Long reads

The power of corporate volunteering

12 Dec 2019 By Eleanor Whitehouse

Whether it's mentoring young people or saving lives at sea, encouraging employees to give their time can make real waves in engagement – but getting it right can be a fine art 

You only have to spend five minutes scrolling through Twitter to get a snapshot of the division and tension currently affecting the country. With Brexit, terror attacks and the climate emergency, to name but three, it’s sometimes difficult to feel upbeat. But above all the gloom, we are still at heart a selfless, philanthropic nation. 

According to the Charities Aid Foundation’s UK Giving 2019 report, we donate more than £10bn to charity each year, and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ (NCVO) January 2019 Time Well Spent report found 69 per cent of us have formally volunteered through a club, group or organisation at some point in our lives – 38 per cent within the last year. Two thirds of recent volunteers also said they did so at least once a month. And with an average of 35 per cent of those recent volunteers still of working age, it’s unsurprising that more employers are starting to take notice of the benefits of volunteering. If it’s not already on HR’s radar, it’s probably time it was.

Employer-supported volunteering, or ESV, typically constitutes a business offering its staff a number of paid days per year to undertake volunteering activities, either with a charity or local organisation the company has chosen to support, or for a cause of the employee’s choosing. 

Activities can include anything from mentoring and delivering workshops to planting trees or painting walls. And with both interest and participation in ESV rising, the evidence suggests employers that don’t already have a scheme can’t afford to ignore it.

According to the CIPD’s On the brink of a game-changer? report, ESV has “slowly taken on a more significant role in the volunteering landscape”. The Conservatives’ manifesto promise in 2015 to introduce three days of paid volunteering leave per year for employees of large firms gave ESV an injection of publicity; however, the pledge was never implemented and the attention was short-lived. 

Jill Hillaby, employee volunteering programme manager at Volunteering Matters – a charity that advises on volunteering policy, as well as brokering schemes between organisations and beneficiaries – says it has seen an increase in companies getting in touch about setting up ESV schemes. Figures from the NCVO quoted in the CIPD’s report also show the number of people who had taken part in ESV in the last year rose from 10.5 per cent in 2010-11 to 13.3 per cent in 2013-14; however, the NCVO’s more recent report puts that figure at more like 10 per cent.

But while the sparse research into the topic may not point to an increase in the number of schemes themselves, qualitative data suggests employers are choosing to dedicate more resources to formalise what were previously casual volunteering arrangements. 

“What’s changed over time,” says Hillaby, “is the need for it to be less ad-hoc and more managed so companies show the social impact and the difference it’s making.” Similarly, one ESV broker who responded to a separate NCVO report (Time Well Spent: ESV) said: “Going back a few years we would get the odd enquiry… the volume of enquiries has increased, which made us recognise that we needed to have a less hands-off approach and get more involved.” 

Amy McGarvey, research manager at the NCVO, who co-wrote its reports, points out there are now increased expectations on employers to place more emphasis on wellbeing and CSR. “Whereas before this may have been seen as more of a ‘tick-box exercise’ – not that that’s the case everywhere – we’re now moving towards organisational culture that promotes opportunities to make an impact in society,” she says.

One reason employers may be waking up to the importance of ESV is its value to the younger members of the workforce – namely millennials and, increasingly, the younger generation Z. In a 2018 LinkedIn study on workplace culture, 86 per cent of millennials (those aged between 22 and 37) said they would take a pay cut to work at a company whose mission and values aligned with their own, as opposed to just 9 per cent of baby boomers (those aged between 54 and 72). 

And with younger, more socially conscious employees beginning to make up the bulk of the labour market as older workers near retirement, it’s something organisations can’t afford to ignore. “Millennials want to see that the organisations they work for are doing things for the wider community,” says Jemeela Quraishi, acting head of social impact and innovation at the CIPD. 

But it’s not just demand from younger, more socially conscious workers that should sway organisations’ decision to introduce an ESV scheme – studies say those who do reap a whole host of benefits, including better retention and improved engagement. Jo Osborne, volunteering lead at BT, agrees that staff who volunteer with the company’s scheme are more engaged as a result. “We essentially ask people ‘how does the fact that we offer this make you feel about the organisation?’ and almost exclusively get a positive response,” she says. 

