Bridging the gaps in employer sponsored volunteering

Jon Burchell and Joe CookDr. Jon Burchell is Senior Lecturer in Management at the University of Sheffield and Dr. Joanne Cook is Reader in Organisational behaviour and Human Resource Management at the University of Hull

There has been a significant increase in employer sponsored (some call it supported) volunteering (ESV) whereby companies encourage their staff to engage in volunteering activities within work time. While this has brought a new resource into the third sector, our understanding of its actual impact is still relatively patchy.

What information does exist on ESV tends to simply reiterate:

  • the ‘business case’ for how companies can gain from ESV rather than looking at broader questions of what the employees gain from the experience
  • what third sector groups can do to engage and manage the influx of employee volunteers
  • how these resources are being distributed.

Our research into ESV over the past five years has targeted many of these issues and identified some important challenges for the future development of this form of volunteering.  In particular:

  • the limited channels for engagement  between businesses and third sector organisations
  • the different resource challenges and constraints of engaging employee volunteers
  • the potentially significant role of brokerage organisations in effectively connecting organisations.

Indeed the need for greater communication opportunities between business and the voluntary sector resulted in us creating an Employee Volunteering Network in Yorkshire and Humberside, bringing together private, public and third sector organisations to discuss some of the challenges and opportunities posed by ESV.

It is clear that ESV holds the potential to provide resources to the third sector while simultaneously engaging employees and providing key skills development for employers. However currently ESV’s potential is restricted due to a number of key gaps that need to be overcome. Most notably:

The knowledge gap

Our research highlights the need for greater understanding of what both sides are looking for from ESV; developing a common language to enable groups to engage effectively with one another.

Companies are often unaware of the resource and time costs to third sector groups of taking on employee volunteers. Similarly, third sector groups spoke of how they were unsure how to ‘pitch’ opportunities to businesses in terms of skills development.

On both sides there appeared to be relatively little understanding of the role of brokers and the potential value they can bring to establishing successful relationships.

The capacity gap

Capacity building work needs to be done to help more third sector groups become ‘employee volunteer ready’ and access available business resources. As there are virtually no funds to help groups develop this capacity, many groups miss out on engagement opportunities. Similarly businesses often have a limited understanding of their employees’ motivations for volunteering which can lead to weak volunteering programs which don’t reach their potential and gain limited buy-in from staff. ESV is predominantly perceived as a strategy for large firms but our research highlighted the potential for SMEs if targeted effectively. Brokers again have a key role to play in bridging this capacity gap.

The skills gap

In many cases we identified an important gap between the skills and resources offered through ESV and those required by third sector organisations:

  • Companies often focus on ‘challenge’ style activities utilising a broad set of staff in a single day.
  • However, many third sector groups are unable to cope with large numbers of volunteers descending on them and instead really need the help of one person on a regular basis utilising their specific work based skills. Why send an accountant to paint walls when their financial skills would inevitably be of more value?

While group activities can have significant impact, it is not always the best use of available skills. ESV engagement is most effective where a range of opportunities are available at both individual and group levels, allowing core skills and soft skills to develop through different forms of engagement.

The infrastructure gap

While ESV could offer third sector groups access to valuable resources from the business community, this can never fill the infrastructure gap created by reductions in government funding. Effective brokerage can enhance the process of directing ESV resources effectively yet the expectation that brokerage processes can be financially self-sustaining is misleading.

The drive to commercialise the process can actually lessen the impact of brokerage by:

  • reducing the opportunities for brokerage organisations to work effectively together to provide solutions
  • discouraging brokerage activities in some of the most needed locations where, inevitably, they are perceived to be financially unviable.

A continuation of the commercial emphasis to brokerage could mean that processes become restricted to groups with the capacity or willingness to pay and to areas where a large number of corporate headquarters are located.

ESV holds some significant potential benefits for both companies and third sector groups, however it is not the panacea for replacing infrastructural funding and support. While there is a willingness from the business community to engage with and support local communities, the gaps highlighted above can lead to significant resources being misplaced. Stronger infrastructural support can bridge these gaps with the result that a valuable set of resources will be more effectively targeted towards groups who can make most use of it. The danger, if this doesn’t happen is that opportunities are wasted and employee volunteering loses impetus.

Find out more

Visit the Hull University Business School website for more information on the research covered here, and to browse a range of ESV related studies.

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