Putting volunteering at the front of ESG

Volunteering can help re-engage employees

Volunteering is a popular way for workers to give back to the community around them, but it isn’t always as easy as just giving staff days off, finds Peter Crush.

When the whole of recruitment firm Odgers Bernston switched off their PCs and spent 12 October volunteering in Cancer Research stores up and down the UK, the day-long event could only be described as an unparalleled success.

“Volunteering is important to our people,” says Petrina Jackson, head of research and chair of the CSR Committee at Odgers Berndtson.

“It’s rewarding, motivating, and afterwards we even got teams, together with Cancer Research store managers, to join us so we can discuss what we’ve learned.”

But its near-100% participation rate – Odgers gives staff two volunteer days a year: one company-wide one, and one where anyone can organise their own thing – is by no means universal.

Read more: Employee volunteering worth billions to charity

While UK businesses generously donate 11 million days’ of paid volunteering time a year, actual uptake is another matter, with data from the London Benchmarking Group suggesting just 14% of workers actually get involved.

It argues two main barriers exist: cynicism (volunteer days being seen as companies shifting the onus of CSR onto staff, for corporate gain), but mainly that under-pressure workers simply can’t afford the time to do it. It’s leading some to question whether there are better ways for firms to ‘do’ CSR.

Michael Doolin, former HRD at PwC Ireland and DPD, says: “The problem with volunteer days is that they’re an easy way for firms to look like their making good on CSR commitments without actually having a proper strategy for it.

“I’m not saying they’re bad, but they’re often badly conceived. When done well they absolutely foster engagement, but for these days to work, they must be part of the DNA of the business, not just a one-off event.”

According to Charlie Ellaway, interim CPO at Hodge Bank, if staff claim lack of time, it just means HR hasn’t properly infused volunteering into their CSR ambitions and company culture.

“For us, volunteering isn’t seen as a perk,” she says. “We’re clear that if people want to join us, then they’re joining a firm that wants to do good for society.

“We say that if you can take time off to go on holiday, you can take time off to volunteer – it’s an expectation and that’s just part of working for Hodge.”

Small steps

Foundation-based businesses like Hodge Bank may have an advantage, but that’s not to say others can’t follow suit. 

Jane Austin, HR director at national water retailer Wave, says: “We introduced our social and sustainability promise in 2019 as our CSR bedrock. And we purposely didn’t go straight into volunteering. We bedded in what we wanted our business to be about and only launched in 2022.”

She admits it’s taken time for volunteering to take off – just 33.5 days were volunteered in year one. But by sticking to its principles, and consistently communicating its CSR messages, Wave has so far achieved 444 hours in just the first six months of 2023.

Part of what’s driven the big rise in participation, though, is not watering down the status of CSR, but considerately addressing the time element of it.

Austin says: “I’ve worked in places where volunteer days are given, but it’s always been seen as a tick-box thing, with little passion behind it. We help people tap into what they want to do – by allowing for half-day or evening volunteering – such as being a school governor or being mentors.”

Technology is helping too, with Wave using Benevity’s Alaya platform. Not only does it hook people up to charities which might need a few hours of volunteer time, but staff can also use it to sign colleagues up for wider CSR ‘challenges’ too.

“A challenge might be promising to turn the tap off while brushing your teeth to save water,” says Austin.

“But staff earn ‘Hopeys’ – virtual points – for doing them. We set a target of earning 75,000 Hopeys this year, but as of the end of September we’ve hit 174,664. This helps ensure volunteering is seen as part of a wider CSR strategy.”

Read more: Game on: the progress of gamification in HR

HRDs certainly agree that volunteering works better if other options are joined to it.

At Hodge Bank, for instance, which offers staff four ‘do more’ days a year, staff are offered alternative ways to use them.

For example, if an employee is a carer, they can use their entire four days for this purpose. PR agency Lemon Grass shifted to a four-day work week largely due to staff wanting to volunteer but felt too time poor to do it.

“Giving people time to volunteer was a huge part of us going to four days a week,” says managing partner, Abi Best. “Our sector is known for long hours, and we wanted to give people time back. Around 40% now volunteer on their day off – everything from visiting care homes to helping at animal sanctuaries.

“We find that once one person starts something, others will join in. Our four-day week/volunteering has been integral to us being B Corp certified.”

Crucially, volunteering isn’t the only way it does CSR. Lemon Grass also offers matched donations for any fundraising staff want to do. 

Meanwhile at the Institute of Export & International Trade, which introduced volunteer days in 2021 due to employee demand, volunteering also includes activities like time off to give blood.

Its head of people services, Amy Finck, says: “People were actually using their annual leave to volunteer, so by making it available outside this, people are really engaged.”


Employee enthusiasm

Among organisations that swear by volunteering – and have high participation rates to prove it – there is real belief staff genuinely value it, want it and don’t want to see it go.

Karen Young leads the development and delivery of social and environmental purpose at Hays UK&I, and this year specifically surveyed candidates about volunteering. Some 17% said volunteering days were important to them in considering a new role and 43% said they’d like an organisation’s purpose showcased through it.

But Young says she recognises volunteering has to be made easy.

“First we built social purpose into our 2021 three-year strategy, but to support it, we’ve tried to remove any barriers,” she says.

“We’ve partnered with Neighbourly – which pairs people up to charities – and through this, we set ourselves a target of 10,000 volunteer hours in our first year.

We just missed it, hitting 9,226, from 1,800 participants.

“But we still want to make things even easier. In the last two months we’ve enabled people to do single-hour volunteering.”

Caroline Ash, CMO at volunteering match-making company, OnHand, says: “We probably need to accept the typical volunteering day doesn’t work anymore. Micro-volunteering is where it needs to be; breaking it up to reengage people who generally do want to do something.

“It chimes with what charities want too. They often can’t occupy people for a whole day, but would like people giving an hour a week – such as tech mentoring, or have people befriend elderly people who are lonely.”

Read more: Mentoring junior colleagues reduces anxiety

It’s also worth noting that, for organisations with a long history of volunteering, the participation task is often more about keeping things fresh.

Ricoh has 10 years’ volunteering experience under its belt, and after seeing a dip to 10% participation in 2022, is up to 13% this year. But its ESG manager, James Knox says one recent change – remote working – is creating new desire for people to physically get together, which volunteering benefits from.

He says: “With hybrid working, people’s routines have shifted. We see volunteering as giving employees an opportunity for a change of environment and a break from work-related stress; providing individuals with a sense of purpose and fulfilment. This can boost mental health and wellbeing.”

So do volunteering days still have a bright future? Meera Patel, people and culture director at H&H Group (which runs an annual World Community Day, supporting the H&H Foundation – its corporate charity), thinks so.

She says: “In 2021, 1,300 team members took part; in 2022 it was 1,821, while this year it was 2,400. But volunteering must be part of a broader CSR strategy which encourages a bigger sense of purpose.”

Dominic Pinkney, CEO at Hammersmith & Fulham Volunteer Centre, adds: “Covid largely brought volunteering to a halt. Now I’m seeing a 10%-15% upsurge in companies wanting to get involved again.

"The key is that companies can’t just hope it will happen by itself. They need to get involved, but when they do they’ll see its engagement and retention benefits.”


What else can companies offer?

Jennifer Wlodyka, senior operations and culture manager at digital marketing agency Distinctly, says firms can offer other ways to give back to their community by:

  • Offering work experience or work shadowing opportunities
  • Doing pro-bono work
  • Donating old IT equipment to local schools
  • Gifting the use of meeting rooms to local community groups
  • Undertaking fundraising activities across the year


This article appears in the November/December 2023 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.