Insight: 'We can't get the free time ...'

Juggling charity work with paid work can be a fraught exercise, but a supportive attitude from companies towards employees who want to volunteer can have benefits for all concerned.

There's a massive waiting list, with some parents registering their children at birth to ensure entry. But we’re not talking about elite public schools: we’re talking about local Brownie and Guide packs.

Girlguiding UK, which needs 8,000 more leaders to accommodate the 50,000 girls currently waiting to join, thinks that part of its recruitment problem stems from the clash between work and volunteering commitments.

"Providing a more flexible approach to work hours is probably the simplest yet most important thing that an employer can offer," says Kirsty Palmer, the organisation’s development manager. "If a Brownie meeting starts early in the evening, volunteer group leaders find that just being able to leave work a little early can make all the difference."

A third of volunteers questioned by the Institute of Volunteering Research mentioned the amount of time required as a main drawback, and a fifth of those not currently volunteering gave time constraints as the reason.

One way charities can address the issue is to make their volunteers aware of the Investing in Volunteers for Employers standards, launched last June with the support of ChangeUp and the lead volunteering agency in each UK country. These set out best practice for recruitment, training and support for employer-supported volunteering (ESV) schemes.

Interestingly, FTSE 100 companies are three times more likely than the average to have an ESV scheme in place: 74 per cent of them had one in 2005 according to the Government's citizenship survey.

Louise Cope has worked for the consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers for 25 years and has volunteered with Girlguiding for almost as long. PWC provides a range of support to employee volunteers, including flexible working hours and financial awards to those who volunteer regularly for six months or more.

"Last year I received a volunteer excellence award for the work I'd been doing, which included £3,000 towards a county-wide activity weekend,” says Louise.

Meanwhile, ABN Amro has a match-funding policy for staff involved in charity fundraising, and allows staff seven hours paid volunteering time per year.

"I manage a menu of opportunities staff are encouraged to take part in,” explains Jill Coombe, the bank’s recently appointed community involvement manager. “Everything from painting a classroom and cooking breakfast for the homeless to offering business planning skills or providing HR advice."

Even those employers who do have schemes may not formalise them or publicise them well to staff. "A lot of employers don't realise what is already in place," adds Rachael Bayley, volunteering manager for Samaritans. "The first step for them should be to audit what staff are already doing, celebrate it and build from there."

Nor does she see ESV as restricted to large corporations, citing Samaritans – which relies on an army of 17,000 volunteers - as an example.

“Our volunteering policy allows staff two days of flexible working a month to accommodate volunteering. Small employers like us can make such arrangements without a negative impact on the business."

In fact, she believes, a positive approach to volunteering can have significant benefits for companies. "A Mori poll found that employees were far more likely to act as ambassadors for their companies if they were supported and involved in volunteering," she notes.

ABN Amro’s Coombe agrees. "The benefits to the bank are very clear. When staff volunteer, they use their skills in a totally different environment, which helps them to develop and facilitates genuine team working. People have to pull together when they are doing unfamiliar tasks.”

Conversely, negative attitudes from companies towards volunteering can have a corresponding effect on staff morale.

"Like other volunteers, if I was worrying less about having to take time off and juggle my commitments, I would have more energy and would be that little bit more relaxed and motivated at work," says Wendy, a Guide leader who has not found much support from her employer.

"Just having more flexitime or time off in lieu would be so helpful."

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