Joe Saxton: Statutory volunteering days sound great, but they could be another burden on employers

Allowing colleagues to take time off can cause a range of problems, warns our columnist

Joe Saxton
Joe Saxton

Before the 2015 general election, the Conservatives pledged to give all staff working for larger organisations three days of paid volunteering leave year. It made a great headline at the time, but the pledge was quietly dropped by the party in 2017. But if there was such a commitment, how would it work in practice?

At nfpSynergy, all our staff have been given five days of paid volunteering leave for more than a decade now. Along the way we have had to change our policy to try to maximise take-up.

First, we discovered that five days of volunteering a year is not nearly enough to be useful for many opportunities. Even a volunteering spot at half a day a week would require 25 days a year. So five days didn’t provide enough time for people to volunteer the way many charities wanted them to.

We responded by creating a volunteer days pool, so some people in the company will do more than five volunteer days and others less. This improved take-up. A couple of our people have volunteered half a day every fortnight at a local Red Cross refugee centre, because our volunteer days pool allows them to take up to 15 days a year.

However, this has created another problem: our staff need to be happy to take up some of the workload of the volunteers. I wouldn’t say this has caused resentment, but it has required their managers to work out how to handle it.

The second problem we have had is inertia. Our employees have busy lives inside and outside work, so finding a volunteering opportunity and getting accepted takes time and energy. Aside from the small number of staff who do long-term volunteering, we don’t use up all our volunteer days in a typical year, unless we push it.

Another issue that one organisation I know of grappled with was whether to vet the organisations staff were volunteering with. What if staff said they wanted to teach football to kids? Who decides if that is really just messing about in the park with mates? Indeed, government definitions of volunteering include watching sport, trade union activity or campaigning. So could protesting against Donald Trump’s visit in July be a way of promoting paid volunteering time? I’ve heard of one charity where the trustees suggested staff should volunteer with causes aligned to its own, bringing the problem of who actually decided what was "aligned to the cause".

From the employer’s point of view, a three-day volunteering allowance for each employee is a kind of tax. If you have 80 employees, that’s the equivalent of a whole employee lost to volunteering over the course of a year. So an employer with 2,500 staff is losing 30 employees each year to volunteering. That might be great for society, but it is less good for employers.

It’s worth pointing out that any three-day volunteering policy would also be likely to include larger charities. So charities such as Action for Children, Oxfam or Leonard Cheshire, which employ thousands of staff, could each lose 100 staff a year or more in time to volunteering.

Our experience at nfpSynergy is that giving paid volunteer time to employees is great for some employees and good for morale. But it’s hard to make it equitable for all employees and could become just another burden on employers.

Joe Saxton is the founder and driver of ideas at the research consultancy nfpSynergy

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