The first workshop in the 2014 Beyond Painting Classrooms series hosted by The FirstRand Volunteers Programme and partners CAF Southern Africa, Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) and the Mail & Guardian, profiled the potential of skills-based volunteering to make tangible contributions to South Africa’s socio-economic development.
Following 2013’s national conference on employee volunteering, FirstRand is working with non-profit and tertiary partners to facilitate deeper discussion and development of best practice in this promising new arena of corporate social responsibility. At the workshop which took place at GIBS on March 5, corporate and professionals at non-profit organisations (NPOs) shared their experiences of skills-based volunteering.
In opening the workshop, Desiree Storey, manager of the FirstRand Volunteers Programme, explained that the FirstRand group places high value on thought leadership and innovation in the interests of South Africa’s development. This commitment is the basis for the group’s continuing support for the ground-breaking Beyond Painting Classrooms initiative.
Storey was careful to note that the Beyond Painting Classrooms model does not necessarily discourage traditional volunteering activity which focuses on various forms of hands- on manual labour. However, Beyond Painting Classrooms specifically aims to encourage new and innovative forms of volunteerism that make sustainable improvements within host NPOs, and to the skill levels of NPO staff.
The ultimate aim is to build a volunteering practice that aligns with business and at the same time meets the real needs of host organisations. Last week’s workshop was designed to address how employee volunteers’ specific skills, both professional and technical, can be harnessed to help non-profit organisations to become more effective and sustainable. Employee volunteerism is gaining increased prominence in South Africa as the majority of large companies have established employee community involvement programmes.
These programmes often complement the companies’ corporate social investment (CSI) programmes, thus strengthening the corporate/NPO relationship. The Beyond Painting Classrooms team believes that with careful planning and consultation among the role-players, employee volunteering programmes can make positive impacts on both business and society. Elizabeth O’Leary, executive director of Khuthaza — a construction industry-focused enterprise development NPO — said her organisation certainly benefits from the contributions of expert volunteers, particularly when this is accompanied by financial investment.
“We are struggling in terms of core funding and so in the past year we haven’t been able to do as much as we’ve done in previous years,” she said. Despite this, Khuthaza has benefited from specific skills offered by companies and individuals. None of these, she said, has come via structured corporate programmes, but rather through networking or knocking on the doors of companies in her immediate vicinity. Irrespective of how these relationships are established, O’Leary said that success depends on mutually agreed objectives and well managed projects.
NPO partners should be very clear and unapologetic about the types of skills or expertise needed; they should act as equal partners in the initiative and remain in control of the activities taking place within their organisations. These points were reiterated throughout the workshop by NPOs and corporates alike. Participants agreed that a mismatch between the skills available and the practical needs of organisations is a recipe for failure. It should also not be assumed that skills development takes place only one way.
There is as much opportunity for employee volunteers to gain skills and experience through volunteering as there is for NPO staff, the conference heard. Successful relationships require mutual respect and commitment over an extended period of time. “We need to move slightly away from doing things right to doing the right thing, and when that becomes the motto everything falls into place,” said panel member Raj Dhanlall, partner at PwC.
“Be wary of the person who volunteers and keeps a scorecard because that is then purely a business transaction.” Dhanlall said the volunteer work he undertook early in his career was possibly more demanding than his actual work at the firm. “Know that this work is actually more important than the work you get paid for. If you do bad work as a volunteer you are likely to do damage, so bring your A-game to volunteering and in that way you will be doing the right thing right,” he said.
There was discussion during the workshop about ways in which corporates can both encourage their work force to participate in volunteer programmes and ensure that the volunteering brings value to all parties. CAF Southern Africa’s Elyjoy Ikunyua said that CAF’s work in helping corporates develop employee volunteer programmes includes the training of corporate staff to understand their roles, responsibilities and how to conduct themselves as volunteers.
“You cannot assume that people know how to engage with communities. What we find is that if companies build ethical values into their business culture, it goes a long way to ensuring sensitive and effective volunteering relationships,” she said.
When companies seriously commit to employee volunteering they can survey the volunteering interests of their staff and take an audit of the skills that employees would like to offer to community partners. Annemarie Mostert from Sešego Cares spoke to the importance of good networks, relationships and being an active South African citizen. She explained the importance of the “mobilisation of like-minded volunteers”. “You don’t need everybody. You need people who care enough, who will connect others to the movement. Find the true believers. You only need a few people who care enough to make a difference”.
Mostert said that employee volunteering is not a “mass activity”, but is rather about energising personal relationships. Mariam January, social performance advisor for Anglo American, said securing buy-in from the executive level of the company is crucial to successful planning and implementation of volunteer programmes. Once company leadership is on board then careful and inclusive planning that aligns with key business strategies is possible.
Companies, especially those as large as the Anglo American group, should develop a programmatic approach to employee volunteering that includes options to participate from every level and skill-set within the company. January explained that the Anglo American programme emphasises skills-based volunteering in communities where mines are located. However, there are also a range of other options available to meet the personal passions and interests of a wide range of Anglo employees. Storey’s closing remarks highlighted the mutual responsibility of both the NPOs and corporates in forging sustainable volunteering relationships.
She emphasised the need for clear ground rules for engagement that ensure that both parties’ needs are met. To NPOs she suggested that it is important to get to know and understand their corporate partners, while corporates should take the time to engage with NPO partners, listen and understand their needs and make honest assessments of the fit between company strategies and NPO requirements.
The Beyond Painting Classrooms team has developed a definition of skills-based volunteering, that prioritises the opportunity for mutual learning, mutual benefit and the creation of shared value: “Skills-based volunteering enables employee volunteers and partners to share skills: talents and experience based on mutually agreed goals and objectives which seek to maximise benefit and learning for all parties involved.”
Storey stressed that corporates should realise that they cannot expect buy-in from all staff: “Instead you want to tap into staff who are passionate and committed.”