Let’s stop volunteeringBy Jan Levy*
It is time to face up to the fact that volunteering is no longer the right way to engage employees in communities.
Employee volunteering is a good thing, right?
It helps charities and it makes staff feel good.
Departments encourage it; some offer workers one, two, or even three days a year to go out and get involved in the community.
It’s an effective mechanism for employee engagement, and lots of agencies have realised that it’s great for team-building; why build a raft when you can do something useful in the community?
But all is not right in the world of volunteering. And it’s that word “volunteering” that’s at the heart of the matter – for as community engagement becomes ever more strategic in nature, volunteering just isn’t, well, volunteering.
Strategic community engagement means aligning key agency priorities and impacts with issues in society, and basing community programs and charity partnerships around such alignments.
So a bank gets behind a financial education program, a sports broadcaster runs an initiative to get kids more active, and an agency partners with an age charity to make sure older people stay warm during winter.
Volunteering opportunities for employees arise.
They can give their time and share their skills with charity partners and, in the process, develop their own skills and learn about the issues in society that are most relevant to their department.
That all makes sense, but because the activity is based on a strategic imperative and the department has an inherent interest in its staff getting involved, this type of volunteering is not that likely to be truly voluntary.
In fact, it may be quite the opposite: it is “strongly encouraged” (frowned upon if you don’t take part); “good for development” (it will be taken into account at your next review); and simply “the right thing to do” (an unwritten three-line whip).
In fact, some agencies have targets for the number of employees they want to see volunteering.
But I’m not saying this isn’t okay.
“Obligatory” employee community engagement makes sense when the cause is relevant to the agency and the value to it, its employees and society is high.
Leaders and staff should not see this as volunteering, but as part of business as usual.
There are other instances when “volunteering” isn’t volunteering: one-day team-building projects designed to benefit charity partners (you’d need the whole team to voluntarily take part to call it volunteering); and experiential learning projects based on real-life charity challenges (a brilliant way to develop people, but most certainly not volunteering).
So, in summary, it’s employee community engagement, and not volunteering, when:
There is – and it’s based on employees’ own interests and choices.
Don’t confuse this with strategic community engagement, and don’t try to combine the two: let people truly volunteer, or get them involved in your strategic program.
And don’t call the latter volunteering.
* Jan Levy is a managing director of a UK-based community engagement firm, Three Hands
This article first appeared at www.hrmagazine.co.uk