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Corporate Volunteering - win win?

I recently attended a brilliant event hosted by Business In The Community in London (where-else?)

It was billed, and turned out to be, a celebration of how BITC's members are giving-back to their communities and helping charities and social enterprises (SE). The attendees included people representing third sector organisations, heads of Corporate Social Responsibility and Volunteering, and volunteers. We heard talks from CSR leads who extolled their new volunteering strategies. We also heard from 4 truly inspirational local SEs who discussed their ventures and posed questions for us to discuss in breakout groups.

The day was well organised, ran roughly to time, and generated a lot of ideas for the SEs and provided an excellent networking opportunity.

I would like to focus on the new volunteering strategies presentation from the CSR leads.

In the good old days, philanthropic organisations agreed and set aside a sum of money that they would donate to good causes. The good causes were exceedingly grateful.

Organisations started to realise that there was value in supporting local causes. The main advantage being that their employees tended to live locally and could connect more with the philanthropy. It generated some good feeling within the organisation and helped with team building and company loyalty.

It didn't take long for the CSR strategy to include letting employees nominate and vote on some of the causes that were supported. More good feeling.

The next development, and I believe current best practice, is a shift from giving money to charities to freeing up time for volunteers to work on local projects. Financially, this can be accounted for in one of two ways. Either the cost of wages can equate to the corporate 'donation'. Or the corporation can use a 'billable rate' or effectively an 'opportunity cost' rate.

Isn't this a win-win scenario, though? Charities get an expert team to solve a problem for them. The corporations gain through a fantastic team building event (which they often pay thousands to achieve at a corporate event) and staff learn new skills. Indeed, at one of the BITC presentations the outcomes from volunteering included: 1) total value donated (billable rate calculation, even though the hours were spent over Easter on the employees' own time), and the number of Vice Presidents subsequently promoted. This was becoming an essential element to career progression.

Isn't this a good thing?

It is. But.

Let's turn this around to the charity and SE perspective.

In the good old days, charities had fund raising teams who would contact organisations and pitch their projects and the wonderful things that they were doing for their beneficiaries or environment. Fundamentally, charities and SEs need funds. Money.

The shift to supporting local causes immensely helped small local charities and SEs. Their ability to raise funds increased dramatically. The large national charities could focus on organisations (like supermarkets for example) that were located everywhere.

The shift to getting employee nominations and voting was a move to 'who you know' rather than 'what you know'. At this stage two things happened from the charity and SE perspective. Firstly, it introduced a bias in funding, or to put it another way, it changed the way that value added by the good causes was assessed. The value in this shift was all to the corporation, in terms of generating good employee feeling. Secondly, it led to an increase in the bane of the third sector - churn. Like any business, charities require steady cash flow in order to run their operations. Unlike other businesses, when a charity fails, not only do its employees lose their jobs, but also the beneficiaries lose the benefits that they are receiving - often very suddenly.

The balance seems, once again, to be shifting towards the corporations with the move to corporate volunteering schemes that measure and report the value to the corporation resulting from the activities. This shift is reducing the amount of what charities and SEs really need - money. And replacing it with volunteering that has a big cost for the charity and SE (they need to allocate staff to support the volunteers in whatever activity they are doing). If the rewards from the activity outweigh this cost, then there is a net benefit to the charity or SE, but this will not be known at the outset. And however this cost-benefit turns out, it will be significantly less than the same cost benefit equation that would have resulted from a philanthropic donation of money.

Or to put it another way. Is it a win-win scenario if, every time that a corporate volunteering activity takes place, another charity or SE has to fold? Or another two? Or another ten?

I put this to the test. I have applied for two volunteering tasks to get some expert legal and technical support for a couple of projects that PALS Society are setting up. These were real 'value add' work for us that otherwise we will have to fund otherwise.

The project pitched at a local law firm revolved around the topic of Community Asset Transfer and developing an approach that we could take with our local councils to get low cost premises from which we could operate. The approach could then be rolled out across the country as we grow. There is a legal aspect to it and something that a small project team could undertake flexibly over a short period of time. I have organised such projects before when working for the Cabinet Office and know that they are excellent for team building. Our response? Sorry, the corporation is looking for a ten person, one day, volunteering project. In other words, a team building event that the charity sets up for them.

The technical project, offered by a globally known tech company, was to help us set up our remote access server, and a young person develop skills in this area. We did not receive a response.

Please don't get me wrong. I am not knocking the great work done by BITC, nor those corporate bodies that are part of the Prince's Responsible Business Network. I am just pointing out that there are consequences for every action and a shift in funding priorities always leads to casualties which won't feature in any cost benefit analysis.

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