Corporate social responsibility: Day-tripper employee volunteering

Corporate away-days involving employee volunteering, can boost morale and team working. But, asks Radhika Holmstrom, what benefit do they bring to the charity?

In the 1980s, team-building corporate 'away-days' meant getting staff to construct the tallest tower out of rolled up newspaper or crossing a nearby river on a raft they built out of a barrel, a crate and a piece of string. In the 1990s, they became even more spine-chilling, involving a day paint-balling or completing an army assault course. Today, they're more likely to consist of community projects such as painting a local hostel, clearing a stream or building a children's playground, often with a charity.

Several factors have contributed to this. One is the growing promotion of corporate social responsibility. Over the past decade, the mantra that "the socially aware company is the company of the future" has been repeated so many times that it's become a cliche. In view of recent comments that a lot of corporate social responsibility is 'greenwash', what better way is there for a company to show that it really is involved than visibly getting out into the local community?

Less cynically, there's a genuine staff development opportunity here.

Organisations like the Corporate Citizenship Company have documented the way that employee volunteering (in this and other ways) boosts both individual morale and team working. Linked with this is the whole issue of volunteering for its own sake, which is very much part of today's culture. Studies have pointed repeatedly to the importance of spending time doing something for other people, and long-standing organisations like Community Service Volunteers and overseas volunteering charity VSO have been joined by new ones, such as TimeBank.

Fiona Hague, national development manager for Business in the Community's employee volunteer programme, Cares, elaborates: "A lot of companies are using this as part of their training and development. What better way to improve your presentation skills than presenting to a class of children?

Or you might know that if you don't manage your practical project well enough, a group of old people will be very disappointed at the end of day. You can have all the disability training in the world, but it comes to life when you're working in a centre for disabled people. And it's also fun. You're learning about the community around you, and the different problems that people face. We hear about butch manual workers in tears because their work was so appreciated."

Finally, there's the increasingly canny involvement of the voluntary sector with business in general. Hague adds: "Practical help may not be at the top of your list, but it may be a very good route to get corporates involved." Joe Saxton, co-founder of think tank nfpSynergy, goes further: "Often charities will do it not because they want help, but because they want to get closer to the big company."

For some charities, of course, these events are nothing new. Homeless charity Crisis depends on teams to set up and take down the physical infrastructure of its annual Open Christmas, which involved six shelters last year. "They look like warehouses to start with," explains corporate partnerships manager Wendy Hawk. "We have to designate space, install sinks, ovens, showers, the lot; partition off areas for doctors and dentists and opticians; and set up the learning and skills areas too. It's a huge logistical task. Last year, we had around 10 companies - 500 volunteers - involved, in teams of 20."

Not every charity is able to offer this sort of tailor-made opportunity for companies. And those which do have a real need don't always know who to approach, or how to ensure that the job's done properly. At least one director recalls a paint job that had to be re-done (at his charity's expense) and adds that he'd rather have the profits from a day's work the high-earning company concerned would make if the employees stayed at their desks. It's not surprising, therefore, that Saxton has more caveats.

"One of the problems is that both parties want something very different," he says. "From the charity's point of view, the ideal corporate partner gives you a cheque and doesn't mind how you spend it. For the company, the ideal charity partner brings staff development opportunities and fits into its bigger business plan. That means high-quality volunteering opportunities.

Classically, you'll get a firm that wants staff to do reading work in a primary school. So when they want their project managers to do a bit of team-building they're after something like 'build a team centre in a day' - which many charities find hard to deliver. There are only about half a dozen charities that have those opportunities. In fact, it's often the closest you get to a charity's nightmare."

Brokering organisations

Clearly, though, quite a few are able to turn the nightmare around. One good route for those who don't have an established relationship with a reliable company is through one of the brokering organisations now available.

bcconnections, a charity "dedicated to helping other charities obtain more support from business" has an online directory of brokers and offers a lot of help to charities thinking of running something of this type.

The big brokers charge businesses for this service on the basis that they are identifying, developing and doing a great deal to set up valuable development opportunities. "Companies also get the assurance that they're doing something collectively," adds Hague. "They know that what they are doing is part of the local regeneration agenda and so on. Even if they never go back to that organisation you know that it is linked in with BITC."

