grow their programs in a post COVID environment.  On our November 2021 ChangeMakers@Work Webinar, we heard how Sun Life embarked on their journey by exploring employee autonomy, corporate citizenship, and the power of giving employees choice.

They wanted to know: Why weren’t employees using all the buckets of funding offered? Was the internal online system set up in the best way possible? How did they optimize their programming? And more importantly, was this really what employees wanted?

During this webinar, Wendy Cooper, Senior Specialist at Sun Life, illustrated how and why her team decided to challenge the current program by allowing for greater employee flexibility and choice.

Conducting Research to create “One Sun Life”

In 2019, a comprehensive survey was sent to all employees in North America. The goal was to gain greater understanding around:  

  1. Awareness of each program
  2. Potential barriers to participation
  3. Decision making (where and why do employees give?)
  4. Desired programming (What do employees want? What will increase engagement?)

These survey insights demonstrated the need to change the way Sun Life was approaching giving and helped shape the programming for 2021: 

  • Excellent response rates illustrated that more than 70% of employees view giving time and money equally
  • A high percentage of employees indicated a desire for increased flexibility in company matching donations to a wide variety of causes and more opportunities to give time through volunteering
  • Almost all participants who were surveyed wanted more of an “always on” approach throughout the year, rather than solely during the month of October
  • The desire for year-round engagement opportunities and consistent communication to employees provided an excellent opportunity for growth of the program 

Testing New Giving Approaches

New approaches were tested during October 2020 while simultaneously pivoting to the new reality brought on by COVID-19 and the urgent needs in communities across Canada.  The campaign was rebranded to be consistent with Sun Life in the US.

Communications increased and employees were encouraged to give to any registered charity rather than a select few. Employees were gifted $5 to donate to a charity of choice encouraging them to log in and learn the online giving tool.  An acts of kindness campaign was developed and allowed employees, who may not have the means to donate or volunteer, to give back to their community through helping others either formally or informally (i.e., raking the leaves for an elderly neighbour). Participants received a $20 donation to their charity of choice for each volunteering hour.

The Results

This campaign was a huge success, with significant engagement on Sun Life’s internal communications platform.  These posts generated 544 comments and had over 12,000 views with a higher-than-average readership.   The team raised more money and had 3,100 new people join the online system and use their $5 Sun Life charity reward for the first time.By giving employees choice, the total number of charities being supported increased greatly.

The 2021 proposed program plan was updated to reflect the wins and sent to leadership for approval, including a presentation which included rationale for changing the program, metrics, and budget considerations.

The New Sun Life Employee Giving Program

After the new program strategy was approved, everything was revamped, including communications, branding and the online platform.  The new employee giving program was launched in early 2021.

The new program now matched up to $1,250 annually (per employee) in the following ways:

  • Matching financial donations dollar for dollar to any registered charity.
  • Donating $20 per hour of volunteer time
  • Activity donation, $20 donation for participating in a charitable fundraising event such as a walk or run.

Now, rather than having four buckets of funding, employees have the option to decide where their $1,250 and matching dollars go. 

Communication and posting on Sun Life’s internal communication platform about the different programs happens consistently throughout the year. Sun Life even introduced a mobile app to make giving and tracking volunteer hours even easier for employees.

After introducing the new employee giving program, the annual participation rate and the number of employees who used their match cap of $1,250 both increased.

Best Practices and Lessons Learned

  1. Start projects early.
    • Two years may not have been enough. The changes required a lot of buy-in from different groups with different points of view. Think about the workflow, create work back schedules and set up a list of stakeholders with approval requirements.
  2. Question the status quo.
    • Conduct a survey of the employees to find out what they want. If you can’t do a full survey, try to add a question or two to an existing employee survey.  Focus groups can provide face to face feedback to see expressions and other non-verbal cues.
  3. Try new things, test, and learn.
    • Keep reading articles.  Follow Volunteer Canada on social media, talk to colleagues in the industry.  Attend conferences and webinars. Consider joining groups on Facebook such as “Random Act of Kindness” group.
  4. Communication should be the key to everything you’re doing. If people don’t know about your program, they won’t participate.
    • Keep it very simple.  Giving employees the choice to lead their own passion projects will not only lead to more engaged and satisfied employees, it will also help local communities.
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