How to: Set up an employee volunteering scheme

Some tips on practising what you preach about volunteering.

Voluntary organisations frequently extol the virtues of employee volunteering for businesses, but many don't encourage their own staff to volunteer. Here are some tips on setting up staff volunteering schemes.

1. Think about the benefits
"Voluntary organisations worry about donor money in the same way that private companies worry about whether volunteering is a good use of shareholder's money,” says Cathy McBain, project leader of employer supported volunteering at Volunteering England – a registered charity that allows its staff six days off for volunteering per year.

Many charities believe giving their staff paid leave to volunteer for other causes is not a good use of that money. However, according to Helen Beckett, head of communications at the Media Trust, it is important for charities to set an example to the corporations from which they derive their own volunteers.

In giving its staff two days off annually for volunteering, she says the Media Trust is “practising what we preach and echoing the way our partners operate.”

There is also a strong business case for supporting volunteering in terms of boosting staff morale, addressing skills shortages and creating networks with potential partners.

Offering volunteering opportunities can also increase recruitment and retention of staff. “Volunteering is definitely something that appeals to the kinds of graduates we try to attract,” says Beckett.

2. Talk to your staff
A formal volunteering scheme “shouldn’t feel like it has just been dreamed up by someone in HR,” cautions Beckett. Staff need to be involved from the start in generating ideas and organising activities.

Many staff may already volunteer in their own time so it might make sense to build on that rather than establish a completely new scheme. However, according to Volunteer England, you should avoid asking staff direct, intrusive questions about their volunteering. Better ways to gather information are talk to managers, add a few questions to a general survey or ask staff to nominate other causes they would like to support.

3. Find suitable partners
Appropriate recipients of your staff’s volunteering will depend on what kind of charity you are. As a pan-sector body, Volunteering England doesn’t restrict its staff’s choices, but McBain does think it appropriate that charities should “encourage” their staff to volunteer at other organisations in a similar field.

The Media Trust is also open-minded about which charities its staff choose, even offering them help with “finding a good opportunity that is close to their hearts”. However, the trust does encourage its staff to make use of their media skills when they volunteer, essentially sending them on a “busman’s holiday”.

“Real life experience fits perfectly into our working remit,” says Beckett.

4. Write it up
Many volunteering programmes in big companies are coordinated centrally – though their natural fit with HR keeps additional costs down even where a specific project coordinator is designated. However, the Media Trust has a more informal arrangement in place to minimise bureaucracy, with volunteering requests from staff simply being passed by the relevant line manager.

McBain agrees it is appropriate for charity schemes to be “less official, more low-key” than in big companies, avoiding such phenomena as volunteer of the month awards. “It is the receiving organisation that should be thanking you,” she points out.

“For charities it is more about enabling,” she goes on. “Volunteering for them has the same benefits, but requires a different approach.”

However you organise it, though, it is important to put your volunteering policy in writing – including such nitty-gritty issues as whether travel expenses will be reimbursed - and publicise it internally.

“There should be no room for uncertainty or jealousies,” cautions McBain. “But it doesn’t have to be long. Two pages is enough.”

Fund-matching schemes are also unlikely to be appropriate at charities, but you might also need to allocate resources to give volunteers extra training such as in health and safety awareness.

5. Consider the alternatives
Both McBain and Beckett stress that there is no ‘one size fits all’ volunteering scheme which all third sector organisations should adopt.

“It’s not a case of ‘thou must give five days’ service per year’,” insists McBain.

However, some charities will still inevitably feel that setting up a volunteering scheme for their employees is, at best, a low priority (since their staff already “give something back”) or, at worst, a financial impossibility.

Still, there are many ways organisations can support staff volunteering without setting up a formal scheme. “You don’t have to give time off. It could just be about flexible working,” says McBain, pointing out that this is something which smaller charities might find it easier than big ones to offer.

Staff swapping, secondments and payroll giving schemes are other ways charities can help each other. “Even allowing staff to use the photocopier for volunteering activities is better than nothing,” says McBain.

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