When charity begins at the workplace

More companies are discovering that community work can boost the skills of their staff. By Kate Hilpern
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"COMMUNITY SERVICE" may have negative associations, but it might not be long before the working population will consider charity work to be as much a part of the day as going for a few drinks after leaving the office. Companies are becoming increasingly involved in voluntary work in the community - and staff are expected to have a hands-on role.

"Social responsibility features largely in boardroom discussions these days," explains Barry Keates, spokesman for the Institute of Business Ethics. "It arises largely from the recognition that companies have relationships and responsibilities to a whole raft of people."

A variety of recent reports have found that the number of individuals giving donations to charity, or taking time out to do voluntary work, has declined. However, companies are now waking up to the fact that since they are a significant part of any community, they should do something about it.

So what does this mean for secretarial staff ? They may do voluntary work - either wholly or partly in company time - and usually on projects initiated by their employers; or the company may support voluntary activity by staff, typically with a financial contribution.

Susan Crow, a 34-year-old secretarial temp who has become involved in voluntary work for a number of employers, explains: "Most of the charity work that secretarial staff I know have been involved in are organised, sponsored events, such as walks or parachute jumps. We organise it for a Friday afternoon or Saturday - depending on whether the employers are willing to let us do it in company time - and then our employers double the sponsor money we'd raised by ourselves. Of course, staff don't have to become involved, but there is a certain amount of peer pressure which I think is really good."

Brewer Whitbread, named Company of the Year in the 1998 Business in the Community Awards for Excellence, set up a staff volunteering scheme in 1991 and spends more than pounds 2 million a year on charity endeavors. At Marks & Spencer, 100-hour part-time secondments to community projects, carried out over three-month periods, produced an average competency gain of 29 per cent over a range of skills, with greatest improvements in communication, project management, customer focus and decision-making. Staff at the financial company, Allied Dunbar, who were sent on a one month secondment to help with projects in India, showed even higher gains for the same set of skills.

Alice Smith, a 41-year-old PA who was sent by her employer to help under-privileged children in London for a week, says: "The experience made me really respect my employers and therefore increased my loyalty to them."

The London Benchmarking Group, which was set up in 1994 to measure the benefits of community involvement to companies and the community, agrees. "Improved morale and self-confidence also follow, along with a more positive approach at work, a better attitude towards employers, reduced absenteeism and increased staff retention," says Michael Tuffrey, who carried out the organisation's latest study.

The lottery operator Camelot allows staff four hours a month for volunteering and matches funds raised. A spokesperson said: "It helps people focus on what they are doing in the lottery business in the first place."