Affirming employees’ good deeds drives retention and program ROI


It pays off to build a positive social impact culture

Celebrate the good from within your workforce

Most high-growth companies sponsor community engagement programs to do good in their communities and engage employees. But not all programs work as planned. Why? Frequently it’s because the programs celebrate corporate good from the top down, focusing on their own corporate impact but failing to adequately recognize and affirm the good their own employees are doing both inside and outside of the workplace.

Most community engagement programs have the best intentions. But a bit more research and insight into the employee mindset could give these programs a massive edge. Companies that take the time to understand and celebrate their employees will reap the benefits of a more productive and happy workforce.

Get the most ROI from your philanthropic tools and software

Many companies are investing heavily in staff, software, and consultants to help build, feed, and water their employee community engagement programs. A growing number of companies are also beefing up their evaluation and impact outcomes efforts. Dozens of SaaS companies offer solutions intended to support employee engagement, whether through corporate wellness programs, matching gifts administration, corporate giving, volunteering, or all of the above. The sector is hot! Money is pouring into these tools and systems. So does the return on investment justify the expense?

We’ve heard stories from clients who bought software-based employee engagement and tracking systems and now are trying to justify the renewal fees. Are they utilizing the software to its fullest? Has the platform delivered a positive experience so far? Is it worth the onboarding time and effort? Is it working to increase retention and recruiting success? Are employees more engaged? The answers always lie with the company itself. Are companies fully understanding their own employees’ mindset and affirming the good that is already happening? That is the question that must be answered before ROI can be fairly evaluated. The really fascinating part is that just asking the question in the first place is valuable to increase usage, participation, and engagement. That’s because employees are more likely to embrace corporate-led systems and initiatives when they believe the company cares and validates what’s on their minds, especially as it relates to prosocial behaviors.

Unlock the secret sauce for your corporate employee engagement program

What this means is that companies that celebrate *all* the good happening with each individual employee--whether that’s taking care of their own wellness or sharing a meal with a sick neighbor or any of the other social impact behaviors that make up today’s cultural footprint--are more likely to keep that employee engaged and happy.

Response to expressions of affirmation is a fundamentally important human reaction. Affirmation in any form opens a powerful channel to connecting with someone on an emotional and intellectual level. Affirmation of prosocial behaviors is an even more powerful cocktail to building an emotional connection. That’s why it’s so important to unlock this secret sauce in corporate employee engagement programs.  

It's well-documented that today's social impact workforce wants to join companies that do good. Company leaders who take this concept to the next level by turning the "doing good mirror” back onto their employees will benefit from a competitive edge in employee retention, recruiting, and productivity.




Ann-Marie is an executive and national speaker on technology and today’s work-life-community-wellness mindset. In 1998 Ann-Marie founded Embolden, a leading digital communications and marketing firm specializing in high-growth sectors, such as financial services, philanthropy, and health care. Ann-Marie was named the 2009 Rhode Island Small Business Person of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration. In recognition of its progressive work culture, Embolden is a three-time winner of the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Award for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility. This distinction ranked Embolden in the top 20% of employers nationally in terms of flexible work programs, policies, and culture. In 2008, YWCA Northern Rhode Island honored Ann-Marie with a Women of Achievement Award, given to business leaders and advocates who work for the economic empowerment of women. That same year, Embolden received the State of Rhode Island Minority Business Enterprise of the Year Award. The Providence Business News named Ann-Marie a Woman to Watch in the technical services industry in 2010. In 2011, it named Embolden one of the state’s best places to work.



Today’s social impact culture is changing the definition of "health" in the minds of emerging consumers


Social impact factors are influencing consumer behavior across industries, including philanthropy, financial services, retail, and, perhaps most notably, health care. To explore this trend, in early 2010, our team began conducting intensive research to discover the real-world effects of social impact activities on the contemporary consumer lifestyle, shaped in large part by the millennial generation. For digital natives, a well-rounded, healthy life connected through technology is a priority.

