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Charity starts at work

David Saul, managing director of Business Environment, leading serviced office operator, explains why all companies can benefit from employee volunteering

As we emerge from the recession, businesses, both in the UK and internationally, have been forced to slash budgets and rein in spending in order to survive. It will have been tempting for many to reduce corporate support for charitable causes, often viewed as ‘non-essential’ by senior management. Yet in limiting employee volunteering opportunities, are companies also limiting the potential business benefits?

At Business Environment, we encourage our employees to support charities both in their local community and also those that have a personal connection to them. We allow them time within their normal working hours to do this. In fact, volunteering forms a crucial part of our company values; we firmly believe that we have a responsibility to our communities. Our main good cause is Rays of Sunshine, a charity helping children with serious or life-limiting illnesses, for which we donated services in kind worth £80,000 last year.

So where is the value in employee volunteering? Benefits are two-fold: firstly for the company directly and secondly on employees’ professional development, which also brings advantages to businesses’ bottom line.

Employee volunteering helps to improve brand visibility, but can also be an important part in building and maintaining corporate reputation. One of the companies that springs to mind when I think of charity work is Virgin. It contributes to a variety of charitable activities and its not-for-profit company, Virgin Giving Money, gets involved in hundreds of events to help raise money for causes ranging from human rights and health to sport and education. Its brand is ever-visible and it has developed a great corporate name for this work.

When it comes to employees’ professional development, it is clear there are benefits too. Corporate responsibility and sustainability consultancy Corporate Citizenship recently ran a study on behalf of the City of London Corporation into the business case for volunteering. It focused on how employees develop business relevant skills and competencies through their volunteering activities. It tracked the learning and development of 550 volunteers in 16 blue-chip companies including Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Ernest & Young and Deutsche Bank. It found compelling evidence that supporting employees in community investment activities can deliver real business returns in terms of reduced training and development costs. Through the experience, employees were found to develop improved communication and coaching skills, adaptability, and influencing and negotiating – all transferable skills for any business type, irrelevant of the size or sector. These skills developed also help to increase job satisfaction and morale. In actively engaging and connecting with their local communities, employees gain motivation and a sense of pride, which in turn helps with staff retention.

I think what’s important to remember when it comes to employee volunteering and corporate social responsibility, is that it is not perceived as an ‘add-on’, which can be easily removed from business strategy in tough economic times. Rather it should be part of the overall company mission and values, integral to how it plans and operates.

Not only can businesses provide charities with financial support, but the advice and knowledge we can impart to them can also create positive change. And that has benefits not only for business, but for the entire community.