Similarly, an evaluation of O2’s Think Big scheme – which saw O2 employees volunteering support for young people setting up social action projects to develop their skills – found 42 per cent of volunteers felt more committed to O2 than they did before taking part, and 60 per cent felt more positively about O2 as an employer. 

Of course, employers are not the only ones to gain something from ESV – employees themselves also stand to benefit considerably from being involved. Respondents to the NCVO’s Time Well Spent: ESV report noted a number of benefits from taking part in volunteering, including feeling they were making a difference (84 per cent); gaining new skills and experience (76 per cent); gaining more confidence (74 per cent); and seeing improvements to their mental health and wellbeing (71 per cent). 

It’s something Yorkshire Building Society (YBS) has noticed through its successful scheme. In the last year, 82 per cent of its staff who volunteered said it increased their relationship building and teamwork skills; 78 per cent said they developed communication and influencing skills; and 74 per cent saw an increase in their confidence at work. “It definitely helps with personal development, but mental health and wellbeing are also very important,” says volunteering manager Louise Neill. “We ask for feedback at the end of each volunteering activity, including whether it’s supported employees’ wellbeing.”

And as Professor Tony Chapman, director of policy and practice at Durham University’s St Chad’s College and co-author of the O2 Think Big study, points out, volunteering is as much about making people aware of skills they already possess as it is about developing new ones. “Staff become more confident about a range of their skills throughout the [volunteering] process,” he says. “Sometimes people are using skills and don’t even realise it.”

But for both volunteers and employers to benefit from ESV, the scheme has to meet the needs of all involved – and that’s not necessarily guaranteed. A potential pitfall is deciding whether to pursue skills-based volunteering, where employers offer existing talents to organisations (for example, accountancy or HR), or provide value in other ways such as mentoring, giving advice or running activities. “There’s room for both kinds,” says Hillaby. “Some charities are so short on resource they want the practical support [...] but we’re definitely seeing a trend towards more skills-based volunteering.”

There may also be a mismatch between employees who want to volunteer in a way that’s different from their job, and those who are keen to use their professional experience to help charities or causes. Indeed, the NCVO found little difference between the number of volunteers who undertook ESV because they wanted to use their existing skills (24 per cent) and those who wanted to learn new ones (22 per cent). “It’s important to think about what volunteers might be looking for, and try to tailor it to that,” says McGarvey. “Some people won’t want to do the thing they do in work.”

So how can employers make sure their ESV scheme caters for everyone’s preferences? “Above all, there has to be a choice,” says Neill. The YBS scheme offers a range of volunteering opportunities to fit with different preferences and work environments – all matched to a skills matrix that explains what capabilities will be developed by each activity. “For example, staff in our contact centres or branches may struggle to get away for an entire day, so we have opportunities with Silver Line, where staff spend 30 minutes on the phone to an elderly person to help prevent loneliness, which can be done at their desks.”

For those in HR who prefer to put their experience towards a good cause, the CIPD’s Steps Ahead programme allows people professionals to use their unique insights into the labour market to mentor jobseekers, helping them improve their CV, prepare for an interview or just boost their self-esteem. It’s so far helped more than 6,000 jobseekers, and 2,500 CIPD members have taken part. 

“When I was unemployed I lacked motivation to look for work,” says Mushtaq Patas, who was mentored through Steps Ahead in 2017. “My mentor helped me by being positive and suggesting changes I could make, which was really good for my self-esteem. I now work for the civil service, after being unemployed for more than a year.”

As McGarvey points out, organisations looking to set up an ESV scheme for the first time need to find a beneficiary whose values match theirs, as well as those of their employees. “Corporate volunteering isn’t as successful when the motivations of those involved don’t fit,” she says. And it’s also easy to forget this matters to beneficiaries, too. An Institute of Fundraising report highlights that one of the challenges faced by charities offering ESV opportunities is feeling they have to create them just to meet the needs of their corporate partners.

