Rory Clarke takes a look at one of the most prevalent activities in 21st century business, asking how beneficial it really is, and, moreover to whom?
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. Generally, this voluntary work is remunerated for and allows volunteer organisations access to workers of higher skills than usual. Companies gain a reputation for ‘caring’ about their community, employees have opportunities for development and philanthropic fulfilment, and volunteer organisations benefit from highly sought after workers contributing to their causes.
One of the benefits of CV over traditional forms of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or philanthropy is that it offers opportunities for employee enrichment and development. Rather than ‘giving’ quantified by 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 CV programs as a more important form of CSR than philanthropic contributions, according to JA Worldwide.
Some have argued that a model of ‘Gift Exchange Theory’ can be adapted and used as a theoretical template for CV. This theory states that a gift is characterised as an intangible or tangible “good or service (incorporating the giver’s time, activities and ideas) voluntarily given to another party,” while exchange involves “giving something in return for something received previously or simultaneously, or in anticipation of future returns”. 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 CSR, they are far more beneficial.
Over 90% of Fortune 500 Global companies operate CV programs, contributing up to 1.3 million hours of employer-supported voluntary labour annually. In contemplating their motives for such wide-reaching schemes, one cannot be so naive as to believe genuine will to contribute to society is the sole motivation. There are 2 main self-serving rationales for engaging in CSR or CV; the ‘public relations’ rationale and the ‘shared benefit’ rationale. The former details how reputational benefits can also lead to fiscal benefits. 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. Cynically, it could be said that CV schemes, as a recruitment tool, have been implemented solely as a result of increased competition for a limited number of well-qualified workers, the recruitment of which is increasingly regarded as a fundamental to a business’s prosperity. Like the majority of CSR activity, 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 unusual 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, affirming the findings of researchers in the 1990s. Furthermore, once employees have taken part in these schemes they often have enhanced feelings of loyalty towards their employers, in turn increasing employee retention. This, apart from allowing a company to keep its best employees, is an effective method of cutting recruitment and training costs.
Voluntary organisations benefit enormously from sustainable CV partnerships with companies. Many 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. Furthermore, in engaging corporate volunteers, charitable organisations will be saved considerable screening and selection costs, as employees have already been similarly screened during the employer’s own recruitment process, which is generally presumed to be sufficient.
While much has been made of the advantages for companies one must be aware that primary responsibility for successful implementation lies with the primary benefactors; the charities themselves. They cannot sit back and simply expect companies to approach them and offer their employees’ time and skills. 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. However, there would be a danger that poorer charities would be unable to afford even the most basic marketing and thus will be forgotten, hence furthering the imbalanced contributions by cause.
A hidden benefit of these schemes is the exposure of potentially wealthy members of society to the work of the organisation and the overall benefits that they bring to society. This exposure can lead to donations or beneficial commendations in the future, even when the employee has ceased to volunteer with them.
CV schemes have been implemented to varying extents and in varying manners. Some are based on formal integrative relationships companies have with certain non-profits, charities etc, while other employers commit to facilitating employee volunteering. Common facilitations include enabling employees to volunteer by implementing such structures as volunteers’ schedules, time off, remunerations, monetary gifts, charitable donations, use of facilities, company transport, and other goods. For example, both American Express and Timberland USA give (conditioned) 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 the freedom to choose their own voluntary experiences.
As mentioned above, an endemic problem in CV schemes is employee disagreement with regard to the cause(s) targeted by the firm in choosing to support certain organisations over others. However, the simple solution - informally allowing employees to choose their own volunteering experiences as AmEx and Timberland do - dilutes the schemes’ benefits for both NGOs and companies, 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 reflects the fact that formal programs increase employee participation, due to increased internal awareness. This is only true however if, companies, in instituting such programs, succeed in internally ‘selling’ the scheme and the worthiness of the cause(s) it supports. If companies fail to convince their employees of its merits they will be met with only nominal participation, resistance and resentment.
To this end companies often choose causes which are more easily justified and publicly ‘acceptable’. For example, among leading Spanish firms, researchers found that there was a clear disparity between the groups in which managers focused their CV efforts, with a majority 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, undermining one of the primary aims of CV schemes.
One of the challenges often faced by employers is the short-term, positive effect of their CV schemes. This problem generally manifests itself in 2 guises. Firstly, skill acquisition and employee development may plateau. Termed ‘diminishing returns’ this explains how the benefits of CV schemes to employees gradually declines over time. To counteract this, companies could establish volunteering relationships with a series of volunteer organisations rather than relying on a select few, each with a targeted area of skill acquisition - although being careful to avoid being seen as exploitative and self-serving. Employees could be rotated around these organisations when they begin to show signs of plateauing.
Secondly, a recurring issue is a fall-off in employee participation as time goes on. Sustained employee participation is crucial for the long-term progress of the programs. Trusting relationships, developed over many years, are fundamental to success. This is particularly true of CV schemes which are often employee directed; sustained participation allows for the growth of these informal relationships which in turn allows for more meaningful contributions.
A number of perspectives have been developed by academics seeking to understand the fall-off in employee participation. According to the ‘motivational perspective’, sustained volunteering is a result of the fulfilment of the goals or motives that the volunteer had intended to serve by participation. This perspective has proven more successful than any other in explaining the variance in the duration with which individuals volunteer. From the very start, individuals assess the extent to which each of their volunteering experiences satisfied their goals, thus examining the worthiness of their engagement. If a placement was unsatisfactory, employees typically do not undertake another. Interestingly, internal recognition has also been shown to be of great importance to volunteering employees. Volunteering hours cannot simply be regarded as normal work hours, for to do so would undermine an employee’s fundamental motivation.
A clear discrepancy has been found in the causes chosen by large and small companies. Due to the formalization and standardisation, larger companies are more likely to follow a strategic policy in selecting their causes which, in turn, are more likely to be perceived as a good fit by their customers. By choosing their ‘desired associations’, companies inevitably benefit, increasing consumer support amongst those targeted in the marketing of the company’s products and services. However, this inflexible selection of causes can also be an issue. Certain standards and thresholds (of strategic relevance) may be set for the NGOs seeking help, which would lead to worthy causes being refused due to small statistical deficiencies.
The proliferation of the schemes is further indicated by their use by non-traditional employers and online platforms. For example, TaskRabbit, a services platform connecting taskers and clients to complete tasks (physical work, cleaning, personal assistance etc), have a 'Tasks for Good' initiative. Volunteer or paid Taskers help with local non-profits, in a manner clearly analogous with CV schemes. The ‘public relations rationale’ is particularly relevant in explaining why TaskRabbit (TR) has sanctioned this; when the Tasker completes a ‘Task for Good’ the reputation of the company, rather than the individual is enhanced. Any future financial benefit accruing (if the non-profit sought out TR again) would go to the platform generally, rather than the individual. TR also chooses the tasks, rather than individual taskers.
Lastly, people generally participate in such schemes only if there is internal recognition of the special nature of the work; the pride and happiness at participating in such schemes can transcend these perceived non-traditional communities of work.
Despite the growing popularity of CV schemes - they were viewed as important by 31% of managers in 1992 and 81% by 1999, and were part of 19% of company business plans in 1991 compared to 48% by 1999 (Points of Light Foundation and Allstate Foundation, 2000) - 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 (Sanchez-Hernandez & Gallardo-Vasquez, 2013) reflecting its relative ‘newness’. CV schemes have yet to find their niche. They will though. Mutually beneficial, relatively easy to implement, and satisfying for employees, it is relatively certain, despite a number of concerns, Corporate Volunteering isn’t going anywhere.