From CSR to HR – The future of Employer-Supported Volunteering?

David Cameron’s ‘Three Days’

Despite press speculation that David Cameron’s proposal to offer a three day volunteering entitlement to all employees of public bodies and large companies was going to be shelved due to opposition from some Tory backbenchers and business leaders, we have learned recently from the minister that it is definitely going ahead. This is good news. As NCVO responded when the idea was first mooted during the General Election, the proposal has the potential to bring about a sea-change in employer-supported volunteering and inject much needed skills and expertise into the voluntary and community sector, at a time when such resource has never been more needed.

Of course as with all such legislation, and we understand that primary legislation will be required to make it happen, the devil will be in the detail. It has been suggested that government might introduce the entitlement on a right to request basis, similar to the current request which can be made by employees on flexible working, or phase the programme in over the term of the Parliament, moving from one day entitlement to the full three over five years, or starting with the low-hanging fruit of larger companies before extending the initiative to SMEs.

From Team Building to Skills’ Exchange

Whatever format the proposal takes resources will be required on both sides to maximise its benefit. Estimates suggest that if all eligible employees took up the offer it would create 15 million new employee volunteers or 350 million additional volunteering hours. Mind boggling figures which could do wonders for our over-stretched sector; but resources will be required to create meaningful opportunities and to ensure volunteers are properly managed and supported. What we don’t need are 15 million new amateur painters and decorators engaged in traditional team challenges. Harnessing the skills and expertise of employees in such areas as business development, strategic planning and contract negotiation, will require forethought, organisation and planning.

Do you want to support your employees to volunteer?

Find out more about Step on Board, a programme to support your staff to become trustees of voluntary organisations.

From CSR to HR

If we are to win over more employers to the benefits of employer-supported volunteering we need to do more to embed volunteering within HR and personnel development and not see it purely as a part of a company’s CSR strategy. A new report published by Step up to Serve and CIPD suggests how this might be achieved. It builds on previous work by CIPD which found that despite recognition among many employers that engagement in volunteering can build key skills, few ask about a candidate’s volunteering as part of the recruitment process.

The report identifies a number of ways for employers to embed social action into their recruitment practices for example by:

  • highlighting the company’s commitment to social action on its website – to demonstrate this is an important part of the corporate ethos
  • referencing the importance attached to volunteering in all job adverts
  • providing support to guide candidates through the application process, both written and face-to-face
  • including on application forms a section for candidates to talk about their volunteering experience
  • relaxing the shortlisting requirement to have certain minimum level of academic qualifications in favour of more rounded approach to selection which puts extra emphasis on extra-curricular experience including volunteering
  • training interviewers to tease out candidates experience, including social action
  • providing feedback to unsuccessful candidates and highlighting the role volunteering can play in building skills and experience
  • integrating social action into training programmes and appraisals and personal development plans; and measuring the impact.

The report raises some important issues in my mind, not least how to embed volunteering within HR systems and processes so that we can fully harness its value and provide a spur to greater involvement, without placing undue pressure on staff. Employees should always have the right not to volunteer and should not be penalised for non-engagement. Most of the examples in the report are drawn from larger companies, which highlights yet again the challenge ahead of extending ESV into smaller businesses.


NCVO will be discussing with the sector, business and Government over the coming months what is required to ensure the ‘Three Days’ delivers the best it can for volunteers, employers and the community. It would be good to hear your views and to learn of any particularly good examples of businesses and voluntary groups which are doing this exchange well. For those interested there is a chance to discuss these issues at the next meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Civil Society and Volunteering which is taking place on 14 July at the House of Commons from 16.00 to 17.30, with speakers from CIPD, BT and National Grid. If you would like to attend you can register at

I’ll leave you with a conundrum which has been perplexing me: is a professional painter and decorator who uses her volunteer leave to paint a school building engaged in skills-based volunteering?

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Justin was executive director of volunteering and development at NCVO and chief executive of Volunteering England. He is now a senior research fellow at City University Cass Business School’s Centre for Charity Effectiveness.

14 Responses to From CSR to HR – The future of Employer-Supported Volunteering?

  1. M Preston says:

    Justin’s points are well made and the need to ensure that whatever this scheme turns into it includes the required levels of co-ordination and management seems obvious. The potential numbers of volunteering hours are clearly headline grabbing but the worry is that many employees will end up engaged in pointless one-off activities which fail to meet the real needs of VCS groups and communities and also put off the participants from volunteering their time in the future. Organising productive and engaging, short-term opportunities takes time, planning, expertise and this incurs a cost. Local groups generally say that they need volunteers who are willing to make an extended commitment to their organisations. Many may feel that for the time they would need to spend inducting and supporting new volunteers a commitment of just 3 days does not make this an attractive proposition. Unless the volunteers bring specific and potentially valuable skills and experience in fields such as business development, strategic planning and contract negotiation groups may simply chose to not participate. If there are not enough opportunities to meet demand then this isn’t going to do the sector any favours either and the blame for failure will be pointed in our direction.

