Employees want to volunteer in their communities and companies can help make their efforts worthwhile


Employees want to volunteer in their communities and companies can help make their efforts worthwhile

Volunteering in the community used to be characterised by employees getting involved in hands-on projects – from painting schools to planting trees – often for teambuilding purposes. Now employees are increasingly encouraged to volunteer in ways that make the best use of their core skills.

This is a different model of volunteering. The emphasis is on using the skills employees hone through their everyday work rather than seeing volunteering as an opportunity to do something outside their core competencies.

Convincing employees that their everyday skills are the most useful to the charitable sector can be a challenge. Vodafone UK Foundation head Sarah Shillito says: “We’re trying to encourage our employees to understand that going out and teaching someone how to create an Excel spreadsheet is incredibly useful. It often doesn’t occur to them that this is an asset that they have to offer.”

Many of the companies surveyed for this report go to some pains to ensure employees’ skills are used where they are most valuable. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a small team of specialised Microsoft employees worked on developing a website that consolidated data on missing people and evacuees to help families find and register missing relatives. This effort built on similar work done in response to the refugee crisis in Kosovo in the late 1990s and again after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

Microsoft allows employees to take up to three days of paid leave for volunteering. The company has developed an “opportunity matching tool” where employees can log their skills and interests and NGOs can post skill-specific opportunities for volunteering.

At IBM, staff and retirees can use the On Demand Community website to access the tools they need to support their chosen school or community organisation. Users are invited to log their volunteer hours and apply for cash or equipment grants for those groups.

At Google, engineers are showing NGOs and other groups how to use Google Earth, the company’s mapping and satellite imagery tool, to raise awareness of campaign issues. For example, a number of employees have trained members of the Suri tribe in Brazil to use Google Earth to highlight illegal logging in their territories in the Amazon rainforest.

For senior employees, leadership skills may be their greatest asset. Microsoft US allows its senior staff to take part in the Loaned Executive Program run by United Way, a US coalition of charitable groups. Through the programme, Microsoft and other companies loan some of their best executives for four months at a time to help United Way in its fundraising work with local communities.

Development tool

Companies increasingly see employee engagement in community investment as an important component of personal development.

The impact of voluntary work on employees in terms of motivation and retention, as well as attracting new recruits, has been well recognised by companies for some time. Research consistently shows that new graduates want to work for businesses that have values they believe in, and they may even be willing to accept less pay for the privilege. A BT survey in 2007 found that more than a third of the young professional respondents said working for a caring and responsible employer was more important to them than salary.

While these factors remain important, companies are now starting to see community investment as a tool that can provide opportunities for employee development, as well as assisting with recruitment and retention.

IBM’s newly launched Corporate Service Corps brings together teams of eight to 10 employees to spend a month working on a project with a small business or NGO in an emerging market, with a view to building employee leadership skills and knowledge for doing business in these markets. Celia Moore, corporate citizenship and corporate affairs executive for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, says: “The more we become a globally integrated business the more important it is that our people are aware of cultural differences and societal issues.”

Getting involved in a community investment programme can give employees a more global, rounded outlook, which has benefits for their interaction with clients. At Microsoft, the Human Resources Leadership Development programme allows teams of Microsoft executives to take on community challenges posed by three NGOs. This activity is seen as a way of developing business skills such as strategic planning and problem solving in a new setting.

At a number of companies, community investment teams are working closely with human resources to formally recognise the development potential that volunteering can offer. At Royal Bank of Scotland, volunteering is tied to the group’s personal development competency programme.

Vodafone UK’s Breakthrough employee development programme includes a module on how volunteering can help to deliver against performance drivers. This kind of integration with human resources shows employees that their company values volunteering highly, and therefore provides a much greater incentive for employees to get involved.

As organisations start to use employees in smarter ways that benefit both them as individuals and the projects they work on, the case for embedding volunteering activity into an organisation is becoming much clearer.

Royal Bank of Scotland: employees the heart

Heritage Founded in 1727. RBS’s strategic approach to community investment, focusing on financial inclusion, developed in the early 1990s with the education programme Face-to-Face with Finance (now MoneySense). RBS’s takeover of NatWest in 2001 signalled the launch of formal programmes around matched giving and employee volunteering.
Community investment structure - Sits within group communications.
- Employee-driven approach aims to support staff in whatever volunteering they wish to get involved with.
Issues of focus - Financial inclusion and capability, and developing enterprise are the two global themes at the heart of most community investment activity.
Scale of community investment spend - £38.6m in cash support in 2007.
Employee volunteering - Strongly supported through Community Cashback Awards; employees can apply for grants to their chosen charities that they are involved in.
- An estimated 20% of employees took part in community projects in 2007; 173,996 business hours were given for volunteering.
Leading activity MoneySense is RBS’s financial education programme that has been running in UK schools since 1994. The modules are designed to introduce students to basic financial principles and products. RBS has now launched MoneySense for adults. The recently relaunched MoneySense website includes a budget calculator and debt advice. Its content has been reviewed by the Citizens Advice Bureau.

Time off for good behaviour

Companies differ in whether and to what extent they allow employees to take paid time off work for volunteering. In some cases there is an entitlement to a fixed number of days a year. However, this tends to be linked to activities chosen and organised by employees themselves. Taking part in a corporate volunteering programme will be in addition to this.

Set allowances for volunteering are less popular in companies where community investment is very much driven by employees. At RBS and Google, time entitlements are felt to be unnecessary because the culture of the organisation is such that employees feel able to negotiate the time they need with line managers on a more ad hoc basis. For other companies, a fixed number of days provides a good way of incentivising employees to get involved.

Investment  SRI 

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