Why UK charities rarely benefit from the rise in corporate volunteering

Dan Corry
BUSINESSES are under the cosh. They feel under pressure to show that they care about more than just maximising profits whatever it takes, and are keen to demonstrate their wider role to customers, to the public, and to their own staff. One way of doing this is by getting their employees to volunteer to help charities and social enterprises. These projects, of course, also have business benefits. Team building, staff engagement, bonding, recruitment, and retention can all be improved.

And employee volunteering is indeed on the rise, with over 81 per cent of companies now participating in employee volunteering schemes versus just 31 per cent in 1992. But how much good does employee volunteering do for the charities and the people they are trying to help? And, crucially, could it do better?

We view both sides of the corporate-charity relationship. Charities rarely say what they really think of the volunteers offered up to them. But the way they see it, employee volunteering is a price charities have to pay for the possibility of corporate donations further down the line. Often, the value of corporate volunteering on its own is pretty small or even negative.

We have all heard stories of highly experienced (and expensive) lawyers painting walls and raking leaves at the local community centre. Sometimes the company goes so far as to count the value of this “donation” as the value of their staff time in their normal jobs. This is a very misleading guide to the actual value to the charity; if all the staff had chipped in a tenner to hire a painter for the day, the job would probably have been done better in any case.

Another common complaint is the hassle and the cost implications of receiving volunteers: a huge amount of time and effort is involved with coordinating volunteers – with the wrong skill set and expectations – to do something useful, to create a job for them, to manage and supervise them.

But it does not need to be like this. Not surprisingly, corporates have got quite good at thinking about how to arrange employee volunteering to maximise business benefits and to measure them. They can easily ask the same questions about how to maximise benefits to the charities and their beneficiaries, and to measure the social impact of the hours and hours of volunteering work in the UK.

We know some firms are already intelligent on this. Some corporates work with local experts who really know what charities need. A great example of this is the partnership Macquarie Bank has formed with the Cripplegate Foundation, an Islington based charitable funder. There, local needs and employee skills are understood and matched, and feedback is received from the charity on the value of the support. Others, such as John Lewis and the Big Four accountancy firms, are reviewing their programmes and redesigning them to increase their charitable impact.

It is great that the number of volunteers is increasing. But with more thought on how to make it more effective, and more effort to assess what works, we can all do better.

Dan Corry is chief executive of New Philanthropy Capital, and a former Downing Street adviser.