How small businesses can achieve high impact through employee volunteering.

Natalie Tucker, Senior Manager at Three Hands, specialises in facilitating skills-sharing between businesses and community organisations, and measuring the impact of these initiatives on the community, employees and the business. Here she shares details of their recent employee volunteering report and the opportunities for SMEs to achieve a real impact through employee volunteering.

In 2015 we published our inaugural employee volunteering report, which revealed some notable gaps in the support that charities most needed from businesses. Curious to build on that research, and to see what had changed, we repeated the study late last year. This time we found that:

  • 93% of charities need employee volunteers, and 75% receive them; there are a growing number of unmet needs (or opportunities for employee volunteering).
  • Almost half of the charities we asked said that hosting employee volunteers was costly for them, but only one in five charge a fee to cover those costs.
  • The types of support that businesses most often offer are (still) not those that are most needed by charities.
  • Behind the data we noticed some interesting opportunities for SMEs to achieve a real impact through employee volunteering:

    1 – Partner with charities that match your scale

    With many large charities focusing on building relationships with businesses that match their scale and developing sophisticated partnership opportunities, it can be difficult for smaller businesses to identify how to make a unique and meaningful contribution.

    The good news from our research is that there are many opportunities to engage with smaller charity partners, with those earning less than £500,000 a year three times more likely to lack the employee volunteers they need. These smaller charities were also less likely to say that taking on employee volunteers was costly for them, suggesting that they see greater impact from working with them.

    At a practical level, our experience at Three Hands is that it can be easier to initiate partnerships between smaller organisations because it’s possible to build a fuller picture of what each can bring and would like to gain from the relationship, particularly through speaking to key decision makers.

    2 – Encourage your staff to volunteer little and often

    Although full-day team events seem to have become the norm for employee volunteering, this can become a big burden or even a barrier for SMEs. More good news coming from the charities we asked is that they much prefer volunteers to support them regularly for short periods of time.  Good examples of this in practice included mentoring for service users or staff, or support to develop marketing plans or materials – much of which can be done online or by phone, reducing the need to take time out to travel to the partner.

    These shorter, planned breaks from the day job can be easier for a business to work around, whilst giving the charity the support they truly need. Better still if that support is skilled, with 75% of smaller charities asking for either:

  • Business skills sharing with their staff
  • Mentoring or coaching for staff
  • Trusteeship
  • Pro bono
    As a small business ourselves this is the approach we have taken at Three Hands where team members can leave early once a week or fortnight for volunteering commitments if they wish.

    3 – Consider how your business and employees can benefit from volunteering

    Businesses encourage employees to volunteer for many reasons, ranging from altruism to reputational outcomes, staff development, or gaining insight into business-critical social issues. Charities recognise this, and are keen to build lasting partnerships with businesses that enable each partner to benefit.

    For SMEs in particular, releasing employees from the office can be a big commitment, making it all the more important to get maximum benefit from it. Getting outside of your organisation and seeing inside another provides an excellent opportunity for learning and development – whether that be about the communities your partner charity supports (your potential customers or future employees), or the way in which the organisation itself operates. A Deloitte study in 2014 found pro bono and skills-based volunteering to be as effective as leadership development initiatives for developing skills such as communication and problem solving.

    This has also been a focus of Three Hands’ employee volunteering, which has seen our staff benefit from training and learning about topics relevant to our work such as young people and employability.

    “Supporting Body & Soul – a charity that seeks to transform the life-threatening effects of childhood adversity – to run their support services helped hone my coaching skills whilst also giving me a different insight into how to get the best out of young people.”

    Mary Kunnenkeril, Three Hands

    This learning can benefit the business even further when shared with colleagues – at Three Hands we hold regular “lunch and learn” sessions to enable this kind of peer learning.

    Both charities and businesses stand to gain much from employee volunteering, and as our research shows there is plenty of room for improvement to maximise these benefits. At the same time, this is an exciting opportunity, particularly for SMEs and their employees, to look beyond traditional employee volunteering partners and activities to achieve genuine social impact whilst learning and developing core business skills.

    You can access the full report here.

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