ESV: How to make the next great leap forward?

I recently spoke at an event on employer supported volunteering and the government’s three day proposal, jointly organised by Demos, the Office for Civil Society, The Universities of Sheffield and Hull and Business in the Community.

It was a good event, with powerful presentations from business and the sector and expertly chaired by Peter Cheese of CIPD.

I argued that there was a sense in which we had seen it all before, with previous bouts of enthusiasm for ESV eventually running out of steam and never really managing to penetrate the market beyond the big FTSE 100 businesses. So I posed the question: is there anything about the current situation which would lead us to suggest we can go further this time?

I gave a cautious yes or perhaps maybe, to this question. I feel that there are three factors which give rise to optimism: the government’s three day proposal, emerging evidence which makes the case ever more powerfully for ESV, and the increasing clamour from young people to work for an organisation which is doing its bit in the community.

But we face an uphill challenge if we are to change the face of ESV. Research suggests that while some 70% of FTSE companies have a volunteering scheme, less than 20% of SMEs offer one, a discrepancy made all the more stark when we consider that 99% of businesses in this country are SMEs and that they employ some 60% of all paid employees.

So it’s clearly not going to be a walk in the park.

Five conditions for success

To maximise our chance of success the following conditions need to be in place.

Design flexibly

Just as volunteers come in all shapes and sizes, volunteering programmes must be designed with optimum flexibility in mind.

  • There is still a role for one off volunteering days and team challenges which have the advantage of allowing staff to take part in something different from their day job.
  • But as we know there is a pressing need for more skilled volunteering programmes, where employees can use their professional skills for maximum impact in the community.
  • And volunteering doesn’t need to be carried out off site. New technology has opened up opportunities for micro-volunteering to be undertaken on the train to work or during the lunch break, via mobile phones and tablets. The micro volunteering site, Help from Home, lists a range of ways in which you ‘can change the world in your pyjamas’ (although this might be taking dress-down-Friday a bit too far!).

All this suggests we might be better to think of the three day offer in terms of hours rather than days – allowing staff to contribute 24 hours a year rather than three full days as a block, might prove more doable and valuable all round.

Sort out brokerage

While the big boys – the banks and professional firms – may be able to arrange their own opportunities, SMEs (usually with no CSR or sometimes even HR manager) will need the help of local brokers.

  • There are some great examples out there, such as Involve Swindon, Time and Talents Westminster and Tameside4Good. And more needs to be done to capture the learning and share best practice, and secure sustainable funding for these programmes; at a time when local infrastructure has never been more at risk.
  • There might also be opportunities for SMEs to shelter under the ESV programmes of big companies they relate to through the supply chain, although many small companies already being squeezed on price and other conditions would, I suggest, not take kindly to any notion that running a volunteering programme was a prerequisite for winning contracts.
  • And we need to make best use of the plethora of on-line brokerage platforms, whilst remembering that they will never replace the need for face-to-face engagement and the development of good quality opportunities.

Capture the impact

Whilst there is more and more evidence emerging of the value of ESV, we still need even more. We need the case studies and the stories alongside the stats and the impact measures.

With this in mind it seems a strange time for the government to be considering terminating the Community Life Survey, which is one of the few robust volunteering surveys we have.

There is scope for some creativity too, as shown by the NUS with its excellent Dissertations for Good programme, which seeks to match up students seeking a good idea for a thesis, with a community group anxious for some research expertise. Why not ESV as a topic for consideration?

Taking ESV into HR

As I have argued elsewhere the real prize for ESV is to take it out of CSR and into HR. Only then will employers be willing to invest in its development and delivery. A recent CIPD study found that 44% of volunteers said that their employer knew about their volunteering but only 14% recognised the skills and development which came from it. So there is a way to go yet to embed volunteering into professional development.

Work out who pays

ESV, as with all volunteering, is fabulous value for money; but it is not cost free (how many times have I written that over the years?). When no less a figure than the Chief Economist of the Bank of England, Andy Haldane, joins the volunteering advocacy club (and what a great programme he made before Christmas for the BBC) we can perhaps be excused another bout of cautious optimism that this essential truism might at last be heeded.

What we do know for sure is that without investment in ESV it will fail (yet again) to deliver on its historic promise.


The corporates are coming: five ways to make employer supported volunteering (ESV) work for your organisation

Want to know more about Employee Supported Volunteering (ESV)? Come to our Annual Conference workshop on 18 April 2016.

Find out more about NCVO Annual Conference 2016


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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.

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