Comment: Ed Mayo of UK social enterprise Pilotlight argues for a new model of corporate volunteering that will allow companies to ‘give back better’

What was your best day at work? When asking this question of people from time to time, I am reminded how much richness of motivation there can be when work is driven by the needs of others. It is this point of inspiration that I believe can open up new patterns of work in future, where employers can build in explicit time for staff to do good as part of their role.

Purpose matters. Psychoanalytic theories about work suggest that people need a clear concept of their “primary task” if they are to flourish and function well in the workplace. But there is often a profound mismatch between the language of purpose in modern business and the experience of it in people’s daily work. The language of teamwork in many an enterprise sits uncomfortably with the reality of hierarchies and inequalities of power and reward, the language of values in tension with the behaviours of corporate control and leadership. The truth is that every organisation has values, but they may just be the wrong ones. Power, status and reward, for example, are values in the dictionary sense of the word. But if they dominate organisational life, they shape workplace cultures that are unequal, untrusting and uncaring.

So, in a future work setting, can we learn the right values? The answer is not to send employees on a training course. It is to do something different, which is to set aside time for workers to do work in the wider community that they know to be good. The name for this is an old one – pro bono work – but in a new context.

What we have evolved is a programme of skills transfer of mutual benefit to both sides, charity and business

The model we are evolving in our work at Pilotlight, the business skills charity, is to set up programmes of exchange between business and charities, focused on learning by doing good. It is an extraordinary, tough time for charities right now, with charity sector income in sharp decline and 58% of charities reported to be planning cuts in services – all at a time of rising need. So, what we have evolved is a programme of skills transfer of mutual benefit to both sides, charity and business. We have recruited around 550 people, typically from a senior business setting, who now give their skills for public good, forming teams that provide strategic coaching support for small charities and social enterprises through a process that is curated and evaluated with care, to ensure that the skills exchange is effective.

For the charities, this is free support and the outcomes in terms of leadership learning and organisational development are significant. Charities that work with Pilotlight increase on average their reach, the number of service users or beneficiaries, by 36% in the two years after the support. For those participating from business (‘Pilotlighters’), there are also benefits that come from practising their work skills in an entirely new context. Some of the key learning outcomes, all characteristics of purposeful leadership, include improved confidence in working with values-led organisations; coaching skills; listening skills; understanding of different values perspectives; understanding of different contexts and styles of values-based leadership; personal networks and understanding of social needs.

This is one example of the potential from a wider field of corporate volunteering that appears to be growing. Most of Britain’s workers want to volunteer their professional skills to charities – and arguably their employers could benefit from making it easier to do so. Just over one in five UK workers (21%) are already putting their work skills into use on a voluntary basis – around six million people – and a further 50% would like to volunteer using their professional skills. They are looking for their employer to give them the time or support to do this.

The fit with contemporary patterns of remote and agile working is a good one. If what we do helps to sustain the world around us, we don’t need to be motivated by those above us; what motivates us is the work itself. There is less need for systems to regulate and police what we do. We are more likely to participate where we can and change where we need to. Work becomes what the futurist James Robertson in the 1980s labelled “own work”.

Pro bono skills giving is good for business and good for society and all employers should be doing it

Just as there is now a right to request flexible leave, so in future work, there could be a right to suggest volunteering. So, on the back of rising interest, and in line with wider policy campaigns to #reset the economy, #buildbackbetter and an #imperative21 (excuse the rash of hashtags) we have launched a new business campaign calling on employers to create more opportunities for staff to volunteer their skills to good causes.

Paul Drechsler CBE, Chair of London First and former CBI President, is championing Pilotlight’s Give Back Better campaign, which calls on employers to create a lockdown legacy by widening corporate volunteering. In his words, “pro bono skills giving is good for business and good for society and all employers should be doing it, especially now when charities need support more than ever. There has never been such a great opportunity for employees to volunteer and make a really big difference, learn and show what a great force for good their organisation and business can be. This is a huge opportunity for achievement, satisfaction and pride for a small investment of time.”

Done well, corporate volunteering can help to answer one central question, which is one for us all. Why work?

Ed Mayo is chief executive of Pilotlight, a social enterprise that connects companies with charitable organisations to unlock solutions that help charities thrive.


Pilotlight  #buildbackbetter  purpose  CBI  #resettheeconomy  volunteering 

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