Employee volunteering on the rise in South Africa

By Manon E Williams [1]

There is a groundswell of interest in employee volunteering in South Africa, and employee community involvement (ECI) is a rapidly growing approach to corporate social investment (CSI). The direct involvement of staff is increasing, with more companies realising the benefits of staff participation in the design and delivery of programmes. Employee volunteering is one aspect of ECI that has gained popularity because it inspires active, hands-on participation and produces tangible results.

Corporate social investment is now a fact of business life in South Africa. Companies are fast realising that they have a ‘corporate citizen’ role to play and are keen to expand the ways in which they support communities. Although much of corporate social investment is still about giving cash – essential for the functioning of any non-profit organisation – companies are gradually exploring other ways of facilitating successful and sustainable community partnerships.

In the main, employee volunteering programmes tend to be fluid and informal, with little planning and design in their delivery. Support methods have thus been used to great effect by a number of companies, demonstrating that programmes flourish when a little structure is applied.

Methods to support volunteering

Methods used to support employee volunteering include employees taking time off. Although few companies have a formal time-off policy, many have ad hoc systems that enable staff to volunteer during normal working hours. This was demonstrated during Employee Volunteer Week 2005 (www.volunteerweek.org.za) where thirteen companies in South Africa allowed their staff limited time off to participate in activities.

Another support method is the matched-giving method where volunteer hours contributed by staff are matched by the company with cash grants to the non-profit organisation with which the employee has volunteered. This method can be used for individual and team volunteering efforts and has been successfully implemented by companies such as Absa, BHP Billiton and AngloGold Ashanti.

In addition, there are many companies which have an internal awards programme that honours staff who have made exceptional contributions to their communities. Examples include Absa's 'Prestige Awards' and Old Mutual's 'Staff Community Builder'.

Company investment vital

Companies need to tackle a number of challenges to ensure that volunteering activity grows, is meaningful and constructive, and is not exploitative of the employees or of beneficiary NPOs and communities. Ensuring corporate support for employee volunteering, which acts both as an incentive to participate and as a means of valuing employees’ contributions, is vital. Companies must invest time and money in their employee volunteering programmes to avoid accusations of using employees’ achievements solely for public relations benefit.

Encouraging innovation and more creative thinking in designing volunteer activities will enable companies and their employees to provide new solutions to old social problems. Companies are starting to look at how new approaches to national issues such as education and unemployment can be piloted through employee volunteering schemes, and especially at how priorities such as skills development can be maximised through volunteering.

Business is a naturally competitive arena and companies can be fiercely protective of information relating to employee volunteering programmes. This makes sharing of approaches, innovative ideas and replication possibilities difficult. Also, given the investment of companies in programmes, one would assume that monitoring and evaluating its impact would be a high priority, but this is sadly not the case. There are some simple and effective methods that can be used to measure the impact of volunteering efforts, but companies need to be committed to measuring and sharing the information. If there are no measures for success or failure, employee volunteering will never grow and progress.

Partnerships will ensure sustainability

Too many employee volunteering activities are once-off inputs with little regard for what happens once the employees leave the project. There is some merit to such activities, but if a company is serious about investing in an non-profit organisation or a community’s future, it must actively practice its corporate mantra of partnership and sustainability.

Employee volunteering is an important part of the corporate social investment mix and is a popular way to involve employees in delivering corporate social investment objectives. If done well, it can achieve amazing results with potential for replication across corporate South Africa and within communities. There is a lot more to be done, but the enthusiasm from employees themselves is a powerful force that will hopefully rub off onto companies.

[1] Manon Ellis Williams is the Volunteer Co-ordinator for the non-profit organisation Charities Aid Foundation Southern Africa (CAFSA). She works on developing employee community involvement programmes for local and international companies, focusing particularly on employee volunteering initiatives. Visit their website at www.cafsouthernafrica.org.