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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7 Responses to Bridging the gaps in employer sponsored volunteering

  1. Rob Jackson says:

    A great article. I used to be chairman of the Employees In The Community Network, a body formed in the early 1990s which ran until the early 00s. EitCN was organised by Volunteering England and provided a safe space for representatives from all three sectors to discuss and development practice around ESV. Following the demise of the network, VE chose to focus its efforts on developing ESV work with SMEs. A huge body of associated work must exist somewhere documenting all of this and I commend it to the authors if it has not yet been accessed.

    Finally, an answer to the question posed by the authors, “Why send an accountant to paint walls when their financial skills would inevitably be of more value?”. Because the accountant wants to paint walls not do more of what they do at work!

  2. Mike Scott says:

    Some really good observations are made here and this article does a great job of highlighting some of the key challenges facing the success of ESV schemes for all parties concerned.

    I particularly agree with the need for capacity building as well as the need for businesses understanding employees’ motivations for volunteering in order that their programmes achieve the maximum amount of impact and value – both on a social and personal level.

    I would encourage businesses to make use of Investing in Volunteers for Employers standard ( as a best practice framework and benchmarking tool to ensure that they have considered all aspects of well-managed employee volunteering scheme.

  3. Jo Banks says:

    A really good article. Rob Jackson mentions EiTCN in his comments – Involve Swindon, the ESV network I support at Volunteer Centre Swindon, came about because of the good stuff that EiTCN achieved & 10 years on we’re still here & growing, thanks largely to the network founder Tony Martin from Zurich Community Trust but also to a very engaged steering group. And yes! A lot of the activity that is brokered through Involve Swindon is the team based ‘challenge’ days mentioned but these one-off challenge days can lead to longer term engagement between a business and a charity. In the 5 or so years I’ve been brokering employee volunteering, I’ve witnessed lots of relationships develop in this way.

  4. David Lale says:

    I wholeheartedly agree that there is both greater awareness of the beneficial impacts of a well designed ESV programme and a real need to prepare the charity sector to utilise skilled volunteers more effectively.

    At Career Volunteer we partner large corporates with charities – placing their established and their emerging leaders with charities as both Trustees and Skilled Volunteers. These programmes are highly tailored and do not just focus on the location of the HQ of the corporate involved. However, one of our most signficant challenges is indeed finding charities who are ‘volunteer ready’ -able and willing to utilise senior volunteers in an effective way.

  5. I found this article very interesting, many thanks! The whole area of ESV needs a great deal of development to be more effective, even though the UK is ahead of other countries in Europe, and is held back because ESV provision (whether directly to a charity or through brokers) is largely small and fragmented.

    In London we established last year the London ESV Network which brings together ESV brokers and providers and is trying to join up our work to make it easier for businesses to support the community and to ensure that all communities across London benefit.

    It is up to the third sector to organise itself to educate and direct how businesses can support the community that delivers the most impact as well as meeting their business and volunteer needs. This is easier said than done, of course.

  6. Joseph Morrell says:

    I run the Involve project at VCSouthwark and recognise that the commercialisation of brokerage can deter some volunteers/companies from getting out and getting things done in our communities. It is certainly true that the VC network perceive ESV as great generator of Unrestricted Income and brokerages can be run as a cash cow – and this is detrimental to the culture of volunteering.

    However, where else would a small charity such as Involve find the resources to sustain its activities; other than by charging its partner companies to cover costs in supporting them? Certainly, the government, local authorities and funding bodies are not queuing up to subsidise these activities.

    Yes, in an ideal world, corporate volunteering would just happen (and for free!). But where would the host charity find the resources to support the activity? If a wall needs to be painted, then the likelihood is that the charity couldn’t afford to get it done by themselves, hence the volunteering opportunity being made available. Is it right that a group of altruistic corporate volunteers should undertake the job at the expense of the host charity?

    We also know that there a many other boundaries that a corporate team can face when planning a volunteer team day. Where to go? How can we help? Are my colleagues going to have a good time? Do we have the skills to complete the job? Will we be safe? What will my boss think – Is this activity aligned to our CSR strategy?

    A good broker can solve these problems (and more) for the corporate partner, enabling volunteering to be more coherent across their business, to be better value for money and to provide better return on their investment. In most cases, brokers are the experts in the field and it would pose significant cost to the company to resource this expertise internally. Those companies that are serious about corporate community investment will choose to work with a reputable broker to extend their reach into the community in a considered and impactful manner.

    It is not the case that companies cannot pay or even that they won’t pay. Most companies (regardless of size) contribute financial donations to charity. Whether through payroll giving, Charity of the Year programs or by matching fundraising efforts of their employees. Those volunteers that present themselves without funding are simply not supported by internal resources. This can be for a number of reasons, but most likely, the companies priorities for community engagement lie elsewhere.

    For the ESV market to grow, three things need to happen.
    1) Companies that plan for their employees to volunteer should evaluate the for cost of doing so and assign the appropriate resources.
    2) Charities should become better at ‘making the ask’ and invest in training for the leadership/volunteer managers so that they can support corporate volunteers well (or alternatively, engage a broker to represent them)
    3) Brokers need to become more professional and be clearer about their role and the services they offer.

    Lastly, I wholeheartedly agree with Rob – corporate volunteers will always want to take on opportunities that differ from their daily work. In most professional industries, pro bono services are made available to local charities which the employee can take up outside of their volunteering. Volunteering has never been a one-size-fits-all operation and while we try to proscribe the types of activity available(even where there is a genuine need); we defeat the very motivation that brought the volunteer to our doorstep in the first place.

  7. Interestingly, I just had an enquiry from a corporate team (a bank)and they didn’t have any money to volunteer. A little bit of research finds that they spend £45.7M a year on community activities globally. It’s all about where priorities lie and so often, its spent on core CSR activities rather that ‘peripheral'(localized) employee volunteering.