I often get asked the question: Does corporate volunteering really work? To put it simply, it can, but it often doesn’t – and even if it is working, it’s very unlikely to be reaching its full potential.
As a senior executive, partner or director of a business, setting the strategy for the organization is part of your duty. Maximizing returns for the partners or shareholders is also part of your fiduciary responsibility. Getting your corporate social responsibility strategy right can and should be a profit centre back to your company, and how you deploy your resources in this area is very much part of that strategy.
Corporate volunteering, in the traditional sense, is when businesses give their staff one work day to volunteer with their charity of choice – a tactic that is probably wasting both the company’s time and that of the charity partner.
You may ask, “How can this be a waste of time for the charity? We are skilled professionals working for free to make a difference.”
Put yourself in the charity’s shoes, and consider that you have a well-meaning, highly qualified individual turn up for the day to help. Just for one day. Once a year.
After you get the introductions out of the way, have shared a coffee and arranged a security pass, the charity has approximately six hours’ worth of productive time left before you leave their office and return again, perhaps, in a year’s time. No one stands to get much value out of this type of relationship because, really, how can they?
One of two things is likely to happen when staff members participate in corporate volunteering.
Those who take the day off and work productively with a charity have most likely been doing some sort of volunteering for several years, and it is already part of their life. The business giving them the day off just allows them to go on company time. The other likely scenario is that the employee’s volunteering day is spent at the beach, where they’ll be working hard on catching waves or getting a tan.
So, can it work?
The answer is yes, it can work. Just like any other initiative the company takes, if there is a considered strategy behind the program, there is a greater chance of success and a meaningful value exchange between both parties.
In Doing Good by Doing Good
, I share a number of examples as to how corporate volunteering can work, from large firms down to small businesses and even sole practitioners.
Often the most effective resource you can offer a charity or non-profit is those skills you use on a daily basis and get financially rewarded for. If you are an accountant, lawyer or provider of professional services, there is a strong chance that you are better at providing those services than you are at building houses or mending leaking roofs.
Sashi Veale of Sashi Veale and Associates is an accountant who, for years, has been supporting charity by preparing the financial accounts for a select number of charities on a voluntary basis. She does this above and beyond her commercial work, and, although I haven’t seen Sashi on the end of a hammer, I have a strong suspicion that the value she brings to the charities she supports is far greater through her provision of ‘voluntary’ professional services. After all, this is what the charities she supports need.
Part of the argument around corporate volunteering is, if the firm that I’m a partner of only offers our professional services on a pro bono basis, do we miss out on the engagement and the shared experience of actually ‘getting our hands dirty?’
After all, isn’t part of a good corporate social responsibility program the shared experience that leads to higher levels of staff engagement, improved morale and increased staff retention, and if so, how is doing more of what they do, but for no fee, achieving that outcome?
This is where a strategic approach is required. Ask those internally who are participating in the program: “Who is this volunteering really for?” If the honest answer is the charity partner, then the provision of professional services they are in need of will achieve that outcome. If it is more akin to a team-building exercise, and the charity is the vehicle for that program, then the direction of the program is different. The latter is not wrong, just a different approach with a different outcome.
It’s about getting the strategy right, and this is where the opportunity to create a meaningful experience really exists.
Is one day per year helpful?
Let’s return to the concept of volunteering one day per year. You might be the senior executive or director of an organization with 400 people. You offer each of them one day off a year to volunteer with their charity of choice, or perhaps with the charity your business supports.
The first question to ask is how many of those 400 staff actually avail themselves of the day and use it for the intended purpose? Of those, how many are providing meaningful assistance to the charity they are working with? And finally, how many of those who don’t take it would be happy to see it used by someone who was interested and did have the relationship? This is where we can leverage some real value.
If two-thirds of the staff donated their day back to the organization, and those days were taken consecutively by one person to work at one organization, this would give the charity a dedicated full-time worker for the entire year. Now we start to see real value to the charity.
What flows back to your business? A story of meaningful change – one person working full-time leading a project within a charity can bring about real change.
So, does this mean there is no place for the group volunteering days when we all put on overalls and insert a paint brush into our right hand? No, it does not.
One of the most memorable days I have had working with a corporate team was when I led 103 members of AIA Insurance into the Khlong Toei slums of Bangkok in Thailand. For close to eight hours, they toiled away in a place they had never been and were unlikely to ever return, for people they had never met nor were likely to meet again, but they had one of the richest shared experiences you can imagine.
Peter Baines, OAM, became passionate about sustainable leadership after he was part of the natural disaster response team for the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. Today, he helps businesses build effective sustainable leadership. He is the author of Doing Good by Doing Good.