The freedom to never volunteer together

The freedom to never volunteer together

I recently read the brilliant book, “Four Thousand Weeks” by Oliver Burkeman. Combining insights from philosophy and psychology, the book is recommended for anyone interested in productivity and how we spend our time in the modern world. One chapter in particular really made me think about the future of volunteering and I wanted to share those thoughts with you.

If you’re not familiar with his book, Oliver argues against the typical approaches to time and productivity management, pointing out that we cannot possibly get everything done in the average human lifespan of four thousand weeks. He proposes that when we drop the pretence of getting everything done we open up new ways of thinking about how we spend our time, embracing rather than denying our limitations.

Towards the end of the book, there is a chapter called, ‘The Loneliness Of The Digital Nomad’, that challenged my thinking about the future of volunteering.

Oliver starts the chapter by pointing out that so much modern productivity thinking is geared towards helping each of us individually to take control of our time. Being in charge of our own schedule, doing things on our own terms, is often the goal. We can perhaps see that most clearly in the way work is being re-shaped by the Covid-19 pandemic, with many of us wanting more control over when and where we work.

As Oliver explains, this flexibility and emphasis on us (not our teams, colleagues etc.) can lead to increased misalignment of our schedules, not only with those we work with, but potentially with our friends and families as well.

For example, if we know we work best in the evenings then, with our newfound workplace flexibility geared to our needs, we can now more easily do that. But, in the before-times, when we perhaps worked to a organisationally driven schedule, evenings might have been the time we used to socialise or spend time with family. Thus, in our pursuit for more control over our schedule to work when we want to, we may be impeding valuable social connections that the old ways of working made possible.

This could have significant implications, because having free time (away from work) isn’t much good if you can’t experience it with others.

“Having free time but not being able to use it with others isn’t just useless, it’s unpleasant.”

Oliver illustrates this with the way the former Soviet Union allocated shift patterns for workers in factories. For maximum efficiency, people were placed in colour coded shifts of four days on, one day off, often regardless of their connection to each other. So, two friends might be on totally different shift patterns meaning their days off work never aligned. This even happened to husbands and wives, even though it wasn’t supposed to! Needless to say this did not make for happy lives or relationships, even if it made for productive factories. Whist we may not be being forced into shift patterns, we are increasingly choosing the hours and places we work on our individual terms, and not so much in regard to others.

Oliver also highlights Swedish research that showed that when people took time off work they were happier, but when they took time off work with others, happiness increased even more. And this wasn’t just when friends and family took time off together. The effect was also seen when more people in Sweden were off work, regardless of how well they knew each other, people were happier. Even retired people were happier when others took time off work!

Simply put, taking control of our own schedules may result in more freedom to choose when and where we work, but this potentially makes it harder to forge connections, not only at work, but in our wider lives too. And, as volunteering doesn’t exist in a bubble, I think there are some potential implications for volunteering.

As more of us switch to working from home more often, working away from others on schedules that work for us but may be misaligned with others in our lives (colleagues, friends, family, other volunteers), might this not also have negative implications for how and when we volunteer? Could all this freedom about when, where and how we work mean we never get to volunteer together again?

We know that for many, volunteering is a social activity. Studies frequently state that one of the top motivations for people to volunteer is to meet people and make friends. We know this is especially true of 18-34 year olds, the age group most likely to say volunteering was important to them as a means of combatting social isolation in NCVO’s 2019 study, Time Well Spent.

As workplaces move increasingly to allow all of us to organise our time on our own terms, do we make it harder for that social, human connection to be realised in volunteering?

Away from concerns about the spread of Covid-19, is pushing more and more volunteering online, into roles that are increasingly done alone, on individual schedules and remotely, a good thing for volunteering? What about for our communities and wider society overall?

What about those who need the social connection volunteering provides: the young, the lonely, the isolated and many others? If we make it harder and harder to give them the human connection they thrive on because it’s cheaper for our organisations to close offices, work remotely and do more online, is that something we are comfortable with?

If we gain more personal freedom, but at the cost of never coming together to see or make new friends, of never coming together to volunteer, is that a world we want?

Of course there are many perspectives and nuances to these reflections. Changes in how we work might also create opportunities for volunteering, as I outlined in a blog post about employee volunteering earlier this year. Growth in online volunteering might help tackle challenges around inclusion, diversity, equity and access.

