Employer-supported volunteering: everyone’s a winner!

Volunteering is gaining in popularity as more people recognise that giving back to the community can offer many rewards. Two factors have contributed to this growth. First, an increase in unemployment across all professions and at all levels, has resulted in more people with a variety of skills who are available to volunteer. Secondly, there has been a significant rise in employer engagement in the corporate social responsibility agenda.

In the past, contributions from the private sector were more focused on monetary donations and fundraising activities for charities and community services providers. Now however, organisations are increasingly exploring alternative ways to develop business-community partnerships including involvement in employer supported volunteer schemes.

Companies that are involved in Employer Supported Volunteer (ESV) schemes offer their staff opportunities to take part in volunteering activities. Staff can participate in a one-off event or commit to an ongoing programme, such as weekly literacy assistance for young people. Organisations vary in relation to the level of support they give their employees to enable them to contribute. Some programmes provide opportunities for volunteers to get involved in their own time, others offer paid time off or flexi-time to cover hours spent or time off in lieu.

Research by the Institute of Volunteering Research (2007), shows that a key factor in employee participation in ESV schemes is “the extent to which employers offered flexible working arrangements to enable their employees to get involved”. Those companies that can offer time for staff to participate and who develop their scheme as an integral part of their HR strategy, thereby creating an environment that promotes volunteering, will be most successful in engaging staff. 

In the current environment, many businesses may question why they would divert resources to developing an ESV. A growing body of research supports the view that ESV schemes are good for business in a number of ways:

Developing the skills and competencies of the workforce. Employees can be exposed to a wider range of tasks and responsibilities than they might get in their daily jobs.  For example, junior staff may get the opportunity to ‘act up’ and explore and develop their leadership skills. Senior staff can benefit from stepping back and reflecting on their management style.  Volunteering opportunities can also be useful in teambuilding, communication, decision-making and project management skills. Informal learning and development of this nature will complement and enhance any formal staff training the organisation offers.  

Improving employee perception of the company.  A survey, carried out by FI Group (now Xansa UK) in 2001, found that 70 per cent of staff involved in volunteering supported by their employers, reported that “as well as personal or professional development, they had an improved perception of their company.”  Employees who feel greater pride in their organisation will be more engaged and motivated and loyal to their company which in turn will positively affect staff retention.  

Improving corporate branding.  The company can build a positive profile within the community through the volunteer programme. Good media coverage will also help promote this image to a wider audience including existing and potential customers and clients, potential investors and partners, as well as attracting potential employees to company. Employee volunteers also act as ambassadors for the business.

Innovation and creativity.  Volunteering opportunities can enhance creativity and idea generation as participants get involved in new tasks and ways of accomplishing them and take this learning back to the workplace. 

Just as employers have much to gain from ESV schemes, so do individuals and voluntary organisations. A UK study, Helping Out: a national survey of volunteering and charitable giving (2007), surveyed volunteers involved in ESV schemes and found that 67 per cent got “a sense satisfaction from seeing the results” and 43 per cent felt a sense of “personal achievement”.  

Additional benefits include:

Developing personal and professional skills. Participants are able to utilising existing skills in a different context as well as trying new activities thereby gaining knowledge, experience, skills and ideas which may be transferable to the workplace;

  • Developing confidence and self esteem;
  • Meeting different  people and extending social networks;
  • Connecting with the community.

Organisations that use employee volunteers gain immensely from their contribution. Often, voluntary organisations have great ideas but they lack the resources to carry them out. Whether they need assistance with a one-off project such as painting a building or help with a more sustained initiative that requires longer term support, ESV schemes can provide teams of volunteers who will plan and carry out the activities. 

Volunteers will bring skills, knowledge, ideas and enthusiasm to each project. They may also be able to offer more ‘business like’ solutions to operational and funding issues. Furthermore, just as companies benefit from a raised profile within the community, so does the voluntary organisation. Improved public awareness of the voluntary organisation and the work that they do, is likely to increase the chances of more volunteers, donations and funding, thus enabling the voluntary organisation to flourish and possibly expand its work. 

So, why is employer-supported volunteering on the increase?  It’s because everyone involved – employers, employees, voluntary organisations and the wider community – has something to gain.