By Althea Taylor-Salmon MCIPR, MD, Golley Slater PR Cambridge

If local employers took a straw poll among their staff, they would probably be staggered by the high number involved in community and charity volunteering work. The 2009 study by the Institute of Volunteering Research showed 87% of local volunteer centres have seen an increase in enquiries about volunteering opportunities compared to the previous six months. For example, YouthNet recorded a 115% increase in enquiries with applications topping 60,000 in 2008. According to this study, some 1.9 billion hours of volunteering contributes £22.5 billion (www.goluntering.org.uk/news).

While the increased interest is linked to the recent growth in unemployment, even before the recession took hold there was an upward trend in volunteering. Volunteers tend to feel passionately about the “cause” they support and the chance to make a difference. However, there are many more benefits to volunteering, for instance, volunteers expand their contacts and make new friends, and they gain new skills and experiences that increase their confidence and employability.

Even in the current economic climate, where managers are focused on maximising their human resources, organisations can harness employees’ passion to volunteer by making employee volunteering a central feature of their business strategy and gain significant benefits.

Even in an employers’ market, competition for the best staff remains high and employers must compete on more than salary. An organisation’s reputation comes high on the agenda for job seekers and within that is bound up the idea of good corporate citizenship. Furthermore, both new and existing employees expect to receive training and development to help their career progression, an area where many organisations still need to improve. Personnel Today’s survey the Top 10 Management Issues (50,000 respondents) showed that 34% (one third) of managers were dissatisfied with training and development (www.personneltoday.com/blogs). While volunteering is not a substitute for formal training and development courses provided by employers, it can be incorporated into staff’s overall development plan to support goals such as team work and leadership skills.

YouGov’s survey into employee volunteering showed that 44% of business leaders linked employee volunteering to staff retention, 36% to recruitment of high calibre graduates and 28% to employee training. It also showed that employees actively engaged in community programmes are more satisfied in their work, with 85% saying their perception of their company had improved. And those employees that are most committed to community investment programmes perform 20% better than those who are not and are 87% less likely to leave the company (YouGov 2005).

Well organised employee volunteering programmes can help to resolve HR and organisational challenges. Such programmes can enhance the company’s reputation creating a strong emotional appeal for job seekers, making it easier to recruit as well as retain staff. Furthermore, employee volunteering gives organisations the opportunity to show staff that they care about the community, to promote the organisation and for the business to establish long term relationships with community groups and their influential figureheads.

Many community volunteering projects demand a high level of team work to complete tasks successfully and for members of the team to take leadership roles, which strengthens these skills sets. Employee volunteering should ideally be organised in such a way that it brings staff who work in different teams and departments together. By increasing the level of interaction between staff within the organisation, the company can motivate staff to work more cooperatively and collaboratively. People who know each other are much more inclined to help each other solve problems and reciprocate help when needed.

Both large and small organisations throughout the UK run their own employee volunteering schemes, but as corporate social responsibility has risen up the management agenda, more companies are seeking support from umbrella organisations such as Business in the Community (BITC) because they can provide resources, help and advice on developing a structured programme.

A structured programme involves championing the concept of employee volunteering within the organisation (from board level to individual managers); selecting the right projects and promoting them to encourage staff to take part; looking at how volunteering fits with the employees’ training and development plan; introducing a system for tracking volunteer hours, gaining feedback from the community groups being supported and from staff. Management can assess how the volunteering is benefiting the community and the organisation in terms of its reputation, enhanced staff performance recruitment and staff morale.

Organisations interested in employee volunteering can dip their toes in the water, without over-committing themselves. Each year Business in the Community (BITC) runs a national employee volunteering event - Give & Gain Day - which gives organisations of all types and sizes in the UK the chance to get involved in a community project. Gennie Franklin, Give & Gain Day Project Director explained: “A key objective of the day is to encourage companies to try employee volunteering for the first time and, if they decide to continue afterwards, to support them to develop their volunteering programme.”

Give & Gain Day has some 6,000 volunteers helping on projects as diverse as building imaginative reading gardens at schools to companies running open days for students to give then a taste of the work environment. Participants range blue chip companies such as Eversheds (main sponsor), Boots, Coco-Cola Enterprises, British Gas, Hallmark Cards and Vodaphone to public sector bodies and emergency services, marketing and communications agencies and SMEs from different sectors.

Gennie continued, “Employee volunteering is changing, it’s no longer simply about taking part in projects and then walking away - organisations or becoming co-managers of community projects. And employees are no longer expected just to perform the volunteering task, but they are ambassadors for their organisation and appreciate the return on investment that participating in such activities provide.”

Employee volunteering brings tangible benefits to both staff and employer and an increasing number of organisations are making it a central feature in their corporate social responsibility commitments.

To learn more about Give & Gain Day www.bitc.org.uk.