What I am asking, based on thinking prompted by Oliver’s book, is whether we are looking at all the angles? Whether, in our rush to re-shape our lives and communities after the pandemic, we are thinking about what we might lose as well as what we might gain, and whether we are happy with that trade off.

That’s why I’m excited to be be hosting the next AVM Book Club meeting at 430pm on 28th June 2022 where we will be discussing the concepts and ideas presented in “Four Thousand Weeks”. There are more details available and you can book your free place (for AVM members only) here.

If you’re not an AVM member, or you can’t join us in June, or you just want to get your thoughts out now, then please leave a comment below.


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Is employer supported volunteering changing?

Is employer supported volunteering changing?

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:

  1. How the pandemic has changed our working lives, and so may change ESV
  2. The opportunities of millennial recruitment
  3. 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:

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?”


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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.

More questions about the new Starbucks Service Fellows initiative

On the 12th October I published an article raising five questions about a new corporate social responsibility (CSR) pilot from Starbucks in the USA. By happy coincidence, this appeared two weeks after my American friend and colleague the amazing Meridian Swift had published another article challenging leaders of volunteers to be aware of and engage with corporate volunteering. Both articles shared common threads so it seemed sensible to work together to develop the thinking further.

Meridian and I got our thinking caps on and devised some further questions that we felt needed asking. These relate not just to the Starbucks pilot, but to employee volunteering more broadly as well. What follows is the product of our joint efforts to try and provide some answers.


HOW WILL THIS AFFECT ME, IN MY OFFICE, IN MY TOWN, AND WHAT DO I DO ABOUT IT?

Meridian: It’s reasonable to think that since there are only 36 employees participating in 13 cities across the United States, it won’t really affect me at all. However, if you live in the areas served by this initiative, it might. The Points of Light (POL) network affiliates involved in this initial pairing are:

HandsOn Atlanta; HandsOn Bay Area; Boston Cares; HandsOn Broward, FL; Chicago Cares; VolunteerNow (Dallas); Volunteer Fairfax; Volunteer Houston; HandsOn Miami; HandsOn Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul); HandsOn Greater Phoenix; Seattle Works; and United Way of Greater St. Louis.

The affiliate organizations listed above act as clearinghouses for local volunteer programs. If your volunteer engagement program has a relationship with one of the above affiliates, it’s conceivable that your organization benefits downstream from this resource.

Starbucks has plans to increase their volunteering commitment next year and if successful, they could extend it into other countries as well. In support of this first pilot cohort, the Starbucks Foundation awarded POL a grant and a portion of that grant provides each of the Fellows with an hourly stipend – much like a national service placement awards their living stipend. These 36 Starbucks partners spend up to 20 hours each week at one of the placement sites listed above.

We must realize this initiative will grow and begin to prepare for future changes in how we cultivate and engage volunteers. We have become accustomed to corporate groups seeking one-time projects for team building and to increase their CSR (corporate social responsibility) visibility, but the Starbucks Service Fellows are a whole new level of corporate participation.

SHOULD WE BE PREPARED FOR MORE OF THIS? IS THIS WHERE CORPORATE VOLUNTEERING IS GOING?

Meridian: Oh, my gosh, yes. Consider this direct quote from Natalye Paquin, President and CEO of Points of Light: “We believe this bold program, designed in partnership with Starbucks, will redefine corporate engagement and the private sector’s ability to support civic engagement.”

Others are already jumping on the bandwagon. A Chick-fil-A restaurant in Indiana recently made news when the owner decided to pay his employees to volunteer while his store was closed for remodeling.

We are in a corporate volunteering pivotal time. No, I take that back. Due to societal shifts and social media, we are about to be hit by a tidal wave of corporate volunteer participation. The private sector is getting deeply involved, as I alluded to in my blog post in September. If volunteer engagement professionals do not get on top of this trend right now, corporations will become frustrated at our lack of preparation and ability to provide the level of engagement they are looking for in a partnership. The sad reality is, they will bypass us completely, and they have the talent and money to do it.

ARE THERE GOING TO BE BUSINESSES WHO ADMIRE STARBUCKS AND WANT TO BE LIKE THEM, SO THEY WILL ATTEMPT TO MODEL THIS INITIATIVE?

Rob: Almost certainly, yes. Here’s another quote from Natalye Paquin, President and CEO of Points of Light:

“Starbucks’ investment in the 13 communities served by this initiative will not only spark positive change through more than 17,000 hours of community service, but it also serves as a model for an employer-led capacity-building program that Starbucks and other corporate partners can scale globally in the future.”

