Employee volunteering is a good thing, right? It helps charities and it makes staff feel good. Companies encourage it; some offer workers one, two, or even three days a year to go out and get involved in the community. It's an effective mechanism for employee engagement, and loads of companies have realised that it's great for teambuilding; why build a raft when you can do something useful in the community?
But all is not right in the world of volunteering. And it's that word 'volunteering' that's at the heart of the matter – for as corporate community engagement becomes ever more strategic in nature, volunteering just isn't, well, volunteering.
Strategic community engagement means aligning key business priorities and impacts with issues in society, and basing community programmes and charity partnerships around such alignments. So a bank gets behind a financial education programme, a sports broadcaster runs an initiative to get kids more active, and a utilities company partners with an age charity to make sure older people stay warm during the winter.
Volunteering opportunities for employees arise. They can give their time and share their skills with charity partners and, in the process, develop their own skills and learn about the issues in society that are most relevant to their business.
That all makes sense, but because the activity is based on a strategic imperative and the company has an inherent interest in its staff getting involved, this type of volunteering is not that likely to be truly voluntary. In fact, it may be quite the opposite: it is "strongly encouraged" (frowned upon if you don't take part); "good for development" (it will be taken into account at your next review); and simply "the right thing to do" (an unwritten three-line whip).
In fact, some companies have targets for the number of employees they want to see volunteering; the community engagement manager is an almost full-time internal persuader.
But I'm not saying this isn't OK. In fact it is OK. "Obligatory" employee community engagement makes sense when the cause is relevant to the business and the value to the business, its employees and society is high. Employers, and employees, should not see this as volunteering, but as part of business as usual.
There are other instances when 'volunteering' isn't volunteering: one-day teambuilding projects designed to benefit charity partners (you'd need the whole team to voluntarily take part to call it volunteering); and experiential learning projects based on real-life charity challenges (a brilliant way to develop people, but most certainly not volunteering).
So, in summary, it's employee community engagement, and not volunteering, when:
1. It's part of a strategic community programme that people are strongly encouraged to take part in
2. There's a target-driven approach and people feel coerced to take part
3. It forms part of an employee's personal development plan
4. It's a teambuilding activity
5. It's part of a learning and development programme
That's not to say that there isn't a place for traditional, purely voluntary and altruistic volunteering in business. There is – and it's based on employees' own interests and choices. Don't confuse this with strategic community engagement, and don't try to combine the two: let people truly volunteer, or get them involved in your strategic programme.
And don't call the latter volunteering.
Jan Levy is managing director of community engagement firm, Three Hands