Five ways to ensure your volunteering scheme is effective

6 June 2018

Employer-supported volunteering is growing. But how do you do it well? We asked several CBI members to share their experience

We’ve already asked firms why they are keen to encourage employee volunteering, but how they do it is just as important. As appetite grows, and employers are called on to demonstrate what they give back to society, many companies are taking a more structured approach. But it’s the results that matter, so how do they ensure what they offer is meaningful?

  1. Be clear about how you can help

“In the past inner-city classrooms were getting smaller and smaller with layers of corporate paint,” says Accenture’s UK Head of Corporate Citizenship Camilla Drejer. “It’s not to say that classrooms and fences don’t need painting every once in a while, but management consultants and lawyers can probably find different ways of adding value. There's a heightened awareness that this is an opportunity to do something really meaningful.”

From a business’ perspective, this can be about aligning with wider strategic objectives or long-term needs – such as improving digital skills in the community or developing staff.

Unless you're doing something that is actually helpful to the charity, you might as well just write them a cheque

But from the charities’ point of view, managing volunteers comes at a cost. “So unless you’re doing something that is actually helpful to them, you might as well just write them a cheque,” Drejer adds. “Work with those organisations to work out how best to channel your energy.”

“Charities don’t always know what to ask for or ask for too much,” agrees Sage Foundation Manager Elaine McCulloch, adding that it’s important to have someone in-house who can understand both sides and organise efforts accordingly.

“Ask the right questions,” says Pete Westall, Group General Manager Colleague & Co-operative services at the Midcounties Co-operative. “Ask what’s important to the communities, where support is needed and how you can help. But be very careful in terms of trying to come up with solutions to society’s issues – partner with the experts to really make a difference.”

Firms also need to be realistic about the resources they have.

“Look at what resources and assets you’ve got and match them to the areas of society that would benefit from them,” says Donna Hunt, Head of Sustainability at Aggregate Industries. The company partners with rugby team Leicester Tigers to make a bigger impact among the 11- to 16-year-olds it targets than it might otherwise be able to.

Partner with the experts to really make a difference

And her advice is echoed by Felix Summers, Senior Structural Engineer at Burohappold. Before embarking on its new scheme the company conducted organisation-wide research to understand the motivations, blockers and what people wanted out of a volunteering initiative.

As a result, the engineering consultancy has taken a less is more approach. The Share Our Skills programme is based around a Dragon’s Den-style competition every six months to pick a relatively small number of global projects that are likely to have the most impact. Ideas are submitted by employees and judged by senior staff, and the company then donates up to 20 days for each successful project.

To date, these have included building a playground at a school in Manchester, in collaboration with the pupils, to help them understand about engineering and design; and developing a toolkit for flood risk reduction strategies for a slum in Nairobi, Kenya.

  1. Put a structure in place, but be flexible

For BuroHappold, the structure that governs its volunteering efforts helps it to understand what makes a good project – and importantly provides a focal point to encourage involvement.

And there are clear benefits to putting systems and processes in place to oversee what you do. Something as simple as having a charity partner can help direct your efforts, says Marguerite Ulrich, Chief Human Resources Officer at Veolia. The same goes for having one day a year set aside for everyone to get involved or for planning team activities.

Knowing what our employees are doing means we can better support them

But a more formal structure can also provide greater visibility, which can be helpful in more ways than one.

At Aggregate Industries, partnering with Leicester Tigers led to a more formal approach to volunteering across the organisation which, in turn, revealed that many of its staff were already devoting time to philanthropy. “Knowing what they are doing means we can better support them,” says Hunt. The company now provides additional training and tools to its STEM Ambassadors, for example.

Tracking the number of days or hours donated – and being able to say you’ve given 234,000 hours of company time over the past 10 years (as Midcounties Co-op has done) – can be a vital tool in telling your story and inspiring staff to continue the journey, explains Westall.

Measuring take-up by different areas of the business can also help to highlight where and why some staff struggle to get involved, says Catherine Correia, Corporate Responsibility Manager at Bristol law firm Burges Salmon. “If you’ve got the system in place so people can take time off more easily, half the battle is won,” she adds.

