Volunteer, and help yourself at the same time

Companies and employees are starting to recognise the real value of voluntary work, writes Alex Watson
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The Independent Online

Take everyone in the office who does voluntary work of some kind, put them in a room together, and hey presto, you've got the company's most generous, selfless employees, right? Wrong. They are more likely to be the most hard nosed, ambitious ones of all.

Take everyone in the office who does voluntary work of some kind, put them in a room together, and hey presto, you've got the company's most generous, selfless employees, right? Wrong. They are more likely to be the most hard nosed, ambitious ones of all.

Indeed, for many employees, doing voluntary work is simply about getting ahead. According to the National Centre for Volunteering, most people volunteer out of self-interest, wanting not only a sense of achievement but also to develop their skills. It is increasingly recognised that volunteer work enhances employability. In fact, it has long been the case in the United States that to reach the top of your profession you must have a strong track record of voluntary involvement behind you.

Barbara Weinstein is director of communications and marketing at New York Cares, an organisation that links employees to flexible volunteering opportunities with schools, social service agencies, and environmental groups in New York city. She says: "In the States, voluntary involvement is definitely something employers look for on a CV, and notice and inquire about. People who have volunteered are good leaders as well as team players. They usually have good project management skills, are flexible workers, and good communicators. In addition to these, they are probably efficient time managers, to be able to fit volunteer work into their schedule - and if they have stuck with an activity for a length of time it shows they are committed and more likely to stay with the company for a while."

Although they have been slow, UK employers are now waking up to this phenomenon.

Shazia Hussain is development officer at the National Centre of Volunteering and runs the Employees in the Community Network, which promotes employee and employer supported volunteering. She says more and more employers are encouraging staff to get involved. "Volunteering involves a steep learning curve," she explains. "Recently Marks and Spencer sent some managers to revamp a Help the Aged shop, and they had the opportunity to do things they would never get to do in the workplace." Instead of seeing volunteering as a "nice bit of charity work", increasingly employers see it on a strategic level, linked in to staff development and training.

The recent launch by Voluntary Service Overseas of the Business Partnership Scheme is proof of this. Employers sign up to support their employees on placements overseas and keep their job open for their return, so they can bring their new skills back to the workplace. A recent VSO survey found a 35 per cent increase in people wanting to volunteer and 61 per cent of these were business and management professionals. These are people you would not automatically associate with VSO, observes press assistant Katrina Nevin-Ridley. They often work in the City, have a big salary and a company car, but they want a new challenge and to broaden their expertise in a different environment. Also, more employers are looking for international business experience, which this type of volunteering provides.

In the past, people have had problems re-entering the job market after volunteering overseas but this is changing. Ms Nevin-Ridley says: "A lot of returned volunteers now say their experience jumped off their CVs when they got back and is a major reason for their career progressing. A few years ago it was less understood, employers thought they'd been away travelling."

Accountancy firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers includes volunteering activities in its training and development programme, which employees need to complete to be promoted. Community affairs manager Kate Pilgrim says: "This company picks up on gap years and community involvement on a CV. If someone taught in China they will have inevitably developed skills which are transferable to the workplace. It is something recruitment people look for."

For the past eight years financial adviser Rob McIndoe has been a volunteer at a weekend youth club in south London, and employers are at last taking notice. "Eight years ago employers wouldn't comment on it, as it was entirely unrelated to the company's work," he says. This is no longer the case. "Now, not only do they ask about my involvement with the club, they want to know what I have gained from the experience. It seems to give me an edge."

Ambitious employees keen to extend their experience beyond the confines of the office could benefit from Cares InCorporated, a flexible volunteering programme based on New York Cares, which Business in the Community set up last year. Although it is currently restricted to companies which are members, plans are afoot to extend it, via the internet, to individuals. Whether it is reading to blind people or advising charity managers, volunteering could be just what ambitious employees need to get ahead.

* Cares InCorporated is based at Business in the Community, tel: 020 7224 1600, caresinc.org.uk