Why the time is right to consider staff volunteering schemes

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Good employers should take note of the increased interest in voluntary work, driven by the community spirit the early stages of the pandemic brought, and recognise it as an opportunity for learning and development, writes Ed Mayo.

The past six months have, frankly, put us all into a different orbit. For many of us, it has shifted where and when we work and advanced the progress of flexible working by a decade or more. But beyond the ‘where’ and ‘when’, I also believe that it has influenced many people to think in a more profound way about how they deploy their time, and their professional skills, and the kind of society in which they want to exist and participate.

In the spring and early summer months of strict lockdown, the country witnessed a heart-warming rise in mutual aid and voluntary action. WhatsApp was for neighbours what Zoom became for remote workers.

Some of this energy later dissipated but that wasn’t necessarily surprising. After all, the extraordinary circumstances meant many people had more time and motivation, plus the convenience of new, pop-up methods of volunteering right on their doorstep.

But while the level of action fell away, the spirit of voluntarism remains. All tragedies and adversity entail silver linings or unexpected benefits. And the first wave of this pandemic looks set to have two, linked legacies; a growing appetite for purpose-driven work and increasing demands on companies to live up to this through what they offer employees.

Employers should view corporate volunteering as an obvious and effective way to rise to these challenges. And the good news is, it’s already happening in many places, and there are plenty of examples of good practice.

Research published last month by Pilotlight suggests that three million workers in the UK are currently sharing their professional skills with good causes with the support or knowledge of their employer – and they overwhelmingly believe that businesses themselves benefit from employee volunteering.

That same research shows that a further 50% of all workers want to volunteer their professional skills to charities but struggle to find the time or means to do so. They want help from employers – over three quarters of workers say they expect business to help people volunteer, and a similar proportion view it as a way to develop their skills and knowledge.

Improving skills and satisfaction

All of these attitudes are held most strongly by under 35s, but are also common across the workforce. This all points to a big opportunity for improving employee satisfaction and business skills through extending corporate volunteering.

So, step forward people and L&D leaders to meet this huge unmet employee demand to contribute and learn. Corporate volunteering is not just a philanthropic act, but an opportunity to improve engagement and personal development of all staff, as well as improve employer brand and stakeholder relations. There is no legal right to request volunteering time, but as part of the flexible working agenda, more employers are offering it as an option.

Here are some approaches employers might explore when looking at the option of corporate volunteering:

  1. Use the skills that your staff team has in a new setting. Professional skills can be more valuable for charities and rewarding for volunteers than shaking fundraising buckets, or painting fences. It all helps of course, but this way, a few hours a month of ‘strategic volunteering’ of this kind could create more impact than days of activity.
  2. Develop a framework that aligns your support for employee volunteering with learning goals and evaluates it against those objectives, such as understanding social issues, coaching skills or strategic planning.
  3. Take care with the charities you select or work through an intermediary such as Pilotlight, itself a charity, so that you can be assured that you are investing your times and skills wisely and that there is evidence of impact and learning. Remember to treat charities as a genuine partner; this has to work for them and not just for you.
  4. Recognise the social value of many smaller, local charities and their power to effect change in communities – the largest charities often have a developed infrastructure for forging business partnerships, but they are not your only option.

While it’s not straightforward to pull off corporate volunteering, the need is present and rising. The majority of charity leaders have been on the lookout for skilled pro bono volunteers since long before the pandemic struck, as the annual Weston Charity Awards Small Charity Leaders Insight Report demonstrates.

With remote working, commercial uncertainty and stop-start organisation change, it will be canny to invest in something of a new glue to hold people together. Corporate volunteering? Staff want it and the time is right for it.

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Ed Mayo

About Ed Mayo

Ed Mayo is the CEO of business skills charity Pilotlight.
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