Business Partner Special: How to hold hands with high finance

Establishing partnerships with financial services organisations can mean more than expert pro bono advice for charities - the companies' staff can end up feeling more valued too.

Citizenship Foundation
Citizenship Foundation

Helen Barrett examines three partnerships that have been a success for both the businesses and the charities involved.

Banks, building societies and insurance companies might be battered by the credit crunch, but many voluntary organisations are reaping benefits from partnerships with financial services organisations whose staff donate their expertise as part of the package.

Highly qualified financial services employees are no longer painting walls; instead, they are operating telephone helplines, training homeless or young people in personal finance skills and even raising funds by helping major donors to plan their investment portfolios, often with paid time off from their employers. The financial services industry employs skilled professionals, and voluntary organisations are finding them keen and willing to share their skills, particularly within their own communities.

"Corporates are interested in a unique volunteering experience for their staff," says Samantha Nicholson, programme manager at educational charity the Citizenship Foundation. "Mentoring schemes are common, but many corporates want a scheme that allows individuals to use their skills to help charities."

In fact, many charities are reporting that financial services companies are now specifying corporate social responsibility partnerships with stimulating and unusual volunteering opportunities for their employees. Here, we look at three such partnerships and discover what makes them successful.

Case study: Whizz-Kidz and Credit Suisse

The disability charity arranged two-week work placements for 10 young beneficiaries at the headquarters of its partner, global financial services company Credit Suisse, in London's Canary Wharf last summer.

Participants sampled working life in departments such as communications, marketing, investment banking and even the trading floor. The young people were assigned an internship 'buddy' from the company's workforce and staff gave presentations about their jobs and career paths in the organisation.

The scheme formed part of the company's charity of the year partnership with Whizz-Kidz. Jill Cochrane, director of communications at the charity, points out that such in-kind help is invaluable to its beneficiaries because young people with disabilities often struggle to secure such opportunities through their schools or colleges. The feedback from participants, she says, was universally excellent.

"Credit Suisse wanted engagement for its staff and ways to develop its CSR programme outside fundraising," says Cochrane. "The firm has a graduate work placement scheme anyway, so it lent itself well to our work placement proposal. Staff told us they found it hugely rewarding."

For participants, the scheme offered a chance to prove their talents. "One young man was so interested and impressed the company so much that they said he was welcome to apply for a job there," says Cochrane.

The Credit Suisse scheme will run again this year and has been enough of a success for Whizz-Kidz to begin trials with another corporate to run a similar initiative. The charity aims to have three such schemes in place by next year.

Schemes must be planned meticulously, says Cochrane. "Companies need to be clear that they must invest their staff time," she says. "We wouldn't undertake any partnership without that basis of understanding. "Agree your mutual objectives beforehand. Sit down and iron those out. Then it should be plain sailing."

Case study: Citizenship Foundation and Norwich Union

Last year, the Citizenship Foundation answered a public call from Norwich Union for proposals for the insurance company's new CSR programme.

The company specified that it wanted to offer not only funding but also opportunities for its employees to volunteer. The foundation came up with the Paying For It schools programme, which is designed to enhance national curriculum citizenship lessons covering finance and economics by twinning volunteers from Norwich Union's regional offices with local secondary schools. The charity's own research identified a need for such a programme, but it says Norwich Union's call gave it the opportunity to put that research into practice.

"We knew Paying For It would work, because we already run a similar scheme twinning law firms with schools," says Samantha Nicholson, programme manager at the foundation. "We could demonstrate to Norwich Union how a financial education programme could run in a similar way."

Norwich Union was convinced, and the project started last September with 300 volunteers in 12 locations around the country. Each session involves four or five volunteers teaching 13 to 15-year-olds. Students are encouraged with the aid of the foundation's teaching materials to understand the impact that their financial decisions have on themselves and their communities.

The project has attracted volunteers from Norwich Union's most senior levels to its lowest. But things don't always run smoothly, says Nicholson. "Volunteers are not teachers," she says. "They're not trained in education, so we have to train them appropriately."

Nicholson adds that it is essential to anticipate problems and make detailed plans for how to deal with them.

"There are behavioural issues in schools sometimes, of course, and sometimes schools simply forget the volunteers are coming, no matter how often we remind them," she says. "We've developed reminder systems for all our schools, teachers and volunteers, and we have a bank of reserve volunteers in place just in case people pull out at the last minute."

The foundation believes its project was chosen partly because it offered Norwich Union staff an unusual and unique way to volunteer. Nicholson advises other charities to consider how they can offer corporate volunteers opportunities beyond straightforward mentoring.

"Pilot your schemes to identify potential pitfalls," she says. "And always be honest about what your charity can achieve."

Case study: St Barnabas House and Chestnut Tree House children's hospices and the Fry Group

St Barnabas House and Chestnut Tree House children's hospices in West Sussex decided to be more creative with one of their long-standing corporate partners last year.

The hospices had enjoyed fundraising support from local financial advice company the Fry Group for more than 15 years, but saw an opportunity to ask for pro bono help.

"I rather cheekily asked it in a meeting if we could use its expertise," says Ash Gilbert, a freelance consultant and the hospices' acting marketing director. "Could it offer tax and personal financial advice to our supporters?

"We asked the company what its business objectives were in its relationship with us. It said greater public awareness of the company name and for its employees to feel valued. So we put a proposition to the organisation."

The company now offers free personal financial and tax advice from its volunteer staff members to all of the hospices' donors. It also offers a free end-of-financial-year personal tax consultancy service to the hospices' top 2,000 major donors. During the course of the session, advisers explain how donors can write off gifts of cash, shares and property to the hospices should they wish to do so, and advise them whether such a gift would make financial sense.

The advantages are obvious. "Supporters are grateful, and it's a chance to develop that donor relationship," says Gilbert. The hospices estimate that the in-kind help is worth hundreds, maybe thousands of pounds a year.

Gilbert stresses that charities contemplating offering donors similar schemes should advertise only with high-quality promotional material.

"Charities don't generally have to worry about achieving perfection in their communications - we're usually happy to talk about our work in a straightforward way," he says. "It took a noticeable effort for us to raise our game to be as specific and detailed as the financial sector is."

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