Could the Conservatives' ambition to create the "Big Society" boost employer-supported volunteering? Guy Sheppard explores the potential for linking the two.
It was central to the Conservatives' general election campaign and will feature prominently at this week's Party conference in Birmingham.
The aim of the "Big Society" is for everybody to play an active role in improving their local community. Examples include volunteers taking over libraries threatened by closure, and parents starting new schools.
"The Big Society is a society with much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility," promises the Conservative document outlining how the idea works. It says that businesses will need to play their part by lending "their creativity and resources" to achieve the necessary cultural change.
Although not explicitly mentioned in the document, the potential for linking the idea with employer-supported volunteering (ESV) is obvious. According to Volunteering England, the current extent of ESV is unclear but a survey published in 2007 showed that the proportion of employees with access to it had doubled to 36% over the previous four years. Research published last year by the Department for Communities and Local Government found that a quarter of employees worked for organisations with a volunteering scheme.
If ESV is to expand due to its links to the Big Society, Sarah King, chief executive of the skilled volunteering charity Reach, says the suspicion that "the Government is trying to get free resources because they have not balanced their books" needs to be dispelled. She says: "The Big Society presents some huge opportunities for involving people in volunteering appropriately and effectively, but it is a fine line we have to walk here."
One example of how ESV could achieve this is a Careers Development Group (CDG) scheme which involves signing up 50,000 volunteers to help the long-term unemployed back into work. CDG chief executive Roy O'Shaughnessy insists that volunteers would only be used to help those who receive insufficient help from existing government-funded schemes: "We are not interested in taking jobs away from core career staff who have to deliver on this day in, day out."
Although volunteering is a fledgling movement among organisations helping the unemployed, he says it has obvious attractions for employers because countering unemployment has such widespread benefits at community level: "Now, more than ever, is the right time for the welfare-to-work sector to encourage those with skills, desire and time to climb aboard and volunteer their expertise."
Reach is working with CDG to raise the profile of the initiative but King warns that there are other issues to address apart from the potentially negative association with the Big Society: "The challenge at local level is that you have Business in the Community, the local CVS [council for voluntary service] and large charities in the area all making approaches for help. The smallest local companies are fielding request after request and are not resourced to deal with that."
Linking with employers
Lisa Suchet, chief executive of the Nationwide Foundation, which makes grants to charities through funding from Nationwide Building Society, agrees that there needs to be a more effective way of linking employers with volunteering opportunities: "It's difficult for businesses and charities to know where to start. Many businesses don't even say on their website 'contact us if you need volunteers'."
The foundation is funding a pilot project with three local brokerages that are intended to address this problem.
Paul Simmons, who coordinates one of these brokerages in Exeter, says large employers often struggle to match their corporate social responsibility (CSR) goals with schemes that engage staff with a diverse range of interests: "When the employer is trying to do that with one HR or CSR director, they don't have the capacity to do that themselves."
Another issue that could hinder the expansion of ESV is the inability of employers to pin down the specific benefits they draw from it. "People want to get an understanding of how to measure the impacts and benefits more tangibly," explains Suchet.
For Helen Simpson, MD of volunteering for BT, which has rapidly expanded its ESV programme over the last 18 months, this is easily addressed: "We get employees to fill in feedback questionnaires about what new skills have been gained and what old skills have been used in a different context."
She is convinced that increased pride in work is one of the main benefits, with employees feeling more engaged, motivated and "more likely to go the extra mile for the customer".
As a trustee of Volunteering England, she has become conscious of a massive surge of interest in volunteering over the last year. She attributes this to the changed economic situation: "People are wanting to invest in something that is not just about money."
She believes that the Big Society is, in part, a response to this trend and that ESV will need to be a crucial means of realising it. "Within the corporate environment, you can build an infrastructure, processes and culture. To suddenly marshal the skills of residents to address the sort of things they want addressed in the Big Society is a major logistical exercise."
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Benefits and challenges of employer-supported volunteering
Healthcare products manufacturer 3M won a local business award this year for its contribution to the community through ESV.
Its 175 employees in Loughborough are encouraged to commit one day of paid time each year for work on projects linked to 3M's CSR programme. The projects include helping schools with science and technology teaching and working on environmental projects.
Public relations manager Rosalind Smith, who organises the programme, says that around a quarter of employees took part last year: "It helps build our organisation's reputation, helps motivate and encourage employees and obviously has a beneficial impact on community groups."
The work is also used to forge links within the company. "We purposefully mix people from different sites," says Smith. "It helps people appreciate the different departments and roles within the organisation."
But she concedes that finding projects with a clear end point so employees gain a sense of achievement is not always easy. "Sometimes it is difficult to identify projects that can cater for a sufficient number of people. You have to make sure it is properly supervised and risk assessment has to be done. Community groups sometimes can't accommodate more than a few people at a time."