Are we ready for the future of Employer Supported Volunteering?

“The low levels of participation in employer-supported volunteering (ESV) reflects a wider lack of awareness of this kind of volunteering. As well as scope to increase awareness, the fact that around a third of volunteers who participated in employer-supported volunteering in the last year felt their employers did not actively encourage it suggests there is more that could be done to promote it.”

That was the conclusion of NCVO’s Time Well Spent report, released back in January. Despite more than twenty years of attention being given to ESV in the UK it remains a marginal way for people to get involved in volunteering. Why?

First, nobody seems to have successfully sold the concept of ESV into the small and medium sized business community (SMEs). Many have tried, but ESV persists in being something large employers embrace more than SMEs, perhaps because the absence of some paid staff during the working day may be less acutely felt amongst a larger staff team.

Second, many volunteer involving organisations still get hung up on whether ESV is really volunteering. The thinking goes that if the volunteer is taking time out of their typical working day, and so being paid by the employer for that time, then they aren’t really a volunteer. Whether or not you agree with this thinking (and I firmly disagree), from an employers perspective it must be frustrating to see good causes spurning the offer of help simply because of some definitional minutiae.

Next, I think some non-profits only engage in ESV because they see it as a route to getting a donation from the employer. This creates a tension between corporate fundraising and volunteer engagement functions, tension that holds the organisation back from making the most of the opportunities presented by potential – and consequently frustrated – corporate supporters.

Finally, ESV is still seen by non-profits as either traditional team challenge activities or initiatives that deploy the professional skills of their staff into the community. Both present problems. Team challenges frequently suck up non-profit time with little positive return. Sure the employees have a great time, but sometimes the organisation, for example, gets a poorly painted room and has to hire in professional painters to fix the work done by the volunteers. Skills-based volunteering can also be challenging, especially if skilled employee volunteers are seen as a threat by paid staff who may resent volunteers doing similar work to them ‘for free’.

Yet, new ways of doing ESV are developing that most non-profits aren’t even aware of, let alone embracing. In fact, I think the non-profit sector are increasingly falling behind the thinking of businesses when it comes to this form of corporate social responsibility (CSR).

Consider the recent pilot in the USA by Starbucks and their charitable arm, The Starbucks Foundation. This is something Meridian Swift and I explored in two articles last year – you can find the first one here and the second one here.

This Starbucks pilot is one example of where employers are heading. They know that millennials want to work for employers who are truly engaged in the community, not those who just pay lip service to their warm, fuzzy CSR statements (I read somewhere that more than 50% of Millennials accept a job based upon a company’s involvement with causes). So, in an increasingly competitive marketplace for recruiting millennial talent, these businesses are developing innovative approaches to make them the employer of choice amongst young people.

What Starbucks have done is the tip of the iceberg, more will follow and, whilst these initiatives are mainly stateside, it won’t be long before they migrate to this side of the Atlantic.

Just like paid time off to volunteer during the working day, many non-profits see these innovations as ‘not volunteering’ and will steer clear. But that isn’t going to stop businesses exploring these ideas. They simply can’t afford to ignore what the the millennial workforce wants and, if we won’t get on board, they’ll simply do it without us.

As we saw at the start of this article, ESV appears to remain a marginal way for people to volunteer. In a changing landscape for CSR volunteering, finding a solution will require non-profits, fundraising departments and Volunteer Managers to embrace very different thinking about the employer / non-profit relationship of the future.

What do you think?

Note: I am aware that ESV happens in a wide variety of ways, not just paid time off work, and with employers in the private, public and voluntary sector. However, as the point of this article is not to explore the wider variety of ESV activity but to question why it isn’t making a big difference to volunteering rates, I have not explored this breadth of activity. Hence the use of the term employers and what may seem like an assumption that the supply of volunteers is only from private sector employers.

3 thoughts on “Are we ready for the future of Employer Supported Volunteering?

  1. I’ve changed my views on ESV over time having started organising a small number of days begrudgingly and then massively enjoying the experience! I’m still not keen on ESV when companies pay per head or equivalent for a day but meaningful partnerships between businesses and charities for the benefit of both cannot be a bad thing. I’ve finally got over the ‘if you’re being paid you’re not volunteering’ barrier in my mind.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting read, Rob. And I didn’t know about the Starbucks initiative (which seems to support my view).

    In the 14 years I’ve been working on this, the main point I would add is that as well as valuing volunteer management (which you understand better than anybody) and realistic measurement, recognition (reward and accreditation) is crucial for employee volunteering. It’s something I’m researching with student volunteers and starting to make a breakthrough on.

    To my knowledge, the only corporate volunteering programme in the UK that reached it’s potential was at Mid-counties Co-operative, where managers were only eligible for full bonuses if their teams volunteered in sufficient numbers and ESV was built in to training programmes. They also tracked it through by linking to HR systems to capture improved retention rates in a high turnover sector for active volunteers to off-set the relatively high cost of their programme against recruitment costs. From memory, the programme cost around £500k per year and turned a profit of £1.5m in reduced recruitment costs in an organisation with around 7000 staff. Utterly baffling that no other retailer has followed this lead from at least 8 years ago.

    Sadly, it’s much more difficult where the majority of employee volunteers are highly skilled as, whatever they do, no-one will “cover their job” while they are out volunteering so it eats into the weekend.This is also important in a US/ Canadian context as the work culture is very different – people will volunteer wearing company caps on a Saturday in the US!

    As you know, I can go on about this for ever and do get fed up about how little has progressed in 14 years. What has changed and I’m really proud of (will email you the latest report) is that we’ve linked community to study at Cass Business School.

    We’re the only university in the world were students get 15 credits towards their degree from going out into schools and mentoring young people in disadvantaged communities. This is not volunteering in the technical sense, but is a hugely important incentive and accreditation at a crucial stage in a young person’s development. It’s really working and needs to be replicated in other HE institutions – we are happy to share everything!

    Let’s catch up again soon.

    cheers, Rob

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Brilliant analysis Rob-Leaders of volunteers must be on top of this trend as all the evidence points to a major shift in employees wanting social responsibility from their employers. If we can embrace the trend, mold it to benefit our organizations, we can help shape how it will play out. If we don’t, companies will surely leave us behind.

    Liked by 1 person

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