Navigating the Dilemmas of Corporate Volunteering

In many companies, employee volunteering is something that happens a few times each year, often around Christmas, Divali or other religious holidays, or following a local/regional natural disaster. Some companies limit their involvement to high profile one off activities, such as the United Way’s Day of Caring or the UN’s International Volunteer Day, while others host multiple events.

Regardless of the approach, companies involved in volunteering will face a number of dilemmas. This article introduces some of these dilemmas and considers their implications. Please note that the volunteering activities discussed refer only to those organized or facilitated by companies, not volunteering that staff do in their personal life.

Formal vs. Informal management

Corporate volunteering, together with financial and in-kind donations, are the most common components of corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes in Trinidad and Tobago. However, in many companies there is no strategic plan governing these programmes. The result is a collection of ad hoc activities, which may or may not be focused on specifically chosen beneficiary groups or social/environmental problems.

A more formal approach to employee volunteering may involve a volunteering policy specifying details like roles and responsibilities, selected beneficiary groups, the social/environmental problems to be tackled, requirements for potential partner non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or Community Service Organizations (CSOs), the budget allocated, and the amount of volunteering time available to each employee.

This final item is particularly interesting. Internationally, the volunteering time available to staff varies but often ranges from one to five working days per year. Also, good practice is to hold volunteering activities during working hours, rather than on evenings and weekends, though this is sometimes unavoidable. Holding volunteering activities during working hours sends a clear message that a company sees social and business value in volunteering.

Centralized vs. Devolved planning

This refers to the organization of volunteering activities and coordinating volunteers. Some medium and large companies embrace devolved planning, with individual teams or business units free to organize their own activities, subject to management approval. Small companies on the other hand, often have no choice but to centralize, or perhaps share, responsibility for planning volunteering activities.

Medium and large companies may find it most beneficial to adopt a hybrid approach, with the majority of volunteering activities organized centrally and open to all staff. To compliment this, individual teams or business units can be given the freedom to schedule their own volunteering activities, aimed at team building and boosting employee engagement.

Skills-based vs. General volunteering

In developing volunteering programmes, companies should consider whether they will offer staff opportunities to engage in skills-based or general volunteering, or a combination of the two.

Skills-based volunteering (SBV) matches employees’ skills, knowledge and expertise with the needs of beneficiaries, often in the form of consultancy, capacity building, mentoring, or the provision of specific professional skills (e.g. legal advice or plumbing). General volunteering, such as beach clean-ups, tree planting and food drives, does not require employees to apply their professional skills.

Companies around the world have found that SBV, while more time consuming to organize and less conducive to engaging large numbers of staff simultaneously, creates greater benefits for beneficiaries, staff and the company. This is because a fundamental feature of SBV is its focus on capacity building, increasing the potential for long term impact rather than one-off interventions. For employees, applying their professional skills in new contexts facilitates the learning of new skills and improvement of existing ones. SBV also enables staff to contribute more meaningfully to beneficiaries, which research has shown can positively impact employee engagement and retention.

General volunteering is an effective tool for involving large numbers of staff and requires relatively little management time. It is best suited to team-building events and provides a great opportunity to get clients and suppliers involved, with obvious relationship benefits.

With this in mind, companies should decide what they aim to achieve from volunteering and offer a combination of SBV and general volunteering opportunities to meet these goals.

Incentivized vs. Unincentivized

Ask ten of your employees if they would like to be rewarded for volunteering and the majority are likely to respond with an uncomfortable ‘No’. This is not surprising, most of us see good deeds as selfless acts. Now rephrase the question, to whether the employee would like the company to make a charitable donation on their behalf in recognition of their commitment to volunteering. You may get a different answer. This is still a mechanism for incentivizing volunteering, regardless of who benefits from the financial donation.

Some companies have chosen to adopt this approach in the form of annual staff volunteering awards for standout volunteers, or through lower profile grants, which staff can apply for and direct to charities of their choice.

Others, such as Barclays, British Gas, McKesson and PwC UK have incorporated volunteering into their recruitment and people development activities. Generally, this is based on a view that people involved in volunteering are more well-rounded and empathetic team-players. Indeed, a 2015 study from the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that two thirds of companies believe entry level candidates with volunteering experience demonstrate greater employability skills.

To measure or Not to measure?

While most companies in Trinidad and Tobago should have a good understanding of their financial donations, only a handful actively measure and report their volunteering activities. Even fewer use this data in decision making. Compare this to PwC US, which calculated the value of its community focused CSR activities to be US$165 million, thanks largely to a 5% higher employee retention rate among participating employees.

Companies can start by measuring the number of staff taking part in volunteering activities, the total hours spent on volunteering (making sure to differentiate between SBV and general volunteering), and the number of individuals and organizations benefitting from the volunteering.

In time, it is possible to overlay staff volunteering data with employee engagement, performance and retention statistics to determine whether there is a correlation between them. In turn this can inform decisions on how to improve CSR programmes for greater societal and business impact.

There are also accepted methodologies for converting volunteering data into dollar values for the purpose of measuring and reporting total community investment. The most commonly used of these are available online free of charge, from the UK-based London Benchmarking Group (LBG) and US-based Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP).


A thorough discussion of the challenges companies face in establishing employee volunteering programmes is beyond the scope of the column, but this article shines some light on the discussions to be had and the decisions to be made. Trinidad and Tobago’s problems are not going to solve themselves, we all need to do our bit both in our personal and professional lives. Corporate volunteering is an important part of the solution.



This article was originally published (with minor edits) in the Trinidad & Tobago Express Newspaper on Wednesday 25th April 2018.

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