What we need to do to get effective employee volunteering

On 7 December Civil Society published Tom’s response to a new report…

CIPD and NCVO’s report on employee volunteering is a missed opportunity; my worry for both the voluntary sector and responsible business is that the Government’s ‘3-day’ policy on employee supported volunteering (ESV) will be another.

Missing from the report – as from most discussions of ESV – is the question of incentive. Why should employers support employees to give time and skills to others in company time? What’s in it for them? There’s a simple answer: good ESV, building relationships between employees / company and voluntary sector groups instills in staff a sense of purpose greater than tallying figures or making widgets. A sense of employee engagement is a highly valued commodity for which many companies would give their eye teeth. They know that engaged employees value their company and regard their work as a force for good; they stay in post longer, they’re more productive, better ambassadors – and they even take fewer days off sick.

ESV can – should – help employees develop new skills, both practical and soft, use existing skills in new environments and develop problem-solving capacities. These are all good for the company! The report raises the red herring: ‘how can these employees be volunteers when they’re being paid?’ The answer’s simple: the employees are not volunteering, it’s the company that’s donating its time and skills for nothing. But it can expect a return: a more highly skilled, engaged and motivated workforce.

A company once said to me: ‘Everything we do is evaluated in terms of outcomes except ESV, which is measured by time (input)’. Quite right. From the recipient charity’s point of view the hours don’t matter – what matters is the difference the volunteering makes, its impact. Failing to acknowledge this is a serious omission. Any ESV activity which takes place one day but is undetectable a week later might as well never have happened.

Companies too often regard team volunteering more highly for their own team building purposes than for its community benefits.

The report acknowledges that small businesses (SMEs) are time poor compared to corporates but that’s not the whole story. SMEs typically have no HR department, no dedicated CSR staff, little communication with others in the field – and there’s no leadership on community engagement within their sector. Yes, SMEs are a great potential resource for smaller, local charities but they are rarely approached in the right way so those mutual benefits are lost, as my own research shows.

I worry that when BIS legislates on the 3-day ESV policy it will do so on the cheap. It will not require volunteering to meet quality standards, will provide no incentives for employers to engage and, above all, will not invest in the voluntary sector infrastructure that a massive tidal wave of new volunteers will generate if the policy succeeds; existing ESV infrastructure won’t cope. The CIPD/NCVO report doesn’t ask what success looks like; the better the policy goes, on the Government’s terms, the more challenges it will create for charities. And if it isn’t a success, who will notice?

The Government already promotes volunteering by civil servants, though the 3 days per year target (set before 2010 but downgraded by the Coalition) has never been met even though the Government controls its implementation. However, it has produced some outcomes of good quality.

I read a book recently in which the author welcomed ‘a trend among industry to release employees for voluntary work while remaining on salary’. ‘Hear, hear’! It was written in 1977: we’ve made little progress since then in reaping the tangible benefits that ESV can bring to employees, charities and companies and this report could have championed that journey better.