“But offering choice is equally important, otherwise there will always be the excuse not to do it,” says her colleague, partner Nick Graves.

Offering choice is important, otherwise there will always be the excuse not to do it

At Burges Salmon, there’s a 50:50 split between activities organised by the firm and staff choosing their own cause to support. Some will involve physical teamwork, some will play to employee’s mental abilities.

“Empower people to find their passion,” says Katherine Conway, Aon’s Head of Diversity & Inclusion and Community Affairs. “That’s quite difficult because it means that there are lots of different tasks happening at the same time. But people get more involved if they feel that it’s something that they have come up with and they want to do, rather than being dictated to.”

It often means local causes get more traction, she adds. Aon’s Leeds office, for example, works with a nearby homeless shelter.

“It’s hard – particularly for smaller business – but you have to provide a framework which enables colleagues to have the flexibility to come up with solutions to local problems, but which affords you the necessary checks and balances,” says Westall.

  1. Drive it from the top

Whatever you do, the CBI members that contributed to this piece were unanimous – effective employer-supported volunteering needs to have senior-level buy-in.

Sage Foundation reports into the Chief Financial Officer, Steve Hare, who has personally committed to raising $150,000 for an outward bounds centre near Newcastle. Another senior leader is using the five days she is entitled to take annually to climb Mount Kilimanjaro for Great Ormond Street.

“Staff can see that they can pick a cause that they personally care about and do their own thing – and importantly take the time away from their day job to do it,” says Sage Foundation Manager Elaine McCulloch.

This is not something that sits in a box, to the side of the business

“This is not something that sits in a box, to the side of the business,” says Burges Salmon’s Grave. “Our partners want to know that what we’re doing is meaningful. They want to ensure they are getting value for money – even if that’s not in the financial sense.”

Having senior reporting lines and publishing statistics as part of company meetings isn’t about naming and shaming people who don’t get involved, but it reinforces the message that it’s “culturally normal” to take the time to volunteer, he adds.

  1. Learn and adapt as you go

“Evolution is important to keep your staff engaged. It also ensures we are being responsive to what the charities need,” says Sage Foundation’s McCulloch.

“As appetite has grown, we’ve also tried to be better and better each year in terms of what we’re able to offer and how we offer access to those opportunities,” agrees Accenture’s Camilla Drejer. She points to new trends in micro-volunteering (completing a series of short tasks, rather than taking a day at a time) and digitally enabled volunteering, which have helped to increase interest and allow more people to fit it around their workloads.

We have tried to come up with ways in which we can accommodate our employees' busy schedules

“We have tried to come up with ways in which we can accommodate our employees’ busy schedules and their different styles of working,” she says.

Similarly, Sage Foundation is piloting desk-based volunteering among members of its HR team, who can offer invaluable advice to charities.

“Colleagues have to feel part of the journey,” adds McCulloch, emphasising the importance of listening to feedback.

The same goes to listening to feedback from those you work with and for, says Aggregate Industries’ Hunt. By working in schools with Leicester Tigers it has learnt more about the messages resonate with 11- to 16-year-olds – which has led to more focused campaigns to tackle bullying and encourage more of them to get on their bikes. 

“It’s okay to start with what you think and take feedback. Keep it simple, then develop supporting structures around that,” she suggests.

  1. Celebrate what you do

Measurement is not easy when it comes to volunteering and it might be difficult to pinpoint the difference you’ve made within the local community – but sharing statistics about the time and effort staff have put in is an important marker both for those within the organisation and those outside it.

“A picture tells a thousand words,” adds Veolia’s Marguerite Ulrich, who emphasises the importance of working with marketing communications to share the stories of those who have volunteered, to help generate pride among participants.

By creating a competition around its Share Our Skills initiative, BuroHappold has a built-in mechanism to help spread the word about the winning projects. The Sage Foundation meanwhile has a network of more than 300 Ambassadors to champion opportunities – and make many of them happen. 

“We couldn’t do what we do without them,” says McCulloch.

But as firms step up their efforts, formalise their approach to volunteering, and try to drive take up among their staff, sharing best practice from one company to the next will also be crucial in delivering the most meaningful results.

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