Staff volunteering: Practise what you preach

Emma Rubach

The business world has woken up to the benefits of staff volunteering, but charities have yet to join in with the same enthusiasm.

Employee volunteering is a well understood phenomenon in the UK, with large corporations queuing up to send their employees on a plethora of worthy day trips to take part in charitable activities. Not only does it benefit the image of FTSE 100 companies to be seen helping those less privileged than themselves, but these companies recognise the benefits of giving employees the chance to gain new skills and brush up old abilities that could be going to seed behind a desk.

However, their counterparts in the voluntary sector have not been so quick to take up the baton. Charities routinely offer places for employees of HSBC, Accenture and the like to come and do the right thing, but few encourage their own employees to volunteer. A spokesperson for the Institute of Volunteering Research admits that no statistics are available regarding third sector employee volunteering, although the institute is planning research in this area.

Volunteering England has recognised the severe lack of voluntary sector employee volunteers and is setting out to address the issue with a campaign called Time To Give Time. The campaign encourages voluntary organisations that let their employees volunteer to sign up and tell the world. It also advises organisations that are unsure how to put a plan in place to get its employees out of the office.

"It's about walking the walk," says Cathy McBain, project leader of employee volunteering for Volunteering England. "The sector needs to take a lead on this." She says the Time to Give Time campaign is "slowly but surely" having an effect. "It's getting a favourable response, but it is not top of the agenda for most organisations," she adds.

One of the commonly cited reasons for not allowing employees to volunteer is that it might not be cost-effective. "There is some resistance," explains McBain. "Voluntary organisations worry about donor money in the same way that private companies worry about whether volunteering is a good use of shareholder's money. But the whole point is that it's not expensive."

At Volunteering England, employee volunteers are allowed a total of six days paid leave to lend their skills out. The usual number taken is five or six.

The overall business benefits of employee volunteering are becoming well known. Allowing employees a day out of the office occasionally gives them access to new skills, boosts confidence and fosters ideas, which can be taken back to the office.

Mark works in the voluntary sector and gives his time to another charity through a staff volunteering scheme. He says his volunteering experience is important for his job. "I have the support of my employer because she believes it gives me an insight into how volunteers feel," he says. "I am able to give advice on what volunteers should expect."

Mark believes he also benefits. "By volunteering, I am giving something back to the community and giving a family valuable respite," he says.

"I have made new friends and the whole experience continues to be beneficial to all involved."

One of the most off-putting factors for low-income organisations such as charities is the daunting prospect of getting a new HR policy passed.

"It's in the make-up of the voluntary sector to believe in volunteering," says McBain of Volunteering England. "But they don't necessarily have as many formal policies and procedures. The problem is that putting HR policies in place takes a long time."

Caroline Loden, volunteer resources and marketing manager for the Children's Society, agrees. "We are planning on putting a more formal structure in place," she says. "But it's taking a while to get around to it." In the meantime, the Children's Society has always encouraged its employees to volunteer in other parts of the organisation. "It's important for our HQ staff to volunteer and gain a good understanding of what we do," explains Loden.

Another potential drawback of employee volunteering is the possibility of accidental culture clash or competition between the employee's organisation and the organisation they are volunteering for. "Competition is not generally a problem," says Loden, who volunteers for another children's charity and has never felt a conflict of interests. "I love working with children," she says. "If there are children who need help, I don't feel my job precludes me from volunteering with them as well."

But functions such as fundraising and advertising are more open to problems of competition, says Loden. The Time To Give Time campaign suggests an employee declares their interest if they are choosing an organisation to volunteer for that may clash with their job.

McBain points out that volunteer activity can be supported not only by offering leave but by allowing employees to, say, use the photocopier for their voluntary activities and encouraging them to bring fundraising into the workplace. However, she says, best practice employee volunteering policies are structured. "To be most effective they should be developed jointly with community partners," she says. "Formal programmes also have clear written policies and guidelines for time allowed for volunteering during work hours, matched funding and so forth."

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