Volunteering is all about give and take

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 April, 2005, 12:00am

Carefully chosen help schemes can be a winner for companies and those they aim to serve

COMMON SENSE TELLS us that a healthy and prosperous community benefits all who live and work within it. For example, when Sars hit Hong Kong in 2003, employers realised that an unhealthy Hong Kong was bad for business and many invested time and financial support to help the city recover.

However, when Credit Suisse First Boston (CSFB) sent volunteers to mentor minority students at Sir Ellis Kadoorie Secondary School, they were looking for more tangible benefits for the business, including the development of employee skills and the perception of CSFB as an employer of choice.

The programme, known as 'Race for Mentors', is a good example of strategic employee volunteering (EV), programmes designed to help an organisation fulfil its commitment to all of its stakeholders, including the community in which the business operates.

To develop the programme, CSFB garnered the support of Community Business, a non-profit organisation that strives to help businesses improve their positive impact on society.

Over the past few years, Community Business has helped many organisations develop mutually beneficial and sustainable partnerships with non-profit organisations, often working with them to develop volunteer strategies.

'Employee volunteering is a great way to meet many business objectives at one time,' said Shalini Mahtani, founder and CEO of Community Business.

'EV programmes can help to improve an organisation's public image or attract specific investors, whilst having a very positive impact on the communities within which they operate.

'Furthermore, EV programmes are a fantastic human resource tool that can be used to improve the attraction and retention of staff and/or to develop specific skills. Compared with classroom training, volunteer projects offer the chance to develop and practise skills in a real-life setting, but with less cost.'

The 'Race for Mentors' programme fulfilled CSFB's objectives. Students gained confidence and self-esteem and social and job skills, increased motivation and developed a better understanding of the working world.

Volunteers reported that they felt better about themselves and developed stronger relationships with their colleagues at CSFB. Many also reported an improvement in their interpersonal communication and listening skills.

Most workers also reported a big increase in their pride in the company and significant improvement in their perception of CSFB as an employer of choice.

The CSFB case shows what can be achieved when corporate social responsibility is driven by businesses themselves. Indeed, EV programmes rarely succeed without senior and strategic sponsorship. Therefore, it is essential to tie the programme into specific business objectives.

'Many companies claim that they are interested in employee volunteering for altruistic reasons. But they need to be honest,' Ms Mahtani said.

'Our aim is to get everyone's objectives out into the open so that we can find the right community partners and volunteer programmes to help the organisation meet its goals.'

Typical business objectives might include the development of specific skills for employees, becoming an employer of choice, encouraging the attraction and retention of staff, improving public image or enhancing corporate creativity and innovation.

But organisations should also consider the needs of their workers. While some may be interested in developing new skills, others may value making a difference in something they care about, or benefit from an educational 'break' from the routine of work.

In addition, workers will feel passionately about different causes.

'One company I know of was very keen to work with HIV/Aids, but their employees were not. So there was no point in the company choosing this as its focus for employee volunteering because it would never have worked,' Ms Mahtani said.

'If you want to get employees involved, the cause has to be of interest to them.'

For this reason she recommends conducting a staff survey before developing any EV programme.

This not only helps an organisation understand what staff are interested in but also helps to encourage employee involvement.

'When you do a survey you can ask who will volunteer and who is interested in shaping the volunteering policy. This means that you already have a committee of interested employees in place and you have immediate buy-in,' Ms Mahtani said.

No matter what a company or its employees want, an effective EV programme must also meet the needs of the community it is trying to support. Community Business works with organisations to help them understand where the biggest needs are and puts them in touch with non-government organisations.

'Some companies come to us saying they want to work with a particular NGO, because it has a high profile. But there may be other NGOs that need more help because they receive less funding from government,' Ms Mahtani said.

'We also talk about the culture of the NGO. Companies may say they want to work with a small NGO, where they can make a big impact. But we have to weigh up the issues and see if this is realistic. For example, the NGO may be too small to have a volunteer co-ordinator or someone who speaks English.'

It's then a matter of considering all these factors and finding a programme that is the best fit. There are numerous forms of volunteering to choose from, including pro bono work, mentoring programmes, 'done in a day' projects and secondments.

Ms Mahtani advises companies to start small, perhaps by committing to a tangible, short-term project. However, the choice of EV programme depends on an organisation's overall objectives. 'If a company is interested in team building, then 'done in a day' projects, such as cleaning a beach, are ideal,' Ms Mahtani said. 'This is a great way to get the CEO working next to the mailman.' In contrast, a broader goal such as the development of staff requires a programme that will continue over a longer period and give a chance to practise key skills.

'CSFB had some very specific goals. The mentoring programme was a great way to achieve these as it combined workshops, coaching sessions and joint community activities over a period of six months,' Ms Mahtani said. 'It was successful and they will be doing it again this year.'

Getting it right

Be clear about what you want to achieve - the best employee volunteering programmes create benefits for all involved.

Consult with employees - pick a programme that attracts their interest and involve them in developing the project.

Consider practical limitations when selecting a community partner. Make sure you can truly help your partner meet their goals.