Volunteering seizes hearts and heads: Employee aid to community makes sense

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The Independent Online
IT'S IN tune with the caring Nineties, it motivates staff and company bosses think it makes sound commercial sense. Employee volunteering has been popular in the United States for decades; now it is beginning to spread through corporate culture in Britain.

If awards are anything to go by, the growth has been phenomenal. Four years ago, when Business in the Community launched an award recognising employee involvement in the community, just six companies entered. Last week, winners were selected from 152 entrants.

Sir Allen Sheppard, chairman and chief executive of Grand Metropolitan, found himself congratulating winners from the brewing sector.

Whitbread won the overall award for becoming a market leader in the field of employee volunteering. Employees are empowered to choose their own voluntary activities and 25 volunteering committees have sprung up in the past three years. The company employs a full-time Employee Volunteer Manager to support staff in their ventures.

Joshua Tetley, which launched its employee volunteering initiative last March, won the best new programme award.

Employee volunteering can cover a gamut of activities - from fund-raising to visiting the elderly and disabled, or helping out on local conservation schemes.

Greta Dolan, a postwoman from Dunfermline, was in London to pick up the public sector winners' award. Dunfermline post office staff raised pounds 1,600 for local charities through an open day. Staff have also helped to restore a dilapidated barn, to provide somewhere for disabled children to ride ponies.

'There are people with skills who are happy to help. It makes the job a lot more satisfying, knowing we are putting something back into the area,' Mrs Dolan said.

The Royal Mail has made its community action programme an integral part of its business strategy.

Julia Cleverdon, chief executive of Business in the Community, believes employee involvement will continue to grow and evolve. Fast-track graduate recruits at Marks & Spencer do 100 hours of community assignments as part of their management development. IBM has similar schemes which both hone the skills of staff and give expert help to deserving local causes.

Action Resource Centre, a charity that works closely with Business in the Community, acts as a broker for short, project-based assignments. It has arranged more than 1,800 placements for business volunteers or secondees since 1988.

Company chiefs who champion employee volunteering have a zeal to spread the word. The drive to involve staff in their local communities is a judicious mix of self-interest and corporate caring. Employees feel motivated, companies can get positive PR and groups and individuals in need of a helping hand can reap the benefit.

Sir Allen says Grand Metropolitan was inspired to encourage employee volunteering across the company after discovering what it had done for Pilsbury, the US company it acquired. 'They were heavily involved in employee volunteering and it helped to develop staff.' He does not fight shy of stating why he is such an enthusiast for community projects. 'It makes sound business sense. We wouldn't be doing it otherwise.'

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