Employer Supported Volunteering (ESV) has been around for well over thirty years. It’s gone through some changes in that time, but nothing radical. Which makes me wonder: now we’re coming out of the pandemic, could we be about to see real and significant future change in employee volunteering?
I don’t have any answers, but I do have thoughts, so here are three areas I want to look at in this article:
- How the pandemic has changed our working lives, and so may change ESV
- The opportunities of millennial recruitment
- Employee volunteering as direct action
Throughout this post, I’ll pose some questions, and it’d be great to hear your thoughts on these, so please consider leaving a comment at the end of the article.
How the pandemic has changed our working lives and so may change ESV
I live in Grantham, a small market town in Lincolnshire, England. We have a population of about 44,500. We’re located on the A1, the main road linking London and Edinburgh. Furthermore, we are a stop on the East Coast Main Line, the railway connecting London to Leeds, Doncaster, York, Newcastle, and Edinburgh. We have the A52 running through town, the main road connecting the agricultural fenlands to the road transport network, and cities like Nottingham.
I mention all those connections because they directly relate to the expansion of Grantham. Hundreds of houses have been built, with more to come because living here is an attractive proposition. The cost of living is much lower than in the South East, and the transport connections make it possible to commute to London in a little over an hour. The urban centres of Leeds, York, Lincoln, Peterborough, and Nottingham are all within an hour by road or rail.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, these changes were having a significant effect in the local community. People were moving here but not spending most of their time here. They mainly spent Monday to Friday at work in one of those towns and cities mentioned above. They would leave Grantham early in the morning and return late at night. Weekends were when they actually lived here, and those days were taken up with the usual leisure activities and family commitments. This left very little time for volunteering. For these people, employee volunteering may have been the only way they could get involved, and that was most likely taking place in the communities where they worked, not in Grantham where they lived.
Those who did live here during the week were largely retirees. An ageing population, not all of whom volunteered but, those who did, were slowly dwindling in number. This left local Volunteer Involving Organisations with a problem — fewer ‘traditional volunteers’ and a growing population unavailable to volunteer when the organisations needed them.
Then along comes Covid-19.
Fast-forward to today. With a widespread vaccination roll-out, offices are re-opening, but commuter numbers are not even close to where they were two years ago. This means more and more people working from home, living and working in Grantham — they don’t just sleep and spend weekends here any more. And working from home perhaps affords a greater flexibility in their lives than before. In short, unlike before the pandemic, they could now volunteer here in Grantham, potentially on any day of the week.
Are the employers of those staff working from home in Grantham looking at the opportunities and challenges this presents for employee volunteering? For example:
- Supporting their staff to get involved with smaller, community-based nonprofits, rather than the big name charities, as might have been the case before.
- Shifting their focus away from ESV as a team building activity that brings employees together, to a more skills-based approach in communities across the country, not just where large offices are located.
- Exploring the practicalities of employee volunteering from home, from capturing data on what their volunteers do, to monitoring paid time off to volunteer, to facilitating links between employee volunteer and local organisations.
- Helping local Volunteer Involving Organisations to create opportunities that accommodate the talents of professional, skilled workers who may be looking to volunteer in significantly different ways than these organisations are used to.
Of course, Grantham is not the only community in the country (or the world) that could tell a similar story of how the pandemic has affected local life. How have such changes influenced your community, and what might that mean for employee volunteering as a result?
The opportunities of millennial recruitment
In 2018, Meridian Swift and I wrote about a new ‘volunteering initiative’ from Starbucks in the USA. You can find the links to our two articles below:
- Five questions about the new Starbucks ‘volunteering’ initiative
- More questions about the new Starbucks Service Fellows initiative
The motivation behind this initiative was to try to attract more millennials to make Starbucks their employe of choice. As The Guardian newspaper reported at the time:
”18-34 years old are quickly becoming the largest group of employees in the workplace. Business owners, both big and small, are trying to come up with innovative benefits to attract the best and the brightest people of this generation to their company as well as keeping existing employees happy and motivated.”
Back in 2018 I was seeing this kind of issue borne out in the USA more than the UK. I still don’t think it’s a big feature of ESV here four years later, either. But it may well become so.
As the UK faces labour shortages brought about by Brexit and the pandemic, employers are all too aware of the need to recruit the best people into their workforce. With the huge baby boomer cohort continuing to retire in vast numbers, and a comparatively small Generation X population, this places the focus squarely on recruitment of the larger Millennial generation.
How might UK employees factor ESV into their offer to Millennials? Might we see more initiatives like Starbucks tried in 2018, initiatives which might challenge our understanding of volunteering? Might employers need to embrace the issues illustrated earlier by my story from Grantham, giving Millennials time and space to engage in local causes that matter to them where they live, not just where the corporate offices are located?
How might Volunteer Involving Organisations get on the front foot with these issues? Are we prepared to be flexible on our concept of volunteering? Can we actively promote employee volunteering opportunities to businesses as a way of addressing their Millennial recruitment challenges? What might we need to change to create more ESV opportunities for our employees, potentially making us more attractive to Millennials who want to work in our sector?
Employee volunteering as direct action
For a few years now, the traditional team challenge approach to ESV has been declining. Fewer groups of employees have been setting out to, for example, paint the local community centre or clean a canal towpath.
In place of these team challenges, employee volunteering has morphed into something where individuals or groups of employees use their professional skills to help nonprofits on a project basis. This could be, for example, developing a new marketing plan or designing and building a website.
A third approach to employee volunteering is starting to gain traction now, too. If employees can take paid time off work to paint a wall or help organise an event, why can’t they also take time off to take part in a protest march or some other form of direct action? It’s rarely referred to as volunteering but, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, then perhaps it’s a duck!
We may not think of Black Lives Matter or Extinction Rebellion protestors as volunteers, but they are, they certainly fit the accepted definitions of a volunteer. So, what if employees want to choose this form of service as their employee volunteering? Or volunteering for a candidate for political office? Are employers willing to allow this? Would your employer? Would you?
My colleague Jerome Tennille has written more insightfully and eloquently on this evolution of ESV than I possibly can, and I really encourage you to read his thoughts on the issue from his June 2020 blog post.
Jerome also brought my attention to this May 2021 story from the USA about the company Peloton allowing staff time off for, “voting, volunteering for a candidate, participating in peaceful and lawful demonstrations, or any other time devoted to civic participation.”
So, there are my thoughts on how we might see Employer Supported Volunteering changing in the future. Now it’s over to you?
What do you think?
What other issues can you see driving change in this area?
Do you agree with some of my observations or see things differently?
Leave a comment below and let’s get the conversation started.
See also my 2019 blog post, ”Are we ready for the future of Employer Supported Volunteering?”