Using our business brains to benefit charities makes a huge amount of sense. Whether it's a one-off event or ongoing support, pro bono style assistance or genuine sharing of skills, both charities and businesses have much to gain. Non-profits benefit from much needed new capabilities, while volunteers from business get to apply their skills in a different environment, which in itself can be a skills development opportunity.
So, it's a no-brainer: move on from the good old-fashioned physical community projects (who would want a banker painting a classroom anyway?) and start applying our business expertise for the benefit of others.
But it's really not quite as simple as that. Here's three reasons why:
It takes time, and skill, to set up. Matching a charity's needs to your people's skills involves first understanding those needs in some depth - and not being presumptuous about those needs and your people's ability to tackle them. This takes not only time and skill, but a great relationship with the charity too. Then finding the right volunteers can be a challenge - most people can paint, but not everyone can apply strategic thinking to a fundraising strategy - and some volunteering might require training. So it's a resource intensive business.
It's not easy to scale up. In a world where corporate organisations increasingly adopt a target-driven approach to volunteering - percentage of employees taking part or number of hours volunteered - this 'new' type of volunteering appeals to depth, not scale. This is a good thing; two experts in project management might be of infinitely more value to a charity than 50 people bramble bashing, but they don't do much to help their company hit its targets.
To make a real impact it needs ongoing commitment. Having an impact implies affecting change; you can build a raised bed in a day, but in such a short space of time you can't change the way people work, solve a strategic issue, go much beyond making recommendations or positively influence a young person. Charities, not just businesses, invest time and effort in setting up opportunities, which means they need their investment repaid. Volunteers have to be in it beyond the short term; for this they require line manager support and the benefits to them, and their employer, need to be clear.
Talking of recommendations, it's all too easy for volunteers to give advice that the charity does not have the resource to implement, which is not a good use of anybody's time. Take the pharmaceutical company that used a day of an offsite conference to tackle the strategic challenges of a small health charity. It sounds good - but there were 70 corporate participants contributing to a charity with just one employee. The volunteers made dozens of recommendations, but the charity couldn't do much about them - all in all, an ill-conceived event.
None of this should deter companies from skills-based volunteering - it is a gateway to breaking down barriers between business and society and adopting an integrated approach to tackling societal issues. But there are clearly things to get right:
Know your business well and know the charity well. If you don't, it will be hard to work out what can and can't be done. Don't just assume that because you're a business and they're a charity they will benefit.
Don't lump skills-sharing into one big 'non-physical volunteering' category. Sharing strategic expertise is different to mentoring a young person. Sharing soft skills is different to sharing technical expertise. Taking on a challenge outside of your comfort zone is different to providing pro bono-style assistance.
Be satisfied with depth over scale. Impact is likely to be greater, for the volunteers as well as the charity, and the insight the company gains on relevant community issues will be valuable.
See it as a process, not an event. To make a real impact takes time. A nice neat 'before and after' scenario is pretty hard to come by in a short space of time.
Make it relevant - to the volunteers and to your business. Skills-based volunteering is a great way to engage senior colleagues in sustainability issues and to learn about external issues of relevance to the business.
Forget the photo shoot. All too often volunteering is portrayed by teams of smiling volunteers with spades. Let go of this cliché and, instead, tell the story of the impact that your well conceived skills-based volunteering made, over a good period of time, on both your volunteers and the charity partner.
Follow these simple steps, and we'll all be the wiser.
Jan Levy (pictured) is managing director of Three Hands