It's hardly surprising that CSV, which has been promoting volunteering since 1962, is another major player. Employee volunteering development manager Lesley Nicholls describes how the organisation operates: "Companies contact us, they register with us explaining what they want to do, and we find them up to six options. We do this by getting in touch with all the voluntary organisations we work with on a regular basis, and we're always looking for new ones.

"We're particularly keen to find small groups - everyone knows about Age Concern, but often it's the allotments, family centres and so on that need the help. They do need to be precise about what they want, but that's where our expertise comes in.

"We know roughly how much a team of 15 can do in a day, so we can help them scale it down or up. Then we visit the site and do a risk assessment, which is what the business is paying us to do. We make sure it's all facilitated and organised: everyone knows who is providing what, and what their different roles are.

"On the day itself, though, we encourage the company and the host organisation to work together and make contact. We don't want to be in the middle. And finally, we gather feedback from everyone and write a report for the company."

A day's work from a corporate away-day isn't as straightforward as receiving a cheque. It needs thought, planning and quite possibly a fair degree of compromise - this is essentially a partnership, and both sides need to get a lot out of it. Successful ones, though, bring a lot of benefits; both Hague and Nicholls say that companies quite often go back to the same charities again and again. And when that doesn't happen, the fact remains that the job's been done. Even if it's only a sploshy paint job, it's a tick on the staff's 'to-do' list and means they can get on with everything else that's competing for top priority.

BUILDING A SUCCESSFUL SCHEME

- Work out exactly what you need done. Anything which needs background training or police checks is not going to work. Physical projects with distinct tasks and roles work best. Set out exactly how this fits in with your wider work, and who will benefit

- Ensure that everyone involved understands what will happen and what they need to do

- If you have no particular company in mind, consider approaching a broker.

Be clear about any businesses or types of business you would not work with

- Establish how much the materials will cost and who's paying for what.

ENSURE THEY ARRIVE WELL IN ADVANCE

- Get a risk assessment done, and tackle anything it recommends. Who is covering the insurance?

- Have a contingency plan in case any last-minute arrangements or deliveries go wrong

- Check the logistics of the day, like food and toilet facilities. Do you need to clear the premises of staff and service users, or can you work around each other? Who will provide first aid cover?

- Review the day afterwards - and remember to thank everyone who contributed

ONE DAY'S WORK NATIONAL GRID TRANSCO

National Grid Transco staff in Coventry spent a day transforming the garden for National Energy Action Coventry. The relationship was brokered by the Coventry branch of Cares, as Saran Jarvie, project co-ordinator for NEA Coventry, explains.

"NEA develops and promotes energy efficiency services to tackle the heating and insulation problems of low-income households, with the aim of eradicating fuel poverty. NEA Coventry is a local branch of the national charity; we run grass-roots projects, including advice work, from a small end-terrace house. We don't have much space - in the summer, we have queues of people trying to squish into one small corridor, with kids running up and down.

We do have a garden, but this is a deprived area and it was full of syringes and other rubbish.

"We approached Coventry Cares, and within a fortnight I heard back. We had an initial meeting with them and Transco, and from then on from our point of view it was very smooth - they turned up on the day in their work clothes with their tools and bags and gravel and just got on with turning a wasteland into a usable, safe environment. They cleared and gravelled it and made it low-maintenance; they put in plants, they whitewashed walls. Now it's clean, it's tidy, it's safe. It was spectacular - something we couldn't have hoped for and certainly couldn't have afforded." Team leader Trish Handsley, community relations officer for National Grid Transco, gives her perspective.

"We wanted to work with a community group where we could get our gas safety message to people who might be difficult to reach," she says. "This was a task we felt could do, and everyone was very keen to join in.

"Cares brokered a first meeting and then I visited with the Cares co-ordinator to do a thorough risk assessment. We found disposed needles, glass and so on - so we knew to take along gauntlets, and I ordered a skip and a disposal bin. Cares gave me a very useful 'team leader' pack.

I sorted out the different roles, and then we just got on with it.

"Everything went to plan. We knew what we were doing, what resources we needed, and because we could link the community challenge into our work, I could even earmark a small budget to cover materials. Everyone said how much they enjoyed it, and that there'd been a real feel-good factor about doing something in the community."

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