What’s wrong with employee volunteering?

Writing in Progress Online Tom argues that employee volunteering should not have been excluded from the Social Action Fund


The Chief Executive of a charity which organises business mentors to work with struggling charities and social enterprises felt let down when he read the sting in the tail of the Social Action Fund application form.

By sponsoring a diversity of innovative approaches to motivate ‘the giving of time, money, knowledge and assets’ the Fund seeks to promote projects within communities, not least in the spirit of the Olympic legacy. So far, so good. This new £20 million-plus initiative is clearly worth having and might have been dreamed up by any third sector or civil society minister over the years.

So why is it that the two hallmarks of this scheme that stand out the most are smoke and mirrors?

Firstly, £20-£24 million is not the definitive ‘£24 million’ that was announced a month before the scheme opened for business. This, explains the enigmatic Cabinet Office, is to ‘ensure flexibility’.

Secondly, under the Compact which guides relations between the voluntary sector and government, there is supposed to be a decent period of time for consultation and responding to new funding streams. In the case of the Social Action Fund, which launched in early October and closed for bids on 2 November, the Compact has not been observed.

A second round of bidding from a fund of unspecified size is expected some time next year.

Third, there is a minimum level of bid of £100,000 which is a major disincentive for small, local organisations to scale up existing initiatives or experiment with new ones. The demand for applicants to have a two year track record is sensible but this is going to be a big boys’ club.

Fourth, haven’t we already got Olympic legacy funding in place? Doesn’t it already include many thousands of new volunteering places for people to do wonderful things either directly or indirectly related to the Games themselves? Considering how much money was diverted away from charitable causes in order to fund the Olympics in the first place the Social Action Fund could be seen as a further diversion.

The fifth argument is what got the Chief Executive’s goat and it is pretty fundamental.

The Government has said that it wants business to play its part in the Big Society and quite right, too. Employee volunteering is an under-utilised resource in this country. Much current practice is superficial, with companies measuring inputs (how many hours were volunteered) rather than the more meaningful outputs (what happened) or impacts (what changed).

There is a strong argument for a major boost in employee volunteering with the American experience showing what is possible. It can be a positive influence in communities, a potent human resources tool within business and a significant element of employee engagement and contentment.

So why are employee volunteering projects specifically excluded from the SAF remit? Boosting employee volunteering would have been pushing at an open door. Instead, by targeting the Fund on community volunteering in which Britain already excels and where initiatives of this size may well be subject to the law of diminishing returns, an opportunity is being missed.