So what’s the connection between social impact activities and good health? Here are our top three takeaways from the research: 

1. Prosocial spending improves quality of life

Research shows that doing good does feel good, scientifically speaking. According to studies at the University of California, people categorized as “grateful” reported feeling 25 percent more happiness and energy—and 20 percent less envy and resentment—than ungrateful people. The data tells us that “prosocial spending”—spending money to benefit others—shows positive signs of increasing happiness. Researchers at the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, and Harvard Business School recently found evidence that “how people spend their money” plays a role in happiness; specifically, those who “spend money on others report more happiness.” It’s true of adults around the world, and both physical and mental benefits are observed. The “warm glow of giving” can even be seen in toddlers.

2. Volunteering can lower your blood pressure

It’s not just giving money to charity that makes you feel good. In a study conducted at Carnegie Mellon, 200 hours of volunteering per year correlated to lower blood pressure. Other studies have found a health benefit from as little as 100 hours of volunteering a year.

3. A sense of community satisfies basic human needs

What kind of giving boosts happiness the most? That, according to the researcher, would be the categories of “doing good” that are most closely related to satisfying the basic human needs of “relatedness, competence, and autonomy.” The list includes donating to a charity of your choice, helping a neighbor, learning a few new recycling protocols, participating in a community event, purchasing a product that helps support a cause that has touched your family, and serving on a committee to share your talent. It’s all good, and good for you, too.


If you are as intrigued as we were, you can go deeper. Our research is summarized in a book, Do Good, Feel Better, published in January 2017. Our team did some heavy lifting! Our research for the book included a thorough review of existing literature connecting social impact activities to positive psychology and overall wellbeing. This secondary research included thoroughly reviewing hundreds of books, websites, journals, blogs, and articles to observe the types of health, wellness, and community messages that resonate best with the next generation. 

Our team’s multi-year inquiry also included primary consumer research through conducting hundreds of interviews and surveys, gathering data through online media platforms, and learning from experiments conducted in real-life situations with consumers. 

Over the course of the research, our team observed and documented the contemporary point of view that a healthy, philanthropic lifestyle embraces the full range of social impact behaviors:

  1. Caring about health and wellness
  2. Giving to charities
  3. Volunteering at a charity
  4. Serving on a charity’s board of directors
  5. Purchasing products that support a cause
  6. Recycling and respecting a sustainable environment
  7. Donating items of food and clothing
  8. Marketing a favorite charity
  9. Sharing with family and friends in need
  10. Celebrating at community events

The net-net? Here’s what really jumped out at us: 

The connection between good health and social impact activities signals an expanded definition of "health" in the minds of consumers, especially millennials. A real-world dialogue about social impact wellness itself creates fertile ground for healthcare and pharmaceutical companies to engage the hearts and minds of consumers, gather valuable data, and as a result, leverage consumer behavior to reduce costs and improve patient outcomes. 

1. Two-way connections reinforce the interplay between health and social impact behaviors

The synergy between social impact activities and wellness works both ways. Consider two consumer perspectives: 

  • “I can’t take care of other people if I’m not feeling good myself.”

A consumer’s ability to care for her own health is a key factor in her ability to participate in a wide range of social impact activities in the community, including giving to charities, volunteering, celebrating at community events, and serving on boards.

  • “Doing good for others makes me feel great.”

Emerging research continues to indicate that engaging in social impact activities correlates to better overall mental and physical health.  

2.  Social impact activities are a driver of consumer engagement in the healthcare market

Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, the connection between good health and social impact activities signals an expanded definition of "health" in the minds of consumers, especially millennials. A real-world dialogue about social impact wellness itself creates fertile ground for healthcare and pharmaceutical companies to engage the hearts and minds of consumers, gather valuable data, and as a result, leverage consumer behavior to reduce costs and improve patient outcomes. 

