Corporate Eye

Eight Tips For Corporate Volunteering

It’s almost certain that you’ve never heard of the the Global Corporate Volunteer Council (GCVC).  Created by the International Association for Volunteer Effort, its founding members include Citi Bank, Disney, Levi Strauss and Samsung.

Corporate volunteering is nothing new: a business releases its employees from their day job to allow them to engage with the civil society within which the company exists. How long the release is for varies between a day a month and a week a year.  Sometimes the employee receives a stipend from their employer, sometimes they don’t.

International corporate volunteering (ICV) is much the same beast but on a bigger scale.  Businesses place their employees on a volunteer basis in international projects where their skills can contribute to the achievement of a defined goal.  Sometimes these can take months to achieve, sometimes shorter.

Back in June 2011 GCVC published a final report into the international state of ICV, and it makes interesting reading.  Part of the report is “Seven Learnings” which, although aimed specifically at ICV, are almost equally applicable to any company of any size running a volunteer programme.

Seven Tips for Corporate Volunteering

The seven “learnings” are as follows.  Yes I promised you eight tips, and the eighth is my own addition at the end.

1) Inspiration is better than Best.  Adopt “inspiring practices” not “best practice”.  “Best Practice” is a matter of perspective, which can change from company to company let alone industry to industry or country to country.   It’s far better to inspire a community, not impose the strictures of the business world

2) Use your employees strategically. There’s no sense in using an accountant to set up an IT network, or a techie to try and understand the myriad paths of corporate law.  Play to your employees strengths and interests, leverage them as assets

3) Partner with NGOs.  This almost seems like a no-brainer but it’s a real measure of a corporation’s motivation for engaging with civil society.  NGOs will know how best to use a company’s personnel assets on the ground .. you need to partner with them in order to get the maximum from your investment

4) Celebrate the difference.  There is no empirical solution which makes a successful business or a successful NGO.  Just because a corporation, commercial or otherwise, organises  itself differently to you doesn’t make it “wrong”.  Embrace that difference and above all look to learn from the partnership

5) Measurement and evaluation. Understand and accept that the purpose of corporate volunteering is not to bring commercial gain or profit to your company or your partnering NGOs; the goal can be far more simple: help local youths to form a rock band, clear the local river of choking reeds; the greatest evaluation of corporate volunteering is that the individual’s efforts have contributed to the community

6) Technology: This is perhaps the greatest leverage companies can bring to bear yet it’s probably also the most underused; for example, a business will plan to have enough bandwidth to cope with peak demand, yet surely it can give some of that bandwidth to an NGO when traffic is slack? Co-hosting, in other words.

7) Skills based volunteering: On the face of it this seems wonderful: a business volunteers an employee to work on a NFP project and gain a little bit of the reflected glory; but I don’t like it, and it leads me to ask one simple question…

What’s wrong with Corporate Volunteering?

I think it’s fair to say I’m sceptical of all corporate volunteer programmes in any shape or form.  This is because there is an implied assumption by a business that it can treat an employee, their interests and skills, as an asset to be deployed as best they see fit.

As an extreme example, I doubt any company would release its employees to work for volunteer movements such as Occupy Wall Street or Anonymous.

Businesses need to realise that their employees often have opinions and goals which are not aligned to the corporate line.  At present, work consumes most of an adult’s working life and allows little space for the individual’s engagement in civil society

Corporate volunteering today doesn’t really allow a person to express their individuality  … rather it subsumes that individuality into the commercial ambitions of the  corporate whole.

To me, that seems to work against and not for civil society.  This is why I’m much more in favour of a reduction in working hours across the board, as promoted by the Rethink Work project I’m involved in.

This advocates that working hours should be cut across the board. One figure proposed by the New Economics Foundation is 21 hours / week.  This is not what Rethink Work proposes, but it’s as a good figure to toss around as any.

On the face of it this may seem like a ridiculous curtailment of employment and business, but there is very strong evidence in favour of such a cut.  This includes:

  • in a local economy, a 21 hour week would stimulate employment and spread income around the community; effectively two people would be employed for every job today (2* £15K rather than 1*£30K); there are issues around knowledge retention, but studies have also shown that having two perspectives on a job makes a company more competitive, not less
  • evidence has also shown that once people have greater free time they engage more with civil society and are more willing to give their time to those causes and issues which they hold dear; the corollary to this is that current working practices repress civil engagement
  • as civil society becomes more commercially active it will open a new market for companies to compete in and provide services to; this is, perhaps, the greater expression of a market economy where people are not just working and consuming for “a job” but are also doing so on behalf of a cause which they really want to see succeed.

From my own research, I believe there is overwhelming evidence that cutting the 40-hour day would be far more beneficial to civil and commercial society than retaining it.  However it’s not heavily promoted because it takes a person’s self-expression out of the hands of a business or their financiers and places if firmly in that individual’s hands.

In short, I think businesses must now start to think about how they give their employees the freedom to engage with civil society *on their own terms*.

So this is my eighth tip: cut working hours.  Relinquish commercial control of your employees’ lives; stop seeing them as assets and start seeing them as partners.  This will bring the greatest stimulation to a business’ local economy, and surely nothing can be more socially responsible than that?

As for the photos… 

You may wonder why this post is so photo heavy, and I wonder what effect they’ve had on you.  There’s an African child holding his hands up, a Caucasian woman hugging an African child, and an African woman surrounded by African children.

What’s unique about these pictures is that they’ve all been taken from a single photo: Hands up to say thanks to the donors who funded the house!, by Emma Taylor under CC Attribution License.

Without putting too strong a point on it the diversity of a person’s point of view can be exceptionally powerful, whether they see it through the lens of a camera or the needs of a commercial enterprise.

The challenge for business is to expand the definition of what is worthwhile, recognise how corporate volunteering can  strengthen society’s commercial foundation, and see the world as something more than an opportunity to be exploited.

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A former CTO, Chris has a broad and varied background. He’s been involved with blue chips, consultancies & SMEs across a wide variety of sectors and has worked in Europe, the Middle East and Australia. In 2007 he decided to combine his knowledge of business and IT with his passion for all things sustainable and has been busy writing ever since. However, his greatest ambition remains to brew the perfect cup of coffee.