Rhoda Steel: Volunteering needs to be placed at the heart of an organisation for it to succeed

Fostering a culture of doing good has positive effects both inside and outside the workplace, writes our guest columnist

Rhoda Steel
Rhoda Steel

Third Sector recently published an article by Joe Saxton on corporate volunteering initiatives. The piece suggested that five days volunteering per employee was not enough to make any significant difference, highlighted the administrative time investment and argued that these programmes can be both a burden on employees looking for opportunities and a tax upon companies that effectively lose employee time and capacity.

In 2017, more than 3,400 of our employees at Johnson & Johnson volunteered for up to five days each in the UK. When combined, this equated to 15 staff working full time in the community for a year and raised more than £125,000 for charities across the UK and internationally. For this reason, we would argue that five days is a reasonable allowance that is capable of making a significant difference.

We’ve had an overwhelming level of employee buy-in and we think that this is down to the approach we’ve taken to promoting the initiative. Companies struggling with participation levels need to examine how they are selling the opportunity to employees and look at the example that they’re setting as organisations. To make volunteering truly successful, companies should put it at the heart of their ethos and aim to create a culture revolving around "doing good". This will attract employees who are more likely to volunteer and make volunteering a cultural norm. We achieve this through our Credo, with which all employees are familiar.

It’s important for organisations to offer a mix of company-sponsored volunteering opportunities and placements that employees seek out for themselves. We have global initiatives such as Open Arms Malawi (providing care and shelter to children) and Operation Smile (surgeries to the vulnerable), but many of our offices across the UK also have their own local charities and partnerships that offer employees a chance to give back closer to home. Importantly, staff have the option of arranging their own placements independently. Providing company-sponsored options removes the employee’s barrier of time and effort searching for a placement, but we must ensure that they feel adequate choice is available.

On the subject of choice, it’s important that volunteering shouldn’t be obligatory. Although we encourage staff to participate, we must all respect that it is a personal decision and not everyone will want to take part.

We have found that the biggest driver of participation in volunteering lies in teamwork and healthy competition. We’ve created an initiative that invites employees to create volunteering teams that work together for local charities and reach goals related to target hours. This has created a sense of friendly competition and a feeling of camaraderie among team members, making it more enjoyable and improving retention rates.

It must be noted that we are fortunate to be a larger organisation: the greater number of employees means that volunteering absences have less of an effect of the organisation.

Fostering a culture of doing good, creating a sense of competition through teamwork and goals, and offering volunteering as an engaging, enjoyable means to work on existing skills can provide real value both inside and outside organisations. Volunteering should never be considered a burden or a tax, and the contributions of employees, whether one day or five, should never be doubted.

Rhoda Steel is the UK head of corporate social responsibility at Johnson & Johnson

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