Our team was especially pleased to discover that the hypothesis is supported by the research process itself: Over the course of the study, an average of 92% of survey participants said that taking a survey about their social impact activities made them feel better about themselves and the good they were doing for others. This means social impact is a real-world "sticky factor" to improve the success of data collection efforts. 

What does it mean?

We believe the healthcare industry--including payers, providers, and pharmaceutical companies--must take steps to understand the mindset of the emerging consumer. This will not only give industry leaders a competitive advantage, but also help improve patient outcomes and reduce overall healthcare costs. And that’s good for everyone.

20 Years of Social Impact Wellness: What Pays Off and What Doesn’t


February 1, 2018 will mark the twentieth anniversary of my work to build a digital communications company offering media and tools to help companies and organizations keep up with rapid changes in technology and cultural shifts that influence the way people think.

So much has changed since 1998! At the same time, a few key threads have remained consistent across the journey. There’s no doubt that today’s social impact culture has transformed the way we all want to spend our time and energy. In today's workforce, employees want to be part of a company that cares about them as human beings.

We are all operating in a world where work, life, community, and wellness have converged. We need to embrace social impact wellness as a key to our personal and professional success. 

As business leaders, we are exposed to a lot of talk about wellness and community engagement programs. I recall in 2003 that a couple of small business owners told me I was wasting money and cutting into profits for providing health, wellness, and community perks. Today, though, it’s become an expectation of the workforce. 

So how can caring about your employees’ wellness and social impact pay off for you as a leader in your organization? As I learned through a lot of trial and error, some workplace perks work better than others.

Here are 20 years of insights, summed up in five photographs and five lessons learned. 

Exhibit A: The Walking Workstation

Verdict: Worth it, but not for the reason you suspect


In 2008, with the hope of helping one employee's back problem, I bought a treadmill desk for the office like this:


The team was thrilled when the treadmill desk was delivered. It was a great day in the office, and morale was punched up to a high. And for a few weeks, the team tested it out through walking and working. And then the novelty sort of faded away and the treadmill wasn't used that much. But, interestingly, morale settled out a little higher than it was before the day the desk had been delivered. I don’t think it was a coincidence. Buying the desk signaled to employees that as a business owner and CEO, I cared about their wellbeing and was willing to invest real dollars in office equipment that could help them get healthy. In fact, that treadmill desk brought out a big desire for the team to have standing desks, sans treadmill. Turns out, standing while working improved not only health and wellness, but also productivity!

Exhibit B: The Pull-up Bar

Verdict: Worth it—for me as a leader!

In 2006, I bought this for the office:


Pull-ups between meetings? Yes! I have always loved doing pull-ups. I confess I bought this piece of equipment so I could get a quick work out a few times a day to extend my triathlon training. I did not expect anyone else to use it. Interestingly, though, by demonstrating my own commitment to fitness through my actions, I wound up inspiring others to use it, too. Without my saying a word, several employees started popping up on the bar a few times each day. I was so happy! Looking back, I realize that’s what leadership is all about—inspiring employees to follow your lead without always telling them what to do. 

Exhibit C: Family Fitness

Verdict: Totally worth it.



In 2007, I started paying for employees and their families to have memberships at the YMCA of Greater Providencethrough the company. 

My employees loved it. It was a great way to support wellness and support a great local nonprofit. Not everyone elected to take advantage of the membership, but even those who didn’t greatly appreciated the strong signal that the company understood that they had lives outside of work and that family is important. The fitness membership wound up being a terrific recruiting tool, too. 

Exhibit D: Don’t Mess With My Rolfing


Verdict: Worth it … just don’t take it away

 In 2011, I began arranging for a Rolfing therapist to come to the office a few times a week. Whoa this was awesome! If you’ve never experienced this form of body therapy, you really must do it, by the way. It is super healthy and feels great. 

The only downside to this was that the benefit had to be cut after I sold my company and rebooted it later in a more virtual office environment. So, I highly recommend Rolfing as an employee health and wellness benefit. Just be sure to keep it around because it is addictive in the best possible way. 

