(Image: disneyabc, flickr)

Described as “one of the fastest-growing areas of voluntary activity”, Corporate Volunteering (CV) schemes have become commonplace in many of the world’s leading corporations, from Apple’s ‘Global Volunteering Program” to Google’s “Giving” scheme. The basic premise is that companies facilitate their employees’ participation in, and contribution to, voluntary/charitable organisations.

These exchanges are not zero-sum transactions; relative to most traditional forms of philanthropy, they are far more beneficial.

Generally, this voluntary work is remunerated for and allows volunteer organisations access to workers of a higher than usual skill level. Companies gain a reputation for ‘caring’ about their community and employees have opportunities for development and philanthropic fulfilment. Volunteer organisations benefit from the highly sought-after workers contributing to their causes.

One of the benefits of CV over traditional forms of philanthropy is that it offers opportunities for employee enrichment and development. Rather than ‘giving’ by quantified one-way monetary donations, CV-oriented policies offer companies the opportunity to furnish their employees with valuable experience and skills whilst simultaneously contributing to society. Indeed, because of the time and skill involved, employees tend to view corporate volunteering programs as a more important form of social responsibility than charitable contributions.

Since its inception in 1992, employees in Disney’s ‘VoluntEARS’ program have given more than 5 million hours to help specific charitable causes

CV schemes are a series of mutually beneficial gift exchange relationships between 3 principle actors; the firm, employees and NGOs/charitable organisations. These exchanges are not zero-sum transactions; relative to most traditional forms of philanthropy, they are far more beneficial.

Over 90% of Fortune 500 Global companies operate CV programs contributing to 1.3 million hours of employer-supported voluntary labour annually. There are 2 main self-serving rationales for such engagement; the ‘public relations’ rationale and the ‘shared benefit’ rationale. The former details how reputational benefits can also lead to fiscal benefits while the latter explains how by contributing to the society in which they operate, companies are creating new customers, giving them ‘purchasing power’ and therefore, perpetuating prosperity.

It is the ‘public relations’ rationale which is herein more relative. Like the majority of philanthropic activities, CV schemes have fantastic marketing potential, proving attractive to both consumers and prospective job applicants, who want to feel like they are a part of something unique and beneficial. In the 2007 Deloitte Volunteer IMPACT Survey of Generation Y individuals (aged 18 to 26), 62% of participants indicated that the availability of volunteer opportunities is a factor in deciding where to work. Furthermore, once employees have taken part in these schemes they often have enhanced feelings of loyalty towards their employers, in turn increasing employee retention.

Many charitable organisations rely in part or wholly on volunteers and a majority struggle to access sufficiently skilled volunteers. Attracting these premium workers is patently difficult for oft-poorly funded organisations. Charities cannot therefore, sit back and simply expect companies to approach them and offer their employees’ time and skills. They must realise that CV programs, in terms of the exchange between employees and their employers, are very useful. Employers need skilled employees and volunteer experiences can provide these enriching and developmental skills, sometimes even compensating for failings in an employee’s own training. Voluntary organisations should recognise these selling points and proactively market themselves to companies.

CV schemes have been implemented to varying extents and in varying manners. For example, both American Express and Timberland USA give fully-paid leave of absences for employees to work for a non-profit. By using such an informal system as this, companies lower their own costs (less logistical and administrative work) and avoid excessive employee resentment by allowing them freedom to choose their own voluntary experiences.

However, informally allowing employees to choose their own volunteering experiences- as AmEx and Timberland do, dilutes the schemes’ benefits, as employees are contributing singularly, and often, superficially. Indeed, one of the most celebrated successes in the CV sphere is also one of the most formal. Since its inception in 1992, employees in Disney’s ‘VoluntEARS’ program have given more than 5 million hours to help specific charitable causes, namely those beneficial to children and families. This has ranged from volunteering at the Special Olympics to inviting disadvantaged children to holiday in their various resorts. This reflects the fact that formal programs increase employee participation, due to increased internal awareness.

To this end companies often choose causes which are more easily justified and publicly ‘acceptable’. For example, among leading Spanish firms it was found that there was a clear disparity between the groups in which managers focused their CV efforts. The majority of which focused on helping children, the disabled and the disadvantaged; while those who are notionally harder to justify supporting (addicts and prisoners) are relatively neglected despite their clear needs. If they did address such sensitive issues companies may unintentionally, and unfairly, alienate certain sections of society against them.

Despite the growing popularity of CV schemes (viewed as important by 31% of managers in 1992 and 81% by 1999) they are still a relatively new concept in social business. Indeed, across leading firms, the management of CV fell under the jurisdiction of many different managers, from Human Resources to Sales, reflecting its relative ‘newness’. CV has yet to find its niche, although its day will come. Mutually beneficial, relatively easy to implement and satisfying for employees, there is little doubt that, despite a number of concerns, Corporate Volunteering isn’t going anywhere.