Thanks to a growing appreciation by businesses of the need to demonstrate their CSR credentials, company one-upmanship is blossoming in a surprising new area - volunteering. In April this year, shortly after the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) revealed the average FTSE 100 company donated just two days' worth of paid volunteering per employee, per-year, data company Experian announced it was offering three.
Experian's commitment builds on the 4,000 hours (worth £1 million) staff donated last year, where employees helped the RSPCA rebuild and paint a shelter in Radcliffe-on-Trent and planted trees at Ruddington Country Park. Such highly PR-able projects are breeding an 'anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better' attitude.
Interest in volunteering cannot come at a better time for charities that want to promote it. Despite 2005 being 'Year of the Volunteer' - and kicking off with a campaign to get one billion minutes of time donated that year - the amount of individual volunteering has been slowly on the slide. Figures released by Volunteering England show fewer people volunteered off their own bat in 2007 than they did in 2001.
It is employers that are rescuing the statistics. Over the same period, the percentage of staff working for firms running Employee Supported Volunteering (ESV) schemes has been rising (see graphic below). But with this, say some, comes responsibility. If volunteering is becoming an increasingly corporate-run activity, are businesses really doing it for the right reasons?
On balance, Helen Walker, CEO of TimeBank, the organisation that pairs volunteering projects and companies together, thinks they are, although she admits there is a link between a massive rise in inquiries in the past 18 months and the arrival of the CSR agenda. "We've been surprised by just how many firms are not doing this for PR. Sony, for example, helps local businesses with their marketing, but at the same time we believe firms do need to make a commitment to volunteering - beyond just a couple of days a week - if it is to sink into the psyche of employees."
The good news for companies wishing to introduce volunteering is that it is relatively inexpensive, and it is something employees actually want. Research by Volunteering England shows 6.4 million non-volunteers 'want' to, but a fifth of them reported not knowing how to get involved. Nearly half (42%) said they would be more likely to volunteer if they were asked directly. The role for employers is clear.
The bad news is that while work may be the place where more volunteering opportunities are being offered, having too many work commitments is the reason most individuals (52%) cite for not being able to give up more time.
Even the Government thinks this is getting in the way. It is urging employers to make sure that if volunteering is going to be championed by organisations, staff should not be made to do it outside normal working hours. Last month communities secretary Hazel Blears launched a consultation paper that is considering legislating to extend time-off entitlement to staff to boost volunteering in their local community, especially among the young. As well as hoping more will get involved in community parks projects, litter removal and helping the elderly, other jobs being targeted include encouraging volunteers to be magistrates and other such pillars of the community. Given that the latter are more municipal jobs rather than clear CSR projects, this is something that could put employers on a collision course with government. Policy-makers see volunteering in its broadest possible sense. Employers that just regard it as a PR activity only, instead of the skills that it brings back to the business, could indeed discover they are not suporting volunteering for the right reasons.
According to Andre Carvalho, volunteer manager at Crisis, most employees are happy to volunteer in or outside work hours as long as they know what company policy is. As the charity approaches the busy Christmas period, Carvalho needs 7,000 volunteers, and works directly with large (mostly City) firms to help get hospices ready. It requires a dozen or more teams of 10-15 staff for several days at a time, and he says for this commitment, he (and other charities) cannot afford to get too pious about why companies want to help. "Some do it for a mixture of PR and genuine kindness," he says. "We're not here to judge why, but what we do offer for committed organisations is access to our own training, which volunteers receive. Many are dealing with vulnerable people, alcoholics and drug-dependent people, and our just-launched mentoring scheme, where firms' staff can mentor clients for 12 months, gives them a month of training every three months. This is a time commitment, but the skills brought back to the business are there for all to see."
IBM is one company that has a high percentage of volunteers - a massive one-third - but, according to Mark Wakefield, UK corporate citizenship and corporate affairs manager, IBM requires staff to volunteer in their own time. He says: "Volunteering is undertaken in staff's own time, but what we can do is encourage, motivate and recognise this." The company has set up an intranet site where they can search for projects to support and gain advice. It has 120,000 members. "The reality is that it's not practical to do volunteering in work time," says Wakefield. "What we do have is flexible working, so if their volunteering spills over into working hours, we tend to turn a blind eye as long as they achieve their work targets."
Because IBM does not have 'chosen charities' - it favours projects aligned to its core business, such as helping charities build websites - Wakefield says the organisation embraces volunteering in its most holistic way. It values the skills it gives staff rather than the PR column inches it might generate. He says: "Recent feedback from volunteers showed 75% felt they had developed new skills."
So highly does he value volunteering that this year IBM launched a'Corporate Services Corp' programme, where potential leaders must take part in a volunteering project lasting up to five weeks. It proved so popular 5,000 applied for 100 roles and is being expanded to 1,500 over the next three years.
The ROI of IBM's leader volunteering is due to be assessed by Harvard Business School. The problem is that many businesses still do not measure theirs. A Roffey Park study in 2006 found only 7% of companies had a way of evaluating the ROI of volunteering. It also found most businesses did not promote volunteering; only 14% of companies that offered it referred to a formal employee volunteering scheme on their website.
Long before a company chooses which projects to work with, how much time it expects volunteering to take up, and how it affects the company brand, it seems some even more fundamental issues still abound.