The benefits of corporate social responsibility (CSR) for businesses are well documented: it can help to improve an organisation's reputation and aid recruitment because potential employees find altruistic organisations attractive. It can also engage employees if they feel good about where they work.
But "doing good" can also help your own individual professional development. Working in another environment - often very unlike the one you are used to - can take you out of your comfort zone and help you to acquire new skills that could help you progress in your career.
Rich Davies, head of development and projects at the College of Law, sees his charitable efforts as "informal learning opportunities" that have helped him to reflect on his own way of working. "From a personal perspective, as both a football coach and as chair of governors at a local primary school, I have been able to work with talented and experienced individuals from different sectors, working towards important agendas that are outside of my traditional working environment," he says. "It has certainly helped me understand how others approach decision-making, issue resolution and managing different relationships outside of my organisation."
According to Jacquie Irvine, co-founder of CSR agency Good Values, organisations' interest in volunteering projects has increased over the past two years. The goal now is to find charitable activities that address individuals' specific skills requirements, for example by tying CSR work into personal development plans or annual appraisals. "Middle managers or graduates tend to focus on [acquiring] leadership, communication, project management or strategic-thinking skills. Lots of voluntary activities can make use of these skills," she says. Good choices from a professional development point of view are school governor posts or, if you're more senior, becoming a trustee on a charity board.
"The key thing is to talk to your manager. What skills could you develop? What opportunities are available to you in your organisation to build those skills?" she advises. "Agree on when you will take up the opportunity with your manager and arrange it. Make sure you feed back how you have developed, register 'this is what I've learned' and the benefits that the charity got from your input."
Exposure to new areas
Perhaps the most positive aspect of getting involved in voluntary work is the fact it can take you out of your comfort zone. Isabella Brusati, a change and transformation consultant in the finance sector, has been involved in organising events and has even won an award for her social media efforts through her charity work, despite the fact that neither of these are core areas of her consultancy. "I've been able to work in ways I'm not used to, for example working as part of a committee, and I've been able to apply that to my consultancy work," she says.
Brusati works with two charities: Women in Banking and Finance, which helps women to achieve greater success in a male-dominated industry, and Dress for Success, which helps women on low incomes find employment by dressing them in a work-appropriate outfit for interview. And while she finds this work fulfilling from a personal perspective, it has also helped her visibility when networking with potential clients - so she has benefited commercially too.
Even if you're applying skills you use every day, using them in a different environment can be a great confidence booster. Emma Plackett, who works in learning and development (L&D) at department store John Lewis, found this to be the case when she worked with family charity Home Start. "I design L&D resources to use around our branches, and I used these and my recruitment skills in my charity work. But I also found a lot of my soft skills were put to good use, and it helped my confidence no end to jump in, roll my sleeves up and give something a go," she says.
But if you're tempted to jump into a voluntary stint in the hope it will boost your career overnight, Irvine sounds a word of caution. Make sure that the charity or organisation you will be working with has a real need for what you are offering - don't set up a project the organisation will never be able to sustain (such as something that requires round-the-clock maintenance) or simply re-paint a wall because it makes you feel good if it has no positive impact on the charity's goals. The best projects address specific skills needs from your point of view but give the charity something tangible as well.
Showing your current or a potential employer that you can multi-task and operate comfortably in an "alien" environment could also help you when it comes to moving up the career ladder. So the next time your organisation publicises voluntary opportunities, remember that it's not just about you giving something back, but also gaining something for yourself as well.
Case study: Emma Plackett
Emma Plackett is a partner in the learning and development department at retail chain John Lewis. One of the things that attracted her to working for the organisation was the Golden Jubilee Trust, a charity initiative set up in 2000 to mark the 50th anniversary of the John Lewis co-ownership structure. Staff at any level can apply for a secondment with a charity - approximately 50 are awarded each year on a full- or part-time basis, for a maximum of six months.
Plackett wanted to help a charity local to her in London, so she approached Home Start, which had a branch in Wandsworth, near her home. Home Start helps families, regardless of income, with parenting issues. Rather than help out "on the front line", Plackett discovered in her research that many charities need assistance with back-office issues, so she opted to help Home Start address its needs here.
"I found them an office, I helped them to build a website, raised money to buy office furniture and used my recruitment experience to help them to hire some temporary staff," she explains. Plackett took five months off for the secondment. "I'd just come out of a challenging work period and wanted to refresh my outlook," she says. "I also wanted to improve my negotiation skills and assertiveness."
Cold-calling local businesses for help and negotiating on prices helped her to achieve these goals, and she came back to her "day job" in December 2011 brimming with confidence. She says: "In terms of career progress, if I see a job now I think: 'Why don't I give it a go?' I've really surprised myself. I also really appreciate what we have in terms of infrastructure here at John Lewis."