It’s important to remember that this pilot seems to be driven primarily as a way to attract millennial employees. As the UK’s Guardian newspaper stated in their coverage of this story:

”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.”

Furthermore:

“According to the 2014 Millennial Impact Report, one-third of Millennials surveyed said that their companies’ volunteer policies affected their decision to apply for a job, 39% said that it influenced their decision to interview, and 55% said that such policies played into their decision to accept an offer.”

Employers of all sizes and all sectors are facing the challenge of providing incentives to hire millennial staff. Baby boomers are ageing into retirement, leaving a shortage of labour thanks to the smaller cohort of Generation X. Competition for millennials will, therefore, increase and we shouldn’t be surprised to see businesses looking to volunteerism related options as a way of winning the recruitment battle.

In fact, the question isn’t really whether we’ll see more of these kinds of initiatives from corporations, but whether the public and non-profit sectors might follow suit as they try to pry some of that millennial talent away from the private sector.

WHAT EXACTLY ARE THESE “SERVICE FELLOWS” DOING? A REGULAR VOLUNTEER’S JOB? A REGULAR EMPLOYEE’S JOB? OR SOMETHING THAT CAN’T REPLACE ANYONE ALREADY THERE?

Rob: Good question. Right now we don’t really know. However, as our colleague Jerome Tennille pointed out when commenting via social media on Rob’s blog post:

“This model of service is similar to AmeriCorps, and most non-profits are familiar with how to integrate them in. The difference here is that it’s funded by a private entity.”

If Jerome is right then we can expect to see Starbucks Service Fellows stepping into roles similar to those undertaken by AmeriCorps members.

Back in March 2010 our colleague Susan J Ellis wrote an article encouraging managers of volunteers to engage with the then emerging AmeriCorps programme to ensure the roles provided didn’t have negative effects. Chief amongst Susan’s concerns was organisations would hire AmeriCorps members to lead volunteer management, rather than making long-term, strategic investments in this important function.

We would echo Susan’s call today, eight years on. Leaders of volunteers have to engage to make this scheme a success for everyone, not just Starbucks. It is essential that volunteer managers at non-profits are part of the planning as these innovations in corporate giving develop. We need to make sure our voices are heard, influence these schemes for the good of our organisations and clients.

In fact, Susan’s concerns are perhaps more acute for the Starbucks model where placement will only be for six months. Imagine getting a new (and possibly relatively inexperienced) service fellow coming into the organisation twice a year – would your organisation benefit or suffer from that turnover in the leadership and management of volunteers? Please don’t just dismiss these schemes as not volunteering, burying your head in the sand in the hope they will go away. Get involved, speak up or it may be your job that service fellows take.

DID THEY CONSULT A VOLUNTEER ENGAGEMENT EXPERT? WHAT ARRANGEMENTS ARE IN PLACE WITH THE POL AFFILIATE NONPROFITS?

Meridian: I have reached out to Starbucks press and a few of the local affiliate organizations who are recipients of the Starbucks Service Fellows, but haven’t yet had a lot of luck in connecting.

I realize that this is a new program and they may not have enough good information to share at this point but what I have gathered is Starbucks and Points of Light are striving to change the way corporations think about employee engagement and the use of their human capital/resources to support strengthening nonprofits and communities. Since Points of Light is the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service, they are experts in volunteerism, so my guess is there was a good deal of consulting between these two giants in their respective sectors.

Since this is a joint partnership between Starbucks and Points of Light, it naturally follows that Points of Light would choose affiliate partners across the country. There are more than 200 volunteer mobilizing organizations or affiliates, which share a common mission, goals and approach. The affiliates may pair Starbucks Fellows with local non-profit partners, but that is yet unclear.

IS THIS ONE OF THOSE LOFTY, NOT THOUGHT OUT EDICTS FROM ABOVE THAT WILL MAKE A VOLUNTEER MANAGER’S LIFE A LIVING HELL BECAUSE NO INPUT WAS ASKED FOR?

Rob: As we’ve already noted, Starbucks are doing this because they want an advantage when recruiting millennial employees. Points of Light are doing it because they have affiliates who will “benefit from focused volunteer efforts that align with Starbucks’ global social impact priorities, with a focus on opportunity youth, refugees, veterans and military families, hunger, environment and disaster recovery.”