“There’s sometimes a difficulty in bridging the gap between what support a charity is looking for and what employers want to or can offer,” says Quraishi. “If the employer builds connections with local causes to understand the skills they’re looking for, you’re less likely to get that mismatch.”

While ESV schemes can be hugely successful if they’re executed well, there is also evidence to suggest the value of allowing staff the same time off for pre-existing volunteering commitments. Matt Provost, senior people services administrator at Nuffield Health, volunteers with South Bucks Counselling as an HR trustee, helping the charity with employee relations and other people-related needs. 

“Sometimes South Bucks might need me at short notice, but my employer is very understanding,” he says. “There’s a level of trust and they know I’ll make the time up. Because my volunteer role is more strategic, I’m also developing new skills that I can bring back to help me in my day job.”

Similarly, Dave Riley began volunteering as lifeboat crew for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) on his 17th birthday, before also becoming an employee a few years later. He currently balances his day job as a media officer with his volunteer commitments as helm (the crew member in overall command of a lifeboat) at Poole Lifeboat Station. “Every time my pager goes off, I have to make a call and think ‘can I make myself unavailable? Or would I be putting that life at risk?’” he says. “If there’s an important meeting, sometimes I have to stay put, but my team are very understanding. Just because I work and volunteer for the same organisation doesn’t mean juggling the two is any easier.”

But despite all the rewards a successful ESV scheme brings, arguably the most difficult aspect is proving those positives. In Hillaby’s experience, more employers are turning to her team for help with quantifying their volunteering efforts. “We’re definitely hearing more people saying ‘we want to measure the impact we’re having’,” she says. Deciding which metrics to track is a point of contention among experts – and with those at the top usually wanting to see a financial return on investment, proving ESV’s worth is no mean feat. 

“It’s easy to measure hours and number of beneficiaries, but to quantify it in any monetary way is very difficult,” says Hillaby. “Personally, I feel it can sometimes dilute the real point of it.” McGarvey agrees: “It’s more complicated than just putting a figure on it,” she says. “One of the things that came out of our research was that it’s not helpful to just report on hours volunteered, which quite a lot of organisations currently do.” 

But Chapman is hesitant about the value of formally measuring it at all. “Volunteering is about people having a sense of self-worth and feeling valued,” he adds. “Yes, you can do some measures, but the measurement is merely to show it. The point is to do it.”

Read about the RNLI's lifesaving work and support its fundraising appeal at rnli.org/perfectstorm

“Volunteers need to see benefits too”  

BT’s volunteering manager, Jo Osborne, believes an organisation’s decision to implement an ESV scheme should be based on what it’s good at. “We wouldn’t ever stop anybody from going and painting a fence or clearing a school playground, because that’s a really good thing to do,” she says. “But where does it add value?”

The firm currently supports three programmes around digital skills through its employee volunteering scheme, for which staff can take up to three days’ paid leave each year to take part: Barefoot Computing, where volunteers deliver workshops for primary school teachers on computational thinking;  Work Ready, in which staff work with 18 to 24-year-olds who are not in education, employment or training to improve their employability skills; and the Good Things Foundation, which supports local communities to help older or vulnerable people get online. The firm aims to reach 10 million people with digital skills training by 2025.

“It’s important that with every volunteering opportunity, we also highlight what the individual gets from it,” says Osborne.

“I didn’t need buy-in from the top – it was their idea” 

When Manchester-based Equilibrium Asset Management realised two years ago that its volunteering scheme wasn’t working, it sought to refresh the opportunities it offered.

“There were a lot of barriers to entry,” explains head of culture Sarah Warburton. “Trying to find somewhere people could go for a day was quite hard.”

The company increased employees’ annual allowance from two to three days, and implemented a team of ‘charity champions’ who source local opportunities and organise teams of volunteers from the firm to take part. 

Following the rethink, 2018 saw double the number of volunteering days taken by staff, and it has already quadrupled that number this year. Warburton is certain that the scheme’s “snowballing” has been a factor in the business ranking eighth in the Sunday Times Best 100 Small Companies to Work For. It also helps, she says, that the senior leadership team is highly engaged in their efforts. “It’s absolutely led from the top down,” she says. “In fact, they were the ones who decided to do it in the first place.”

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