EMPLOYEE VOLUNTEERING: On Company Time

LUCY MAGGS

Their jobs are kept open for them on their return and expenses such as mortgage payments and pension schemes are kept up while they are away.

The organisation has struck up a successful relationship with management consultant Accenture, where 16 staff have taken part in the programme so far. The relationship began when Gib Bulloch, a senior manager at Accenture spotted an article in the Financial Times about VSO's business programme.

A scheme like this requires a different level of commitment to a one-day event collecting rubbish from a beach but those involved have reaped the benefits. VSO was facing a huge demand for people with business management experience to take up placements and couldn't recruit enough volunteers with the required skills. Accenture has found it a useful way to recruit, retain and develop core staff and Accenture staff have found it a rewarding, life changing experience and also a great way to develop business management skills.

Bulloch worked for nine months in an organisation giving business advice in Kazekstan. "I found it really sharpened my basic problem solving skills," he says. "It was quite a different situation being confronted with a small business manager whose livelihood really depends on your advice." Michael Shann, marketing manager at VSO, says that one of the reasons this relationship has been so successful is because the way the company operates suits the nature of the volunteering opportunities. "Management consultants are often seconded for six months or so to work in company, so they are used to the idea of moving around from place to place and the company is used to them not being in the office for long periods of time," says Shann.

Many of the returning staff have continued their relationship with VSO by speaking about their experiences to other companies and staff, encouraging them to take up the opportunity and carrying out media interviews.

The relationship is continuing to develop. There has even been talk of staff from VSO doing sabbaticals with the policy and corporate affairs department at Accenture.

As corporate responsibility creeps up the company agenda, a growing number of firms are giving staff time off to volunteer. Lucy Maggs looks at the best ways of handling such schemes

For staff working at PR company Citigate Communications, a day of volunteering was a break from the norm. A team set to work clearing bushes and painting to transform the playground area of a primary school in Brent.

And in December, the company will help run activities and publicise an IT open day at a community centre in Hackney, London.

"We recently moved to new offices and wanted to get more involved with the local community," says an associate director Nick Stace.

Staff volunteering will form part of Citigate's new ethical policy. For four days a year, up to 10 staff will work on projects in the local community. The company arranged its volunteering schedule through Capital Cares, a Business in the Community Project that acts as a broker and arranges one-off volunteering opportunities for employees of London companies.

Working through a broker such as Capital Cares can help voluntary organisations which do not necessarily have contacts in local businesses link up with interested companies. A one-day volunteering initiative can give organisations and companies a chance to establish how well they work together.

"We are looking to find opportunities in the community with a view that in a year we can focus on one or two projects," says Stace. "We didn't know anything about local projects and using Capital Cares helped us to find out about them."

The British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) organises employee-volunteering initiatives across the UK, from one-day events to longer-term commitments.

Tony Newby, volunteer support manager at BTCV, is enthusiastic about the results. "It has double benefits; a project gets done and volunteers get to know each other better and improve the work environment," says Newby.

For employee volunteering to be really successful, all parties involved must get something out of it. To make sure this happens it must be a carefully thought out and well-organised operation. An employer will want to build morale in the company and raise its profile as a socially responsible company while an employee may want to feel they are doing something useful and boost their skills. From the voluntary organisations' perspective, they are keen to get much needed work done, recruit some long-term volunteers and build a valuable relationship with a company.

Most companies interested in getting involved with employee volunteering will start with a one-off event to establish the benefits and see how their staff get on. If it goes well, they may give staff time off to volunteer regularly and a much deeper relationship between the organisation and the company can develop.

LE Group has been involved in several projects including one-off events such as a Thames clean up involving 120 staff picking up rubbish from the banks of the river. "It was good for team building and getting staff together outside the office," says employee community involvement co-ordinator Isobel Brown. "We got good press coverage and the staff say they feel more positive about the company as a result of exercises like this."

LE Group is also involved with raising money for selected charities every year and will allow staff some time to raise money within working hours.

One-off team-building days can provide publicity opportunities for the company and the voluntary organisation involved, particularly in the local press. For small local organisations without the resources to promote themselves, this may be particularly useful as a company with a media relations department may be able to take charge.

However, Newby warns that organisations must be careful not to be sidelined when it comes to media coverage. This is particularly likely to happen in large-scale projects when a number of organisations are involved.