Whether we agree with those motivations or not (and who are we to judge?), that’s what we know.

Boards and senior managers will rush to engage with corporations with the volunteer management professionals likely to be the last to know what they’ve been signed up for.

This is especially true with CSR programmes where the impetus comes from fundraising colleagues – in the hope the corporate will make cash donations – or communications colleagues looking for a public relations coup.

For schemes like this to be a success the volunteer manager cannot just be the poor schmuck who gets responsibility for making it work dumped on them. That may not have been the case in the Starbucks example, but we can see it happening in future, to the detriment of all involved. Non-profits need their leader of volunteer engagement involved from the get-go and we need to be making this case now, before it’s too late.

WILL VOLUNTEERING BE ON-SITE OR IS IT PROJECT BASED OFF-SITE?

Meridian: We have no evidence at this time. Whether the service fellows will follow a prescribed national plan or will be allowed to meet local needs remains unclear. It appears they will volunteer in the areas that align with Starbuck’s philanthropic priorities, which include opportunity youth, refugees, veterans and military families, hunger, environment and disaster recovery.

Hurricane Michael recently devastated the areas around Mexico Beach in Florida and according to the Starbucks press release, a Starbucks shift supervisor from Florida will work on hurricane preparedness and hurricane relief with HandsOn Broward. Their involvement may be according to local needs but we just don’t know yet.

WHAT ROLE SHOULD BODIES LIKE POINTS OF LIGHT HAVE IN FUTURE, REPRESENTING NON-PROFITS AND VOLUNTEER MANAGERS?

Rob: The role of a broker in corporate volunteering can be a really important one, as Dr. Joanne Cook and Dr. Jon Burchell highlighted in their 2015 paper, “Employer Supported Volunteering: Realising The Potential” (summary article available here):

”The challenge is finding what people in the business will engage with, and the skills that the charities want, identifying this is the challenge and that’s where the brokerage comes in.”

In the Starbucks initiative, POL played a brokerage role between the company and their own local affiliates, matching needs and priorities between both parties. Yet as schemes like this develop and spread the importance of brokers will grow, with a neutral party necessary to help match corporates and non-profits in a fair manner. Key to this will be supporting non-profits to assert their needs rather than just capitulating to whatever business requests. As in any volunteering relationship, mutual benefit is essential, so brokers will need to ensure a level playing field as both parties negotiate the details of corporate volunteering relationships.

We also think brokers and intermediaries have a responsibility to ensure the volunteer management voice is heard in non-profits. As noted before, all too often the desire to work with business is driven by the lure of a cash donation, marginalizing the input of a volunteer engagement professional in favour of corporate fundraising priorities. This mustn’t happen! If volunteer managers are left out of the planning loop then they will struggle to deliver on what their bosses and corporate partners want and need, weakening the relationship limiting the potential for success.

IF WE WERE VOLUNTEER MANAGERS ON THE RECEIVING END OF THIS, WHAT WOULD WE LIKE TO KNOW?

Rob: OK, over to you. This is your chance to collaborate with us on this article and move the debate forward. Imagine your organisation is looking to get involved in something like the Starbucks / Points of Light initiative. What questions would you have; for the corporation; for your board and senior managers; for other paid staff colleagues in your organisation (e.g. HR, fundraising); and perhaps for your existing volunteers and those coming from the business?

Leave a comment in the comments section below with the things you’d like to know and add your voice to the debate.

We look forward to reading your thoughts.

Rob and Meridian

Five questions about the new Starbucks ‘volunteering’ initiative

Just a few weeks ago my attention was drawn to a headline in The Guardian newspaper, ”Paying employees to volunteer could be key to keeping millennial staff”.

The article reported on Starbucks who, in the USA, have partnered with the Points of Light Foundation to create an initiative designed to attract millennials to work at the coffee chain. As The Guardian reports:

“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.”

In response to such challenges, Starbucks is running a six-month pilot program where thirty-six employees in thirteen US cities will continue to get full pay while working at selected non-profit organisations for half the work week. These so called ‘service fellows’ will put in twenty hours at their Starbucks store and then another twenty hours at a local Points of Light affiliate. This non-profit will be doing work that aligns with Starbucks’ social impact priorities. According to The Guardian, the stated goal of the pilot is to accumulate a total of 17,000 hours work before the end of February 2019.

Having pondered this scheme for a few weeks, here are five questions I have about it.

1 – Is this really volunteering?

