Looking after a staff team is no easy task. All their work-related and other practical needs have to managed during their working day, so why on earth would an employer care what they get up to outside working hours? They do care though. It is estimated that 70% of FTSE companies have an employer-supported volunteering programme. And while the take up by smaller companies is far lower — only a fifth or less — the numbers are increasing. Specialist companies are even setting up to help employers introduce employee volunteering. So why the excitement? Gudrun Limbrick asks what’s in it for companies?
Employee volunteering, or employer-supported volunteering, is a simple concept. Companies provide some sort of support to enable their employees to undertake volunteering if they wish to do so. This support could be in the form of an organised event with the company not only footing the bill but also finding the task and negotiating the link. An example of this type of activity could be decorating a local youth club, or cleaning the local beach – generally a one-off event.
Some companies choose to offer their employees as volunteers in providing the services of the company to a charity or community group. Thus, for example, a web design company might enable (or allow) staff members to spend a set number of hours creating a website for the local dogs’ home. This is really the equivalent of pro bono work, which could be developed to an employee being seconded to a charity.
The most hands-off employer-supported volunteering would involve the company simply allowing the individual employee to have some time off to carry out volunteer work or, perhaps if the volunteering was outside working hours, ‘matching’ the volunteer work with a donation so that the volunteer was taking double the benefit to their chosen charity or community group.
The advantages of volunteering for an individual are well documented. A sense of self-worth that comes with meeting a challenge or ‘giving something back’, increased confidence, new skills and experience for a CV, making new friends, and so on, are all potential outcomes from voluntary activity. And, of course, it is hoped that any company would benefit from well-rounded employees that have great self-esteem, lots of contacts and a diverse range of skills. However, the benefits to companies go far deeper than simply the collective benefit to individual employees.
Let’s start with purely financial benefits to employers. Team-building weekends in a rural retreat involving obstacle courses, paintballing and a free bar are not without their charms. However, they are not everyone’s cup of tea (to the point at which some people feel actively excluded) and they can be hugely expensive. A weekend spent painting an animal shelter can have huge team-building benefits at a fraction of the cost. The challenge of working together for the good of the local community can bring a diverse team together, yet needs few specialist skills and abilities. It is an all-inclusive activity promoting togetherness, individual leadership and all those other attributes that specialist team-building activities promise.
There are significant potential benefits from a PR perspective as well. The phrase ‘put your money where your mouth is’ is often very useful among local companies who appreciate action rather than words when looking at how community-focused local companies really are. Coupled with the fact that employee volunteering can often bring with it great photo opportunities, it can make quite a splash in the local media. Say a company encouraged its employees to run a sports gala for disadvantaged children in the company gym, the positive vibes created in the local community could be significant and provide lots of invaluable publicity. And a regular event could do even more to raise a company’s profile at low cost (relative to the bill from a marketing company).
Staff morale is another great boon from employee volunteering. Employees that are enabled to support groups and causes they feel passionately about through their company are likely to feel much more positively about their employer. An employer that enables them to find a new interest or a new challenge in their community is likewise likely going to improve trust and confidence in them from their employees. Companies can benefit greatly from this feel-good factor.
To capitalise on the benefits of employee volunteering, a thought-through policy is likely to have greater impact than a scattergun approach. For example, if every one of a hundred employees is given an hour off on a Friday afternoon to volunteer for a charity, the team-building, PR and staff morale benefits for the company are likely to be a lot less that if that one hundred total hours were lumped together in one big staff team event. The benefits to the charity and to the individuals involved would also increase when grouped into one concerted effort.
A policy is also useful in ensuring that the volunteering strengthens, and works with, the needs of the company. For example, an employee volunteering for the local Slug Trauma Awareness-Raising Group is probably not going to assist her garden centre employer in raising their profile amongst customers. Likewise, without a policy which enables employers to say no to some requests for support, a company can be accused of unfairness. A blunt example might be religion. There may be some religious activities a company does not want to support (perhaps because of local sensitivities or a wider PR objective) and others that it is happy to do so. Without a clear policy which vetoes, for example, employer support of all religious activity, the refusal of some activities might seem unfair. A company could also be more proactive, deciding on its team-building or PR objectives and actively planning (or specifically selecting) employee volunteering which support those objectives, without, of course, appearing cynical.
A key element of employer-supported voluntary work is that it remains just that, voluntary. As soon as there is any sense that an employee must participate, many of the potential benefits simply fade away. Promotion and encouragement is important (along with rewarding and recognising those that do take part), coercion is a definite no. Having the employees on board and invested is the most important part of any employer-supported volunteering scheme.
There is a definite sense that the more effort a company puts into employer-supported volunteering, the greater the potential benefits can be. The company that throws a bit of cash at the local community may benefit little – add a PR effort and get employees involved and it is transformed into a possible goldmine.
Far from being another burden that companies face, employer-supported volunteering is a tool in a company’s PR armoury which can also do wonders for staff motivation and retention. Being a small company is not a barrier as activities can be tailored according to the resources available. All it takes is some creativity and good links with local community groups.