Exhibit E: Expanded Menu of Perks

Verdict: You can’t ignore employees’ basic needs and pleasures

Here were a few of the benefits wrapped into our employment packages:

  • 100% employer-paid health insurance for individuals 
  • HSAs, offered well before other small businesses were doing it 
  • Employer contributions to 401(k)
  • Paid maternity and paternity leave
  • Social impact activity opportunities, including a corporate donor-advised fund, giving to nonprofits, volunteering, mentoring, and time off for serving on boards
  • Healthy food frequently catered into the office, always paired with cake and candy to keep things fun and real 

Final Verdict: We need to embrace social impact wellness as a key to our personal and professional success

All of these things had their pros and cons, but what was most important about offering a broad menu of perks was the sense of purpose, caring, and social connectedness it fostered among employees. People felt they belonged because there was something at work for them beyond just the work. 

What did all of this do for the business itself? The business grew because of its positive social impact culture. As proof, my Rhode Island-based company was competing with larger firms in Boston and New York, but still we were highly successful with our recruiting and retention and our productivity, too. 

And we got noticed. The company was a three-time winner of the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Award for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility. This distinction ranked us in the top 20% of employers nationally in terms of flexible work programs, policies, and culture. We also received the State of Rhode Island Minority Business Enterprise of the Year Award. In 2011, the Providence Business News named us one of the state’s best places to work. In addition, our online products twice won the Council on Foundations’ Wilmer Shields Rich Awards Program, which recognizes and encourages excellence in communications by foundations and corporate giving programs.

As I reflect on the past 20 years, I am even more convinced that social impact culture will be a critical factor in the success of companies in the decades ahead. We are all operating in a world where work, life, community, and wellness have converged. We need to embrace social impact wellness as a key to our personal and professional success. That's the best way to do good for others and do better for yourself, all at the same time.


Where can you celebrate social impact? Everywhere.

social impact.jpg

I started Embolden in 1998 because I could not resist the window of opportunity to help companies and organizations access the power of the Web to grow their enterprises. As our company grew, so did the expectations of our talented employees. We began to see that our employees cared about doing good--in work, life, and community. The lines began to blur. And that’s where we saw the greatest opportunity to build something good for everyone. 

Years later, when we checked out the results of a 5-year research study on the changing mindset in the workplace, it was easy to see that what we had been experiencing as Embolden grew was a phenomenon called “social impact culture.” Now a full-blown market reality, today’s work-life-community mindset in our social impact culture has changed everything about the way messages resonate with all of us in our many roles, including the role of employee.

If you are like most companies today, you’re looking for ways to engage your employees through philanthropy and community involvement. That’s a smart move! A 2015 Social Impact Benchmark study indicated that a strong culture of engagement can reduce staff turnover by 87% and improve performance by 20%. In addition, more than 86% of the emerging workforce wants to work for an organization that embraces social impact values.

Social impact has become a well-documented priority. Indeed, what used to be considered soft material for “feel good” conversations has become a concrete, data-driven strategy to achieve bottom line results for enterprises as they also embrace positive employee culture and civic responsibility. 


At Embolden, we’re so excited to see more and more companies striving to bring it all together to celebrate employees, the company, and the community. Rich data from Embolden’s Social Impact Survey results can help a company bring a workplace culture to life in a compelling visual. The numbers in the Social Impact Infographic look great anywhere and everywhere, across all communications channels:

  • Website pages pertaining to employee culture, corporate values, and employment opportunities
  • Employee events
  • Printed recruiting material
  • Press releases, especially those designed to reach potential recruits
  • Email newsletters (internal and external)
  • Social media
  • Signage for the office break room and other common areas
  • Social impact-focused talking points for use by the management team to improve retention, recruiting, and productivity
  • Our team at Embolden has been amazed by the generous spirit in so many companies whose leaders are connecting the dots between community engagement, employee culture, and corporate goals. We love being part of celebrating social impact. And we know the celebration has just begun.