What next for employee volunteering?

Published by Lisa Basford on

It used to be the case that companies would gather their people together for a Volunteering Week (or even month). Employees would have the opportunity to volunteer and fundraise for their chosen charity. They could enjoy that feel-good factor, knowing they had supported a “good cause”. Business leaders would have the chance to promote the positive virtues of the organisation, charity partnerships would be celebrated. All in all, a good time was had by all.

The business case for volunteering has long been documented, and is now embraced by CR and HR teams alike: employee engagement (especially amongst younger employees); retention; skills development; team building are just some of the positive factors highlighted by People Management.

These employee volunteering events followed a pretty standard formula. After a rousing speech from the Executive Team, employees would make their merry way into the community to paint youth clubs, plant gardens in schools, deliver parcels to a food banks or litter-pick in the parks.  Afterwards, the number of employees taking part and their volunteer hours would be celebrated and promoted.

Image: Jed Owen on unsplash

In the shadow of a pandemic, though, this formula has had to change. Employees aren’t even at the office – less so are they likely to want to join a fundraising “fun” run or paint fences at the village school. So, what does this mean for corporate volunteering in the future?

New ways of engaging employees

Clearly, the way we engage employees through volunteering will have to adapt. Volunteering – like everything else –  has become “socially distanced” and according to UK Fundraising, the areas that are of most importance to charities are “support for individuals in using technology, befriending schemes, help with financial management and letter-writing to isolated people.”

Going Green at O2

At O2, a third of employees volunteered in 2019. Will Kirkpatrick, Head of Sustainability Operations, tells us that this year “we wanted to give as many colleagues as possible the chance to get involved again.” Using a bespoke online portal, they could sign up to various volunteering opportunities eg utilise their tech skills to deliver tutorials or check CVs for young people. “In this way we can use the capability of the business to help”, says Will. These were tried and tested ideas that had worked well in years gone by, but Will also want to take the opportunity to try something new. In line with O2’s new sustainability strategy, called The Blueprint, employees were asked to make a green pledge, with the organisation planting a tree for each action pledged. So far almost 400 pledges have been made, and these include things like switching energy providers and moving to a renewable energy tariff. The new initiatives seem to have been popular, “the whole company has got behind good causes” he says.

Individuals make the call at NHS Property Services

Maddison Hucks, CSR Coordinator at NHS Property Services and ICRS member, shares how her organisation has also adapted to the “new norm”. In previous years, the CR team organised treks and cycling challenges to raise funds. They encouraged teams to participate in community gardening and painting. They even invited community groups into their own spaces for instance using gardens at GP practices for wellbeing events. None of these are possible in 2020.

Undeterred, the team set up the Helping Hands Hub encouraging employees to help their local community by delivering PPE, picking up prescriptions, telephone befriending and other tasks. It was successful, not just in engaging employees, but also in getting help to vulnerable people quickly. PPE volunteers were on site and helping to distribute within 24 hours. Like O2, NHS Property Services also looked for a digital solution and new for this year, they connected with a new charity partner to offer employees the chance to support young people from the comfort of their own home through mentoring or careers advice.

Image: Christina Wochin on unsplash

Relinquishing control has benefits

Maddison may not have organised a big “show-stopper” event this year, but this has benefits. Colleagues who may previously have been reluctant to join in with pre-arranged activities are doing their own thing. By relinquishing control, she has observed more “DIY campaigns” with minimal organisational effort from a central team. Her expectation is that overall volunteering hours may be less than 2019 but those participating are doing so on their own terms and are more engaged and more committed. Could the impact be greater?

Tips for Employee Volunteering

  1. Embrace Digital. According to the Time Well Spent report, “ESV (employer supported volunteering) volunteers are typically involved in a more light-touch way, most commonly in events-related activities”. Since they are also more likely to be online, consider how you can move previous mass participation events online. Maddison’s Team at NHS Property Services did online escape rooms and raised funds for Carers Trust.
  2. Use the skills you already have. O2 and NHS Property Services are good examples of this through online tech tutorials or mentoring opportunities. Could you offer support on interview skills or CV writing, for example?
  3. Offer flexibility. Letting individuals plan their volunteering, at a time that suits them can drive higher levels of engagement. Maddison reports that she has seen different people volunteering this year, perhaps they had found the “forced fun” events in previous years not to their taste?
  4. Be timely. Virtual sessions should be time-bound. A one-hour virtual mentoring session might replace a day’s litter-picking, but the positive benefits can be just as great.
  5. Stay optimistic. Rather than fret about volunteer hours, Maddison is staying optimistic about what can be achieved – both for the charities they support and the impact on employees.

As Maddison says, in the pandemic “People feel helpless, they want to do something good. They want to feel good”. Finding a way to help people to help others can only be a good thing.


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