    • Justin Davis Smith says:

      Thanks Martin for your thoughtful response. On the issue of whether three days is enough to bring about meaningful results it is interesting to note that some of the best skills-based schemes I have seen in operation manage to leverage additional input as the volunteers make such a good connection with the groups they are involved with that they go on to give more time outside of work hours.

  2. Kazzart says:

    I recently had to answer the question – “are they volunteers roles that are paid” to which I said no. Then the person looked at me and said – except if you volunteer from work

    It is a point we gloss over. Employee supported volunteers are “paid” to volunteer their 3 days. Companies gain in workforce development, publicity and yet when creating posts and they are working out staff costs per head, training… penision…redundancy – what pocket of money do they put aside for “volunteer engagement”

    Volunteering isnt FREE. Its a choice. If every member of staff wants to paint garden – run up a hill – thats their choice. Maybe thats not what the sector needs but thats what they want to give

    We cant have it both ways

    Maybe we should be asking questions – but who has the resources and capacicity to ask and deal with the responses

    Like all of Mr Cs edicts it will benefit the few who can afford to pay for brokerage or who already have the money to buy it

    Its not good news for the sector unless you have no choice but to spin it otherwise


    • Justin Davis Smith says:

      Thanks for this and I agree with much of what you say. Of course volunteering isn’t free and needs to be resourced to maximise its impact. And perhaps even more fundamentally volunteering has to be an individual choice – both in whether or not to get involved and in what to do. This goes for employee-volunteers as for any other volunteer. But whilst an individual might choose to paint a school hall they can only do that if the hall needs painting, and we hear time and again from community groups that they are fed up with requests from companies to broker this type of one-off activity when what they are crying out for is more skills-based input from employees.

      And interestingly we also hear from employees who have undertaken such skills-based activity that they are motivated hugely by seeing the difference their action makes. Of course if they don’t want to get involved in this way that is their absolute right and many people will choose not to volunteer using their workplace skills but to do something different. But the point I guess, and hence the need for skilled brokerage, is to get the match right so it meets both the volunteers’ interests and needs and those of the community. Not always easy I grant you but worth striving for.

      Finally on the issue of whether an employee-volunteer is indeed a volunteer as they are getting paid, this point came up at a lively National Volunteering Forum in Leeds yesterday. There was certainly support for your view from several delegates. The counter argument, which I have heard expressed eloquently by several employee-volunteers, is that whilst they are given time off to volunteer, no one picks up their work while they are off and so they have to make up the work in their own time, during lunch breaks, in the evenings and at weekends. Looked at this way it might legitimately be viewed as volunteering.

  3. This is a good start and it is worth employers recognising that there are many benefits to encouraging and allowing employees to volunteer. Free training for employees and they come back happier, knowing that they have made a difference and perhaps even been surprised at their impact.

    Three days is better than nothing and who knows where it may lead. It is likely that employees will take up the offer, even if it is viewed as a few days away from work. Maybe, when they are inspired, they will keep up the volunteering and make a big social impact.

    I hope this succeeds. I would welcome people offering their time whether three hours or three days. Much can be achieved. What is not to like?

  4. Mike Bright says:

    I feel that a mindshift needs to take place as to what type of opportunities are offered for these 3 days. Most people think of traditional volunteering opps when wanting to offer their help, and indeed the example used in the article makes reference to the usual painting and decorating job.

    But hey, what about virtual and microvolunteering tasks, which can be participated in without leaving the office. There are already platforms out there that cater towards employee virtual / micro volunteering tasks, be them skilled or unskilled. There’s less organising to arrange from a HR point of view, and tasks can cater towards a specific interest / cause an individual wants to support, rather than an individual going along with what the crowd wants.

    Computers, tablets and smartphones are ubiquitous in our society. IMHO employee volunteering schemes need to play catch up and tap into the virtual / micro volunteering method of delivering opportunities to employees.

    • Justin Davis Smith says:

      I agree Mike, I think micro-volunteering offers huge opportunities for ESV as for all types of volunteering. The trick will be to offer a mix – some virtual, some face-to-face – recognising that some people will relish the opportunity to fit in half an hour of volunteering during their lunch break or on the bus on the way home, whereas others will want to get off their computers and out of the office. Choice and flexibility will be the buzz words driving forward much of the volunteering in the future and companies and host charities will, as you rightly say, need to adapt.

  5. Jill Poet says:

    I wholeheartedly support the introduction of volunteering entitlement for employees, but believe legislation should be restricted to large companies and above. I also think a right to apply approach would be the most productive path. The last thing the voluntary sector needs is trying to handle “reluctant volunteers.”

    I don’t think it is appropriate for this legislation to apply to the public sector either. Almost without exception, most public sector organisations are already struggling to cope with reduced budgets and increased demands, so to add an additional cost and administrative burden is totally non-sensical.