Voluntary groups must also have a realistic approach to the amount of work involved. "Organisations should be wary of the Anneka Rice effect," says Newby. "People see events on television and the accomplishment of these enormous tasks. It makes it look easy but that's not realistic.

There are a lot of invisible hands behind the scenes making these things possible."

Newby estimates that to organise a one-day volunteering event takes BTCV and the local organisations it works with about three days. "For a one-day big PR splash opportunity, a lot of planning is needed," he says.

All projects have to be planned and assessed for risk by professionals, even a task as simple as painting a wall can take on a whole new level of risk if, for example, it involves using ladders, he points out. Volunteer managers may find they have to explain these difficulties to companies which often don't understand the complexities involved.

He suggests that working with smaller groups of employees brings more benefit to both the organisation and the volunteers involved. With large groups the activities have to be kept simple, for example picking up litter and tidying up a site.

"Smaller groups with 10 to 15 volunteers, for example, can tackle quite complicated tasks like putting up fences without too much difficulty," he says. "They can be properly supervised and staff can take on some of the more difficult tasks."

Voluntary organisations must make sure that they are not bending over backwards to accommodate a company looking for a PR opportunity and they get what they want out of a one-day event.

The National Centre for Volunteering advises that organisations ensure they really need the offer of help, and if it is not appropriate, an alternative day or event can be found. Organisations must make sure the day is planned well in advance and expectations of what is to be achieved are realistic since underestimating the work to be done can be demoralising for both the organisation and the participating staff. It is also important that there is one point of contact in the company and the organisation which will co-ordinate the day.

The most fulfilling relationships on all sides tend to be longer term relationships where staff in both the company and the voluntary organisation get to know each other.

Employees can get a greater sense of involvement in the charity and work on more complex programmes, more fun and satisfying for them, and more useful for the voluntary organisation involved. "It's much easier dealing with a company you know," says Newby. "I have been involved with companies in the long term where staff have been trained to do things such as use chainsaws."

One of the difficulties of co-ordinating employee volunteering is that approaches can come from many sources in the company: from employees, from a company's corporate social responsibility or media department or from the chief executive.

An organisation may find that different departments in a company have different requirements and expectations of the event. Requests may come into a charity's national or regional office and often there is not a specific department or procedure in the charity to deal with them.

In an attempt to consolidate and formalise employee volunteering over the past year, the National Trust has piloted an Employee Volunteering Programme centred around a web site. It received funding of £134,000 from the Active Community Unit to set up the programme launched in October in partnership with the RSPB, BTCV, Wildlife Trusts.

The trust has set annual targets for the number of employee volunteers involved in the programme, which it has exceeded in its pilot year.

Helen Toogood, project manager of the employee volunteering programme, says that it will focus on developing four main areas of employee volunteering: running group or team events, short-term attachments of up to a year, secondments of more than a year, and development schemes for newly recruited graduates. "We need to know what employers want so we can try and match their needs to a project," she says.

Newby hopes that the Employee Volunteering Scheme will help develop good practice in employee volunteering and even some kind of quality standard that could be useful across the entire sector.

At the moment it can be a great experience for employers, employees and voluntary organisations but for most organisations it tends to operate on an ad hoc basis and can be complicated for volunteer managers to co-ordinate.

QUESTIONS YOU SHOULD ASK BEFORE ORGANISING A PROJECT WITH A GROUP OF EMPLOYEE VOLUNTEERS

- What can you offer? Elicit project ideas from your staff and existing volunteers. Meet with each department head and brainstorm about ideas and ask all staff for their wish list of potential projects. You will need to think of both long-term and short-term projects as well as one-off challenge events. Also think of projects that can be done at various times e.g. before work, lunch time, after work and at weekends.

- How will your organisation or client groups benefit?

- How will your potential partner benefit from the scheme?

- You will also need to determine your organisation's ability to maintain the project.

A great deal of time and resources go into planning employee volunteering projects and you need to ensure that you have the resources for project upkeep. If you cannot commit to do this, do not undertake the project.

Source NCV employee volunteering. Web site: www.employeevolunteering.org

CASE STUDY - VSO AND ACCENTURE FIND SUCCESS IN PARTNERSHIP SCHEME

VSO has recently introduced a business partnership scheme where staff can be seconded from six months to one year to work on a VSO programme.

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