Charities have been accused of taking advantage of the goodwill of businesses by charging them when groups of employees take part in volunteering opportunities.
Sally Booth, the corporate social responsibility manager for software solutions company Marlborough Stirling, raised the issue in a public online chat group for CSR professionals. She claimed that the company, which offers its employees the opportunity to volunteer for charity, had been asked by two charities to pay for this volunteering.
Booth said one charity asked her for a £200 donation for 130 hours of free labour. A second requested £65 per volunteer for 70 hours of labour.
She described the requests as "inappropriate" and warned that charities could be pricing their volunteer projects out of the market.
But Catherine Conway of the Volunteer Centre Westminster defended the right of charities to ask businesses for money. She said: "It has always cost money to engage volunteers, but it may now be more of a trend to ask for it."
Karen Woolley, a former staffer at conservation charity BTCV and now managing director of KliC4 Training, an organisation that provides charity projects for corporate training purposes, agreed. "Charities used to be too scared to tell businesses what it really costs to take on volunteers," she said.
"It takes at least a day for a charity to organise a group of 20 people to undertake a conservation project. Then health and safety assessments need to be carried out and tools and refreshments provided, and somewhere between one and 10 people will be needed to staff it. In total it will cost the charity nearly £1,500."
Woolley says that charities need to be candid with businesses. "There are so many charities competing for funds now that they really need to lay their cards on the table when dealing with big corporate bodies, telling them what it costs to take on a group of volunteers.
I tell them they need to have the heart of a charity and the head of a business if they want to survive."
But Conway insists that businesses are also to blame for having unrealistic expectations. She said: "Companies might have this vision of a band of employees working together to paint a building or plant trees. This might make a good photo opportunity, but in reality it entails significant costs to a small charity."
Businesses, she believes, often get more out of the charity team challenge than the charity does. She added: "At the Volunteer Centre Westminster, we are trying to move away from these one-off physical volunteering opportunities and instead promote long-term partnerships within the local community."
A team from polling agency Mori painted Age Concern Southwark's Early Intervention Centre earlier this month. Chris Lunn, the charity's director of fund-raising and communications, said it didn't charge the company anything. "We see the wider benefit," he said. "Mori brought all the equip-ment, so our only costs were a few bottles of wine and our staff time.
The advantages far outweighed the costs."