Do the figures stack up when it comes to skills-based volunteering?

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Many people think of physically helping out when you mention volunteering. But as economists we think there can be more effective uses of a professional’s time and expertise, and businesses have employees with lots of useful skills that charities want to harness.

The volunteer army is huge – around 15 million people in the UK volunteer frequently, giving about two billion hours per year. The ONS estimates its value at £24 billion, or about 1.5% of our GDP. Imagine the gains through harnessing more of that in the form of professional volunteering – where volunteers contribute their finely honed skills, and improve them in the process.

The benefits to the recipients of volunteering are often also large, although not always without cost. The skills and services provided to charities by professional volunteers can be outside the organisations' financial reach, and we have examples of the market value of our reports for charities reaching as much as £250,000.

There are a range of personal benefits from volunteering, and our volunteers and their employers confirm this: staff can experience a very different working environment; junior employees can take more responsibility for client relationships than perhaps they might otherwise; volunteers can try new approaches that can expand their repertoire. It’s cost-effective professional development. Although our main purpose is to help the charities we work with, the benefits are expressed as enthusiastically on the volunteer side as on the charity side.

But professional volunteering is not easy to do, and we have learnt a few things from the nearly 60 projects we have done in six years : 

  • Charity and volunteer expectations can be very different. The charity need might be misaligned with the business allowance of a couple of days of volunteering per month or year. But with longer projects may come greater rewards for both sides.
     
  • Companies supporting employee volunteering need to be mindful of what beneficiaries and projects need. We find that a team of colleagues volunteering together works best when spreading the workload over a longer period. This needs organisational buy-in, including explicit support from managers and senior staff. 
  • You may need a translator. Sometimes it can feel as if each side is speaking a different language, as well as having different objectives and ways of working. Our volunteers and charities alike tell us that the intermediary role we play is critical to the success of projects, as they feel their points of view are understood, appreciated and communicated properly.
     
  • Support for skills-based volunteering is essential to ensure a good experience for both sides. This may be managed better by a third party with the right expertise. This is why Pro Bono Economics exists, and why a number of other professional volunteering organisations are helping firms and individuals to contribute to the sector. 

So while skills-based volunteering is not without its costs, the benefits definitely stack up for both the charity and the volunteer.

Sue Holloway is director of Pro Bono Economics, an organisation that matches economists who want to volunteer with charities that need those skills

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