    As far as SMEs are concerned, whilst I would be the first to encourage even the smallest company i.e. a one-man band, to support the local community, complusory volunteering should NEVER be compulsory for these small businesses. There are a multiplicity of other ways to encourage community contribution without resorting to legislation which could prove extremely challenging for most of them.

    Let’s ensure the Government takes a pragmatic approach to introducing this new legislation.

    • Justin Davis Smith says:

      Thanks Jill. I agree it might make sense to focus initially on large employers, but given that the overwhelming number of employees in this country are employed by SMEs we should be looking at creative ways of engaging them as well. One solution might be better use of new technology and micro-volunteering (discussed above), another might be for SMEs to partner with larger companies they engage in through the supply chain, to enable them to make use of the systems and processes already in place. However, I disagree that the entitlement shouldn’t apply to staff in the public sector. Whilst accepting your point that many public bodies are under extreme pressure at the moment, it seems unfair to deny public sector employees access to the personal benefits that volunteering will bring, and the community access to their skills and experience. And if the research evidence is to be believed there will be benefits to the public bodies as well in terms of more motivated and engaged staff.

  6. Anji Henderson says:

    I believe that this is a way forward and I would like to add that there is an enormous amount of time given up by employees already to such things as being a trustee of an organisation. The legislation would be beneficial if this type of volunteer time is also included as often trustees are sought who can provide much needed professional insight for an organisation. As for the comments regarding SMEs I am of the firm belief that many small business owners and self employed give of their time with no recompense from themselves as employer, so are truly volunteering their time. I do not believe anyone is talking about compulsory volunteering, but I do believe the onus could fall to the employer to state why someone can’t engage for a day or three as a volunteer.

    • Justin Davis Smith says:

      I agree about the trustee point and NCVO is working with a number of companies as part of its new Step on Board initiative to engage more employees on the boards of charities. And absolutely on the issue of compulsion. As I made clear in my original post volunteering should always be voluntary!

  7. David Tordoff says:

    I am a retired person but a) currently volunteer locally each week for a major UK charity and b) was previously a senior LA manager who worked on joint projects with central govt. Whilst being very positive as to initiatives to increase volunteer resource, to help patch over the serious gaps in public service provision for those in need, I feel there are a number of practical questions about the Budget proposals including;
    – if these volunteers are to be involved with charities providing services to people (inc. children and the elderly) how will they have necessary DBS checks ? These are essential but have a cost ( who will fund this?) and take time to complete.
    – all volunteers require some level of training and management, which cannot be afforded in time and monies by the charities they work for . A larger company with say 500 employees , giving them 3 days volunteering leave p.a, could mean ( pay rates of £12.50 per hour) a cost of £150,000 to tha company each year. If they gave this as a cash donation to one or more charities this would generate far greater benefits where the charities used existing or extending volunteer resources e.g. trained and managed people who could work over longer periods without them having learning curves. Many charities have volunteers in the offing just awaiting the necessary pump priming funds to take them on or extend their existing hours.
    – one respondent mentioned people doing such as painting. Good idea , but, whilst the manpower may be free and available who will fund the materials to make them productive ?
    Just finally to say, hopefully without too much cynicism, my experience with Govt supported new initiatives is that if they work it is the Govt. who got it all right, if it doesn’t go right it is those who implemented or operated them who did it wrong. Companies may get some good kudos if it works but will be part of those blamed if it doesn’t .
    I will watch progress on this matter with interest

    • Justin Davis Smith says:

      Thanks David for such a thorough and thoughtful response. Lots to think about as the proposal develops, in particular the issue of resources.

  8. Tim says:

    I have worked in large private sector companies that used volunteering in the workforce as a tool to aid engagement, skills development and CSR.

    I would say that the benefit to the organisation versus the ‘lost time’ was definitely positive. People enjoy it and they feel better for doing it. I now own and run an SME but am planning to implement exactly the same sort of policy.

    Much of the debate here concerns the value of an individual volunteering for a handful of days in a year. The point has already been made that if the recipient of the volunteering has a building to paint then great. How though to get value from a large number of volunteers available for only 20-25 hours in a year?

    I am considering this currently as I am about to introduce the policy for our small business.

    One possible solution will be to support a single charity with high voluntary requirements already. This has two advantages to the charity. Firstly, induction to the activities can be done en masse, making it worth the charities time. Secondly, if a charity already relies on a high voluntary base then it is likely to have the systems and processes to do this already. the downsides are that it leaves no choice for my team as to the nature of the charity we want to support.

    The Microvolunteering opportunity is interesting and one I will think about. However, I think most of the volunteering will only be useful to charities with volumes of fairly low skilled activities which volunteers can be easily inducted to.

    It is a step forward but alone won’t solve the challenge of transferring skills.

    There is another issue I think is a little murky concerning the deployment of professional skills in volunteers. I work in charity insurance, for this I apologise!

    If a volunteer is painting a wall for a charity it is easy to see that the liabilities for that activity lie with the charity.

    However, what if a skilled professional is deployed to provide skilled voluntary advice to a charity? I think then the responsibility for losses from that professional advice might be a murkier area.