Unlocking the potential – research on employer supported volunteering

A city farm, early in the morning, five years ago. I am gathered with other bleary-eyed colleagues as we wait to be assigned to our group volunteering activity. There has been a mix up (from our side) and they were not expecting us this morning. With a group of volunteers standing around, they finally find a task for us – clearing out the goat stable. It’s a job that’s not a priority but does need to be done every few months, and best suited to a group. This was my first experience of employer supported volunteering (ESV). We had a great day bonding as a team over clearing up the hay and dung, and we did some good for a charity.

Conducting research into ESV this year brought home to me how the frenetic but well-meaning team building day is often seen as the archetypal form of ESV. Yet in reality such one day events are just one strand of the diverse ESV activities that our research captured. We spoke to companies who release their employees to volunteer, charities that host these volunteers, and to brokers who in certain instances facilitate these activities. There were plenty of examples of valuable ESV work. There were also barriers to ESV, and opportunities missed.

The need to improve our evidence base

Today we publish research into ESV, ‘On the brink of a game changer?‘ This research was conducted by NCVO’s Institute for Volunteering Research and commissioned by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) as part of their long term work on ESV. Interest in ESV exploded when the Conservative Party made a commitment to three days paid volunteering leave for employees of larger companies in their manifesto. This policy is seemingly on course to be implemented during this government’s term of office (ie by 2020).

The first question was how widespread is ESV currently in the UK. In data analysis conducted especially for our research, we found that, in the most recent figures, 5% of people in paid work engage in ESV at least once a month, and 13% do so at least once a year.

Where ESV works well

It was clear that when ESV works well, everyone wins. The charities and their users benefit from additional volunteering, the volunteers themselves broaden their experience, and companies have a more engaged and satisfied workforce. There were many examples where volunteering activities were conducted that otherwise would not have been done, for example renovating hostels of homeless people.

There were also different, more specialised forms of volunteering, which were particularly popular with many of the charities we spoke to. This is where the volunteers used their particular skill set to help the charity. This pro bono assistance included web design and business planning.

We also found ESV which was flexible, often measured not in days but in hours. For example, one firm gave their employees 24 hours, opposed to three days, ESV leave a year. This may sound like a superficial distinction, but in fact it reflects a more dynamic, fluid way of working.

In my own ESV (we get five days a year at NCVO) I take my time in blocks of a few hours. It means I can attend meetings and occasionally undertake desk based activities related to my volunteering during work hours. I volunteer more than these core hours outside of work time. What the ESV leave gives me is an occasional release from my job so I can volunteer at a time convenient for the charity. Therefore my volunteering is not limited to my ESV hours, rather it is enhanced and facilitated by them.

Barriers to ESV

One of the frustrating things highlighted in our research was encountering instances where ESV, despite good intentions on all sides, had either not been a great experience for all involved or did not happen in the first place. From charities’ perspectives this often resulted from companies enquiring whether they could send a large group of employees to volunteer for a day. Many smaller charities did not have the space to accommodate so many people. There was often a cost implication, with charities in effect making a loss to host activities, such as painting a community room, with only marginal benefit to their organisation.

On the other hand, many of the companies had experienced discussions breaking down at the first hurdle. Many found it off-putting to be quoted a fee, either by a charity or a broker, for hosting volunteers. Some were not aware of the cost implications of involving volunteers and arranging ESV activities, while others felt the benefit from the activities outweighed the cost.

The way ahead

For me, one of the key learning points from our research is the need to help align interests of companies, charities and, of course, the volunteers themselves. It is important that mutually beneficial opportunities are not lost due to misunderstandings or differences in culture between the private and voluntary sectors. NCVO is currently exploring how to ‘unlock the potential’ of ESV and we will continue to discuss with the sector, business and Government how the three day paid volunteering leave policy can deliver benefits for volunteers, employers, the voluntary sector and communities.

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Avatar photo Andy Curtis was senior research officer at NCVO's Institute for Volunteering Research.

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