Trust Falls Are So Over: A Do-Good Trend Aims to End Cheesy Team-Building Seminars

Some companies are capitalizing on the team-building effects of letting workers volunteer together.

(Photo: Sean Justice/Getty Images)

Feb 4, 2015· 4 MIN READ
A Wolfe has covered arts, entertainment, and politics for Good, Vice, Flaunt, and other publications.

At Food Forward, a Los Angeles nonprofit that recovers fallen fruit to donate to food banks, executive director Rick Nahmias noticed a peculiar but welcome trend in the past year: More and more companies are seeking the charity out for team-building events, in lieu of the silly ropes courses and “fall and catch” trust exercises of the past.

“We are fortunate, because all of the work Food Forward does with volunteers is very tangible and tactile, and folks feel ‘used’ in a good way,” Nahmias said. “In the process they help feed hundreds, sometimes thousands of people in need in their own community after just a couple of hours of teamwork.”

In the years since the Great Recession of 2007, companies have eliminated extraneous budgets, which only increased the need to create employee morale days and good public relations. That’s part of why these do-good field trips have begun taking the place of icebreakers and games in conference rooms, said Chris Jarvis, the cofounder of Realized Worth, the experts Microsoft and Walmart turn to for researching and developing their own employee-volunteer programs.

Team-building and volunteerism go hand in hand, Jarvis said, adding that nonprofits everywhere are getting more interest from corporate volunteer organizers. In a survey of 261 Fortune 500 companies, 204 already had an employee-volunteer program, and 59 percent of those offered volunteering opportunities during work hours, which is when those team-building activities often take place.

“In some cases, like Toyota, they had to shut down a plant for a month, but they kept paying everybody and just made them do time at nonprofits in the city,” Jarvis said. “So they say, ‘We’re seeing some positive feedback about that, and we want to do more.’ ”

From there, companies saw they could consolidate and cut out the team-building budget, which can get pricey and off-topic very quickly. Consider the silly dance videos from an IRS team-building seminar that went viral last year—it was later revealed that the agency held 220 conferences for IRS workers between 2010 and 2012. All told, those conferences cost taxpayers $50 million. If dancing is off-topic, also consider that Swedish telecommunications company Ericsson once staged a hijacking of a bus of 25 salespeople—terrorizing staffers in the name of team-building.

And then there are the too-many-to-list incidents of “firewalking” injuries.

So the movement to corporate volunteerism seems like win-win for everyone, right? Employees sport a T-shirt bearing the company logo beside the nonprofit’s, giving their company free advertising. It’s a mishmash of corporate citizenship, volunteering, and interoffice solutions—a blurred line that’s become common.

The problem, Jarvis thinks, is that some companies are still stuck in those old team-building days—planning events that try to do too much in too little time. The impact on volunteering and team-building can be doubly negative when these employee activities are planned as annual happenings rather than recurrent events. Statistics find that 75 percent of Americans don’t do any volunteer work at all, so breaking that inertia takes more than one afternoon. To boot, real workplace issues still aren’t being addressed, because they’re glossed over, only with a tree-planting party instead of a ropes course. These issues could easily be addressed with the right volunteer opportunity and understanding from the corporation, plus a sustained involvement.

Take for instance, NerdWallet, a tech company in San Francisco focused on easy-to-use consumer finance products. It’s just launched an employee-led initiative called “Nerds Pay It Forward.” It will partner with other local organizations, but instead of relying on a nonprofit to make the opportunities, the company will be generating them internally, offering financial literacy and tech courses for community members, such as the mother-child “hackathon” it just ran. But even before “Nerds Pay It Forward,” each department was allowed a certain number of paid offsite days they could put toward volunteering—together—for a charity or nonprofit.

“We’re not just putting in hours and serving a few meals. We’re actually learning about the community we’re in and how to serve them. The kind of people we hire just want to give back,” said Jessica Lindquist, a NerdWallet operations employee who helped spearhead the initiative.

While NerdWallet is creating its own volunteer team building, most companies will still rely on other nonprofits, so there’s the matter of nonprofits needing to devote the time and resources, which are usually tight, to develop those useful corporate-tailored programs. Food Forward earned $25,000 from private pick programs that it was able to funnel into more public picks. That’s not a huge amount, but it means a lot to the recipients of Food Forward’s rescued produce, so the incentive for nonprofits—most of which do charge a reasonable fee to host corporations—is high.

Nikki Davis, senior director of community and volunteer engagement for Red Cross Los Angeles, is now taking the same sustained-engagement approach as Food Forward. She just helped to relaunch the Ready When the Time Comes West Coast program in November and has two organizations on board, with a hope of attracting big corporations. And it’s free for companies right now, which the Red Cross hopes might spur more people aboard.

Davis, who came from a corporate background, vividly remembers those mind-numbing team-building volunteer days. “We would always have to do these silly little activities, signing up for your one day of giving back, doing something like planting a little tree,” she said. “When I started with Red Cross, we had corporations who wanted to volunteer, and I had flashbacks of my one day of gardening. I didn’t want that.”

The goal of the Red Cross program is to make good use of volunteers by deploying them in a company car to hand out toiletries and supplies to victims of home fires. At the same time, the Red Cross will offer one-day training workshops a few times a year that essentially act as team building, with employee volunteers learning how to respond to disasters and work together when they need to most, such as a trial under fake fire. Only when a disaster really does happen, these volunteers will be there with the Red Cross, helping out.

Jarvis, who is extremely realistic about corporate volunteerism and team building, knows the real efficacy numbers are low, but he has high hopes for the system, especially after a recent experience with Apple, which up until now made nonprofits sign a contract stating they wouldn’t even say Apple had been there volunteering. Why the change?

“They’re doing it not because of engagement,” Jarvis said, “but because they want to remain a competitive workplace, and employees expect to do something in their community.”

That’s an HR manager’s dream: a team-building retreat employees are actually demanding.