Employee Volunteering – how can Companies and Charities make it work better?

In our last post we outlined the many benefits for companies who set up employee volunteering programmes to support local charity organisations.

Companies gain the opportunity to put their CSR values into action, and in turn get a happier, healthier workforce, increased productivity, plus lower retention and recruitment costs. Charities get a cost-effective source of labour and assistance that allows them to deliver their services more effectively.

But, despite these evident advantages, employee volunteering programmes are not always impeccable and unimpeachable.  Get them wrong and company-charity partnerships can end up racked with mutual mistrust. It is not uncommon for charities to feel suspicious that the other side of the partnership is using the association to ‘greenwash’ their reputation. Equally, companies can sometimes feel frustrated that their charity partners are not making the best use of the volunteers that the firm is providing.

Dell employees volunteering in aid of the Irish Cancer Society's Daffodil Day (Source: Cancer.ie)
Dell employees volunteering in aid of the Irish Cancer Society’s Daffodil Day (Source: Cancer.ie)

So, what can go wrong with employee volunteering programmes? And how can companies and charities avoid these pitfalls?

What Companies need to avoid when planning Employee Volunteering campaigns

Many companies don’t pay enough attention to the requirements of their non-profit partners when planning their voluntary programmes. We have heard horror stories of companies sending out 50 staff to paint the walls of a community centre when what that organisation really needed was one person to help with their accounts or develop a business plan.

In a recent Boston Globe article on employee volunteering, one charity CEO decried the all too common scenario where “a van shows up, a bunch of people get out with no real understanding of our cause, and they come with the assumption they’re getting a day in the sun or out of the office”.

In this situation, where the corporation seems more concerned with a photo op for their glossy CSR brochures than with the specific needs of the charity, we can see that what is intended as altruism can actually be a form of arrogance. Furthermore, this kind of ‘help’ can actually be a burden and a nuisance for the charity rather than something that assists the organisation and their beneficiaries.

So, instead of sending out dozens of your employees to plant shrubs or pack supermarket bags, a better way of supporting your charity partner might be for your marketing director to help build them a new website or devise a new social media strategy for them. The key for companies is to sit down with their non-profit colleagues before the direction of the partnership is decided, and say “we have employees with these particular skillsets, how might they be of service to your cause?”

Boots Ireland employees volunteering for the Irish Cancer Society (Source: Boots.ie)
Boots Ireland employees volunteering for the Irish Cancer Society (Source: Boots.ie)

The attitudes of Charities to Employee Volunteering programmes

But, this is only one side of the company-charity relationship. Perhaps there is also an onus on charities to more clearly communicate what they need – and don’t need – from businesses. The CEO of America’s Charities, Lynne Filderman, has suggested that charities need to be more assertive in outlining their requirements to potential corporate partners. As Filderman advises, charities need to say, “This is our strategy, what is yours? And how can we align our strategies”. She recommends charities present a business plan or project plan to potential partners explaining exactly how they can assist each other. Only when charities take this approach, claims Filderman, will we see “more meaningful corporate non-profit partnerships.”

However, this approach might be easier said than done for many charities. Telling potential partner companies that the assistance they are offering is inappropriate or not required runs the risk of jeopardising the relationship.  By rebuffing a company’s initial request, charities might be fearful that the corporate backer will feel snubbed and may take their largesse to a different community organisation.

Choosing the right Charity Partner

Many of these problems could be avoided if there was a greater level of strategic planning when companies and charities are selecting what partners to work with. So, what should companies be watching out for when choosing a charity partner?

When deciding on a partnership, it is a good idea to select a charity that has some link or commonality with the sector your company is operating in. There needs to be some element of ‘cultural fit’ between the two partners so that the corporate organisation is aligned with the interests of the charity. We can see instances of this in Boot’s alliance with the Irish Cancer Society and in the collaboration between the grocery retailer Lidl Ireland and the foodbank provider Crosscare.

It is also recommended to choose a charity partner that your employees know and respect. If your staff can identify with the cause the charity espouses or the societal ill it confronts, it will make it much easier to recruit volunteers to your project.

A further consideration when choosing a charity partner should be partnering with an organisation that urgently needs the specific skillsets that your employees have. A good example of this would be Eircom’s partnership with Special Olympics Ireland (SOI). Eircom didn’t just free up staff to volunteer with the organisation, but they were also able to leverage their telecommunications expertise to provide much-needed marketing and technical support to SOI. This in turn allowed SOI to generate much greater public awareness of their activities.

This latter approach – something that has been termed “Skills-based volunteering” – represents an evolution in employee volunteering. It marks a shift away from traditional corporate volunteering, where a top-down approach was generally adopted by business towards their ostensible non-profit partners.

In the next part of our series on employee volunteering, we will focus in more depth on the various different forms of volunteering that could be options for a company-charity partnership.

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