Opinion

Business volunteering will be the "new normal", so let’s get it right

7 min read

20 September 2015

With charities facing a £4.6bn funding gap, the private sector needs to help in protecting the most vulnerable.

Can you remember a time when austerity didn’t pervade the Western consciousness? This new(ish) regime brings about the need for new ways of thinking and ever creative ways of making resources stretch. 

As public sector cuts deepen in the UK and the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) announcing that charities face a funding gap of about £4.6bn by 2018, the private sector needs to beef up its role in protecting the most vulnerable. 

While Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) can’t entirely make up for policy shortcomings and a strapped public purse, businesses and charities need to work together much more effectively if we are to get through the tough times and build resilient communities.

Most FTSE 100 firms and even SMEs have well-thought out CSR strategies, but are they focusing their resources on the areas of most need? And despite wanting to be altruistic, are businesses getting value from their volunteering endeavours?

From my experience working in this field, more businesses think of themselves as being part of the local community rather than distant observers in glass-fronted skyscrapers. Employees increasingly want to get involved in hands-on volunteering that uses their business skills rather than softer activities such as painting fences or planting trees.

Bringing together the corporate world and the volunteer world is a challenge however; they have different modus operandi, different set of stakeholders, and sometimes different ideas of success. 

For a start, both are not monolithic entities; businesses have differing skills to offer charities and charities have different needs that sometimes go beyond their front-line activity. What some charities might really need is help with their HR policies, rather than a CEO offering to help read with local children.

Read more about businesses giving back:

The UK government has already shown a commitment to further facilitate corporate volunteering by pledging to pass a law that requires employees to receive three paid days off work to volunteer. 

The private sector can add a huge amount of value to the voluntary sector in terms of skills and expertise, but there is still a mismatch between where businesses are choosing to volunteer and where their help is needed. 

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For example, a recent study of firms by Circle Research, showed that firms were disproportionately supporting charities that work with children and the environment, whereas as around 50 per cent said they wouldn’t volunteer for mental health charities, despite there being a desperate need for support in this area, in the face of cuts to public funding. 

The research also showed that employees were 50 per cent more likely to have volunteered for a children’s charity rather than organisation that helps the elderly. Again, the ageing population and problems of social isolation are growing concerns in 21st century life. This persistent disparity can be attributed to the media giving some causes more air time, even when they don’t always represent the most pressing societal needs. 

You don’t need to be an expert

You don’t have to be an expert in the charity’s front-line work to make a difference.

Business volunteers that are able to use their own skills to support a charity can have a much more profound effect. Helping a charity become sustainable, so they can stretch dwindling funding further, will ensure a stronger third sector and therefore a stronger society. 

Data analytics firm Aimia shares its data expertise and tools with the charitable sector, so they can better demonstrate their impact and interpret how to improve the service they offer. 

Being able to effectively evaluate data has also resulted in £2.5m of new funding for the charities they work with, including Centrepoint, and seen the company nominated for a prestigious Lord Mayor’s Dragon Award in recognition of its CSR contribution. 

It’s these behind the scenes activities that can make a real difference to charities and their beneficiaries. Skills-based volunteering can be extremely valuable to the business involved and help to ensure buy-in at board level.

Finding the right cause

Finding these worthwhile volunteering opportunities can, however, require time-consuming research by the business and a bit of an education job on the charity’s side in identifying the business skills they could benefit from. 

Working with a local volunteer broker can provide a quicker way of matching eager business volunteers and their skill set to suitable charities, ensuring the relationship is mutually beneficial. 

They will know a charity’s strengths and weaknesses and can guide businesses to avoid pitfalls that others have made in the past, as well as help businesses understand how volunteering can meet internal objectives such as staff engagement and attracting talent.

With the public money for third sector running increasingly dry, the private and voluntary sectors need to urgently establish more effective ways of working together.

Noa Burger is corporate responsibility manager at City of London Corporation & City Action.