There are some people who do not consider any time given by any employee during the normal working day to be volunteering. The argument is that they are being paid by their employer and, as financial benefit is excluded from the definition of volunteering, such activity can’t be volunteering.

It’s not a viewpoint I agree with. If you are an employee, then your employer pays you for the time you take as holiday (it is sometimes explicitly called paid leave) but you wouldn’t consider yourself to be at work on the beach with a drink in your hand. Why should volunteering been seen differently?

But I digress slight. Getting back to the Starbucks pilot, it is interesting to note that the money being used to pay for the time spent working at non-profits will come from the Starbucks Foundation rather than direct from the company. Does this make a difference?

Similarly, when it comes to defining what they do as volunteering, if the millennial Starbucks employees participate of their own free will (and perhaps even choose the non-profit they will work with), does this exercise of free will help classify what they do as volunteering?

Will participating non-profits make a meaningful distinction between this scheme and, for example, a business releasing employees for a couple of hours a week to perhaps help kids who are struggling to read? Or will they just gratefully grab 20 hours a week of someone’s time that they don’t have to pay a salary for?

Definitions of volunteering are notoriously unhelpful and vague. So is this volunteering or not, and does it matter?

2 – Who is creating and funding the 20 hour a week roles for these millennial Starbucks staff?

My second question is for those Points of Light affiliated non-profits who take part in this scheme. You are getting 20 hours a week of time from a (hopefully) enthusiastic young person. You’re not having to pay for that time. But how are you funding the creation of the roles these people will do?

Who is paying for the time your staff will have to spend identifying the work, creating the role, providing equipment like a desk, computer etc. and of course providing day-to-day management of the ‘service fellow’?

Where is that time and money coming from?

What mission-focused work might not get done because your colleagues are focused instead on giving Starbucks some good PR?

3 – What are the implications for volunteer management in the host organisations?

As I just mentioned, the Starbucks ‘service fellows’ are going to need management support. I can’t see many HR departments falling over themselves to step up to that job. Nor can I imagine most current managers are going to thrill to the idea of having another person to line-manage, especially a millennial part-timer. Inevitably, whether we think this scheme is volunteering or not, it’s the Volunteer Managers who are going to be asked to step in.

If Volunteer Managers get involved in this work, do they have the time and resources to take on this extra responsibility? Remember, most people who lead volunteering are not employed full-time in that role. Most are lucky if they get a few hours a week to focus on volunteering because their main job responsibilities come first. What will not get done if they now manage Starbucks ‘service fellows’? Will support for other volunteers suffer?

Finally, whether it is the Volunteer Manager or someone else who ends up managing the ‘service fellows’, will Points of Light be vetting the participating affiliates to make sure they have good volunteer management practices, especially for engaging millennials? After all, we don’t want to put people off volunteering by giving them a bad experience!

4 – What are the implications for volunteering and paid jobs in non-profits if initiatives like this supply volunteers who work 20 hours a week?

Let’s say this scheme is a success. Starbucks are happy, their employees are happy and the non-profits they work with are happy. The scheme is extended. Great! But would it be?

I can see many non-profits stampeding to avail themselves of 20 hours a week of ‘free labour’. They would prefer these ‘service fellows’ to those annoying regular volunteers who: sometimes don’t turn up; gripe if their expenses don’t get paid; moan when nobody thanks them for coming; and are a huge risk because they don’t get paid and so can’t be trusted or relied upon.

Would non-profits start to think differently about their paid workforce too? After all, if they can have people work there for twenty hours a week for six months (or maybe more in future) and someone else pays their salary, doesn’t that mean more money for the mission rather than those blasted admin costs and overheads that the media and public always complain about?

Whether employee or volunteer, if I was at the participating non-profits I’d be worried.

5 – It’s all about Starbucks, isn’t it?

Isn’t the emphasis and implied benefit here all about Starbucks and their ability to attract and retain millennials? As my other questions suggest, the impact on non-profits might actually be harmful – job losses, increased costs, volunteer turnover etc..

Remember, the goal by which the pilot’s success will be measured is whether seventeen thousand hours of time is spent by ‘service fellows’ in partner non-profits. Nothing is said about the impact those millennials will have on the missions of those organisations. Sigh.

So, what do you think?

Have you got an opinion on any of these questions?

Have you got additional questions you’d like to ask?

Engage in the debate by leaving a comment on this article or the your social media network you found this story on, using the hashtag #questionsforstarbucks