Business Essentials: 'We're keen to give but we want something in return'

Can a software firm bring in a more systematic approach to fund-raising for charity without alienating its staff? asks Kate Hilpern
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The Independent Online

"Employee volunteering" was relatively unheard of three years ago. But since then, more and more organisations have begun to set up formal schemes under which their staff are expected to do their bit for charity.

"Employee volunteering" was relatively unheard of three years ago. But since then, more and more organisations have begun to set up formal schemes under which their staff are expected to do their bit for charity.

Coda, a global provider of accounting software, is ready to jump on board. With around 250 staff at its head office in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, the company currently gets dozens of requests from staff to provide sponsorship for this or get publicity for that. "It's a drain on the human resources team and doesn't really help Coda raise its profile, give much to the community or enhance employee relations," admits David Turner, marketing director.

He is quick to praise the employees' charitable endeavours, but wants to introduce a more structured system of giving. "Most of the head-office staff are professionals - either accountants or software developers or both - and many of them regularly do activities for charity. We even had one guy who ran up Everest," he says.

"But while we genuinely want to support them, we need as a company to consider our spend on charity, ensuring that it gives us something in return and that it is co-ordinated."

Mr Turner is excited by the prospect of an employee volunteering scheme, not least because it will show that Coda is committed to corporate social responsibility. "We also want to use it as a motivator - getting staff focused on single activities as a way of building morale."

Having talked to other employers who have set up such schemes, he believes that employee volunteering could eventually be used as a tool for activities such as team-building and management training.

"We'd rather get staff to gain skills like team-building by decorating or gardening for a community project, than through a day of canoeing or jumping off a cliff," he explains.

As a first step, Coda has signed up with Business in the Community (BITC), an independent business-led charity that helps employers improve their impact on society.

"But since talking over some options with them, we feel a bit stuck," admits Mr Turner. "In a way, it has created more questions than it's answered. For example, how do we launch an employee volunteering scheme without staff feeling we are imposing it on them? They could get cynical if they feel that it's enforced.

"And how do we stop the fund-raising for other causes and direct it towards our chosen causes and community projects without leading to feelings of rejection among staff who have a favourite charity?'

One solution to the second problem could be the creation of a staff-led committee which selects the causes. "But the danger of that is everyone will want to be on it and we'll get 250 different ideas," says Mr Turner.

"Ultimately, while we want to be doing good things for the community, we also need to run a business and keep the issue proportionate to our overall aims."

www.coda.com

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Julia Cleverdon, chief executive, BITC

"Developing a strategic approach to employee volunteering without seeming to impose it can be hard. But if a business wants the full benefits from a scheme, it needs to align it with its wider objectives.

"Rather than selecting one charity over another, look at issues or themes (such as homelessness or education) as the main drivers. Then review current community involvement and look for any patterns. In Coda's case, good links could be with financial literacy - numeracy in schools - or with organisations preparing disadvantaged groups for work.

"Appointing a charity committee can be a good idea. To reduce the risk of too many ideas, keep it small, cross-departmental and ensure employees know who their representative is.

"Or go local: focusing on projects close to the office can concentrate the employees' efforts while allowing some flexibility. Work with a broker who can provide a range of local opportunities to staff

"All the evidence suggests that a culture which cares and encourages volunteering engages employees."

Lesley Nicholls, employee volunteering development manager, CSV (Community Service Volunteers)

"Effective employee volunteering offers practical support, so has to be local. Coda should research what support is needed in its area.

"Second, I suggest it uses a questionnaire to track the views of its staff - the kind of activities that would give them satisfaction, whether they want to volunteer as a team or an individual, and the causes they prefer. A committee could review the responses to the questionnaire.

"How the programme is publicised to staff is important. Participation should be seen as an opportunity for personal development, not as an imposition.

"Finally,to provide some freedom for staff, the company should consider a twin-track approach where the projects agreed by the committee are supported by employee volunteering, and other causes through fund-raising - perhaps by offering two to three days per year for causes chosen by ballot or a 'lucky dip'. Staff will then feel they have been able to influence the choice of employee volunteering causes, and still get support for their own charity."

Carol Hart, corporate charities and community involvement, RWE npower

"Engage your employees and get their views on what they feel the programme should look like. Then draw up guidelines that are fair and consistent for all.

"At npower, we believe in a twofold approach: providing opportunities for staff to volunteer for community projects ,while recognising and rewarding what they do in their own time."

"Senior management support and participation is vital. Before you start, be certain that you know why you're doing it and focus on how you are going to measure your success.

"Finally, never pressure employees; lead by example with passion and enthusiasm. Make it fun."

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