Corporate Volunteering: More Pain Than Gain for Charities?

Building with cement. Corporate volunteering; voluntourism; employee engagement; donations.
Photo by Rodolfo Quirós from Pexels

I don’t need remind you that that there’s now a clear business case for providing employees with corporate-sanctioned volunteer opportunities whether through team or company-wide opportunities or hours off (okay, you can read about it here, here and here for some examples). It supports employee satisfaction and retention. The cost of replacing an employee can be high and a day off for volunteering can cost less than a training course.

But companies need to be cautious about how their bottom line is affecting the charities they want their employees to work with. Also, companies shouldn’t automatically conflate volunteer opportunities with its employees’ career development.

Let’s discuss a few types of corporate-managed volunteering and their potential consequences.

The one-off

If an employee volunteer program is just a one-day affair and it’s a team effort, the gigs are best off as the “many hands make light work” variety: community clean-ups, animal care, making food bank packages, gardening, etc. These activities are not any less valuable, in fact, the charity may depend on these bursts of action to get some much-needed, hard work done and your employees still get to use their soft skills.

But companies need to be cautious about the burden taken on by the charity to manage its employees. Companies need to assess this with their charitable partners: can they help to oversee most of the volunteer management work internally? Also, don’t be surprised if the charity asks for a fee — it takes a lot of work to run a volunteer event and a lot of charities find it hard to get funding for operational costs, so cough it up.

The long-haul

Perhaps a company wants a more embedded, long-term experience for its employees. This is a good intention and sets employees up for a deeper experience. This is where there can be a focus on skills building and leadership training, ie. retention. Companies can level up here by providing things like training the charity’s staff and mentorship opportunities.

A long-term experience requires a commitment to really listening to the charity’s needs. Companies shouldn’t impose an idea of what they think their employees should do; instead, they need to discuss with an open mind about what the charity could really use in the long-term and what can be sustainable. Charities have their own strategies and workplans to work within and external funding to maintain.

Which employee skills match up best with the charity’s needs? Can the company provide the appropriate time commitment to do things in the best way possible? Maybe even a 5-year commitment? Companies should take the time to understand and teach staff about the issues around the charity’s mandate (like poverty, environmental issues, mental health, etc.). Charities can work very slowly, so company staff shouldn’t be put off if it takes time to decide on the way forward.

The voluntourist

Maybe a company wants to do something big, like sending some employees on an international trip to do ‘humanitarian’ work. I urge companies instead, as a default, to donate money. There is a slew of potential ethical problems related to ‘voluntourism’ which have been covered elsewhere (here and here, for example). But the bottom line is, instead of spending thousands of dollars on flights or for shipping supplies that could have been bought with money locally or trying to build something with no technical knowledge, swallow the desire to splash out on international volunteering and GIVE MONEY INSTEAD to the charities that have been working in those communities for many years.

Which leads me to my caveat: many charities need money, not time. A lot of valuable programs don’t need volunteer support because their staff already have years of specialized education or experience that should be trusted to run the show and/or they just don’t have any chances for satisfying (ie. skill building) volunteer opportunities.

Also, there’s a secret around what a lot of these charities would actually like companies to do instead: give them money so that they can hire their own staff full-time or at least finally pay a market rate and add additional staff to take the burden off their already overworked employees.

The message here is to get companies thinking about the realistic impact on charities of corporate-managed employee volunteer programs. Don’t discount a charity if they won’t let you or don’t need you to volunteer. Take on as much of the burden as possible when organizing volunteering opportunities. Take time to have an open and frank discussion with the charity about what they really need. And please don’t force an employee volunteer project on any charity in the hopes that it will be the panacea to employee retention and satisfaction issues.



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Amy Coulterman

Amy Coulterman

Attempting to link a non-profit mindset to the corporate world. CSR | sustainability | social impact | people + planet | Toronto, Canada