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

David Chater

Juggling volunteering with paid work can deter people from supporting charities. Can the newly launched standards for investing in volunteers make a difference?

There's a massive waiting list, with some competitive parents registering their children at birth to ensure entry.

These places in demand are not at an elite public school, but in local Brownie and Guide packs. Girlguiding UK sees part of the problem as the clash between work and volunteering commitments and the impact this has on recruitment of leaders - 8,000 more are needed to accommodate the 50,000 girls currently waiting to join.

A survey of current Guiding volunteers revealed that a third of those questioned found it difficult to balance work, volunteering and family demands. And although more than 92 per cent of them felt that employers could make a difference to this, only 16 per cent had a formal employee-volunteering scheme at their places of work.

"Providing a more flexible approach to work hours is probably the simplest yet most important thing that an employer can offer," says Kirsty Palmer, development manager at Girlguiding UK. "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."

One way charities can address the issue is to make their volunteers aware of the Investing in Volunteers for Employers standards, launched this June and designed to support volunteers in employment. They set out best practice for recruitment, training and support for employer-supported volunteering (ESV) schemes. Backed by ChangeUp and the lead volunteering agency in each UK country, their existence is a sign that charities as employers are leading the way, because they are largely based on the management and support charities already offer volunteers.

The 10 standards cover areas such as producing a formal ESV policy and communicating this across the organisation, ensuring time is set aside to discuss and develop volunteering, effectively matching staff and opportunities and practicalities such as risk assessment or health and safety.

They are part of a pattern seen over the past 30 years of governments of various political hues focusing attention on volunteering, including the Make a Difference campaign, the Russell Commission and high-profile political speeches on the role of volunteers. However, most policies focus on capacity building or brokerage services that match potential volunteers with charities. The clash with employment or other responsibilities has, until fairly recently, been overlooked.

For many of the UK's 12 million regular volunteers, though, managing this tension is key. 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. Fifty-nine per cent of those questioned for a Department for Communities and Local Government survey said work commitments were a barrier to formal volunteering.

"A lot of our volunteers also work full time," says Rachael Bayley, volunteering manager for Samaritans, which has 17,000 volunteers. "Some of them have great employers who really support them. Others seem to be coping as individuals and keeping their volunteering very private. For employers who do want to support staff, it's important to have a clear policy, identifying what they want to achieve and what they want to get back from it."

With the majority of volunteers also in work, the employer's role is vital. And despite Girlguiding's frustration, it does seem the situation is improving, with more firms providing ESV schemes. According to the Government's 2005 citizenship survey, 24 per cent of employees in England and Wales worked for organisations that had schemes for volunteers that year, compared with 18 per cent in 2001. Of those involved in schemes, 24 per cent received paid time off to volunteer. So why are some charities still facing a recruitment crisis?

First, the size of the organisation makes a difference. FTSE 100 companies are three times more likely than the average to have an ESV scheme in place: 74 per cent of them had such a scheme in 2005. Smaller companies might feel concerned about the impact employee volunteering will have on output and efficiency.

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 such as Louise, including financial awards to those who volunteer regularly for six months or more.

"I've put funding from the volunteer award towards a weekend trip to the Lake District for my group," says Louise. "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."

Louise also feels that PWC allows her the flexibility to juggle work, volunteering and caring for her two children.

"PWC will try to accommodate employees in terms of working hours, looking at individual circumstances and commitments," she says. "For me it's been very helpful because I have small children.

"I've never had a clash with work, but I can see that some might have difficulty juggling all the commitments. If you're volunteering with younger groups, you might start at 6pm. If you don't finish work till 5pm or even 5.30pm, I don't know how you'd manage."

ABN Amro is another large employer with a clear approach to volunteering.

Staff are entitled to seven hours paid volunteering time per year, and the bank also has a match-funding policy for staff involved in charity fundraising. It recently appointed Jill Coombe as community involvement manager to oversee the volunteering and wider community involvement strategy.

"Although we have supported a number of charities for more than 10 years, it was clear we could do much more," explains Coombe. "One way to do that is to encourage staff to volunteer with community organisations."

Staff at the company's Bishopsgate offices in London have a potential 35,000 hours every year to donate to local community groups. Some of this will be through providing professional advice, some through more general volunteering. The bank has a long-standing partnership with homelessness charity Crisis and staff have been involved in fundraising activities and teaching IT skills at the charity's Skylight centre. They will also be helping to prepare this year's Christmas shelters.

"I manage a menu of opportunities staff are encouraged to take part in," says Coombe. "Everything from painting a classroom and cooking breakfast for the homeless to offering business planning skills or providing HR advice."

Having a dedicated manager in post to drive such a scheme is invaluable.

Even those employers who do have schemes may not formalise them or publicise them well to staff. Flexitime and other benefits may be available on request but are not explicitly tied to volunteering, so how they're put into practice could depend on individual managers.

"People sometimes aren't aware of what support is there, and employers can be unaware of what staff are doing," says Cope. "After I won the award lots of people said: 'I didn't realise you were doing that. I do such and such.' I think volunteers often hide their lights sometimes - just keep their heads down and get on with it."

Bayley agrees that schemes need more publicity. "A lot of employers don't realise what is already in place," she says. "The first step for them should be to audit what staff are already doing, celebrate it and build from there."

However, she does not see ESV as restricted to large corporates. "More of our corporate partners are looking for volunteering opportunities as part of the link," she says. "But smaller employers should also be able to put ESV schemes in place. Samaritans itself is a small employer, with most of our staff volunteering for us or for other charities. 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."

Coombe agrees that size does not have to be a factor in determining involvement.

"You don't have to be a big organisation to have a big impact," she says.

"I've known organisations of all sizes have very positive attitudes."

A company's approach to volunteering can significantly affect staff morale, boosting it where it works and causing frustration when the employer is unsupportive.

"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.

"Struggling to find a healthy work-life balance has never got so bad that I have thought about giving up guiding, but just having more flexitime or time off in lieu would be so helpful."

Supporters of ESV schemes claim there are real benefits for employers who get it right.

"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," says Samaritans' Bayley. "There are lots of benefits for the company."

Cope adds: "PWC gets as much out of me as I get out of guiding. It's helped me develop a whole range of skills and a self-confidence that I can apply to my work."

Coombe of ABN Ambro says: "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. It's clear that both the staff and the community groups get major benefits from it too."

And what of these charities? Are they practising what they preach? Girlguiding has a formal policy that provides five days' paid leave for volunteering as part of the Girlguiding movement or three days for volunteering with other charities. Samaritans' flexitime scheme works well for freeing up volunteering time, while Crisis supports and encourages staff to volunteer over the Christmas period and at the charity's Skylight activity centre, providing some time off in lieu, although there is no formal policy in place.

The investing in volunteer standards for employers are still very new. But with companies themselves now asking for volunteering opportunities as part of their involvement with charities, and with government's increasing focus on active communities and volunteering, ESV could become a central part of both corporate social responsibility and mainstream volunteering.

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