News in focus: Is redundancy a potential source of voluntary help?

The British Heart Foundation is encouraging retiring company employees to volunteer and now wants to extend the initiative to include people who are long-term sick or redundant. Dominic Wood investigates.

In two weeks' time, the annual conference of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development will hear about the British Heart Foundation's scheme to use volunteering to help with the problems of redundancy and long-term sick leave.

The foundation's existing body of volunteers is dwindling as they age.

To solve this, BHF proposes boosting numbers by recruiting not only people at the point of retirement, but also younger people who have lost their jobs or can no longer endure stressful work because of illness (Third Sector, 15 September).

The BHF needs about 5,500 extra volunteers to work in its head office, charity shops and in community fundraising. So far the foundation has only tried to recruit people just before they retire, an approach that has had some success and remains the primary focus of the recruit-ment drive.

Its next move will be to persuade people coming up to retirement to get their employers' permission to volunteer for a day a week, with a view to giving more time once they stop work. "We have tested this scheme on a small scale by approaching retail outlets to seek permission to talk to the staff," says Aneesha Moreira, the charity's director of fundraising.

However, the later phases of the plan - recruiting people who have been made redundant or have long-term health problems - are likely to be more problematic. This is despite the fact the foundation has the laudable goal of helping people to return to normal work.

Moreira says these more complex areas were explored in focus groups involving nine corporations. "There was a good deal of interest in the focus groups," she says, "but what remains to be seen is whether their encouraging response continues when the plans really happen."

Some experts have reservations, however. Andy Forster is head of policy at Volunteering England, which provides advice on good practice in volunteer management. He says: "The idea that volunteering can be a stepping stone into employment concerns me because there is no evidence to suggest it works and because volunteering is different to work, and should be measured as such."

He also points to potential problems over state benefits for people who have qualified for long-term incapacity benefits but are also volunteering.

"There would have to be a very clear distinction between an employee making a voluntary contribution to a charity and their normal work," he says.

One HR director points out that some people might get stuck in the volunteering phase and never make it back into full-time employment. Another source says that soliciting volunteers among the newly-redundant and long-term sick "would be a delicate matter, akin to ambulance chasing".

Nevertheless, the scheme seems likely to get a positive reception at the CIPD conference, which runs from 27-29 October. Stephen Dunn, UK director of human resources at Scottish Power, says his company already uses what he calls "a stepped return as a pro-active approach to rehabilitation", and claims this produces a better "returned employee".

He welcomes the initiative on people who are retiring: "Volunteering at an organisation such as the BHF is clearly useful, particularly following coronary illness, as there is an in-built consideration for those employees. Phasing into retirement takes away the cliff edge that many employees fear and eases them into a new life."

Two other charities on the brink of launching massive volunteer recruitment drives (Third Sector, 15 September and 6 October) are also enthusiastic about the BHF scheme. Childline's national director for England, Justin Irwin, says he hopes to float the idea in his own corporate focus groups, while a spokeswoman for Girlguiding UK says it is an idea the charity should explore.

CASE STUDY: ANDREW PHILLIPS, REACH

Andrew Phillips was a 46-year-old retail sales manager with Barclays Bank when he was made redundant. Instead of sitting at home feeling sorry for himself, he volunteered for the charity Reach, which finds voluntary work for people with business management skills.

This led to a full-time paid job as a business development manager at Reach, with Barclays paying two-thirds of his £30,000 salary for two years because the charity is part of the bank's community placement scheme.

"It was a godsend to me because it gave me the opportunity to develop new skills in PR and marketing," says Phillips.

His case is an example of what the British Heart Foundation is hoping to do in the longer term. Its success will clearly depend on the willingness of companies to follow the example of Barclays and pay at least part of the wages of their former employees.

But, Phillips suggests this idea might not be well received elsewhere because many companies with pre-existing employee volunteering schemes might be reluctant to help their employees volunteer outside their strict parameters.

He adds that the foundation is following a path that Reach has pioneered in the past five years, creating links with companies to help people who retire or are made redundant. "We are almost a rival to the BHF because we find volunteering opportunities to support all charities," he says.

However, Reach hasn't extended its services to the long-term sick in the manner proposed by the BHF. Phillips says it sounds like a good idea that could be added to the package it offers to companies, alongside help for people retiring or being made redundant.

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