Do more than paint classrooms

A corporate volunteering conference held at the Wanderers Club in Johannesburg on August 13 and 14, challenged companies and NGOs to revisit their views and practices on volunteerism.

The theme of the conference, "Beyond Painting Conference: Employee Volunteering – Rethinking your Strategy,” elicited discussion on whether companies and NGOs act more like masters and servants than like givers and receivers of charity.

The event was hosted by the FirstRand Volunteers Programme, Volunteer and Service Enquiry Southern Africa (Vosesa) and the Charities Aid Foundation Southern Africa (Cafsa).

“The purpose of this conference was to share ideas and best practice and the focus was specifically on employee volunteering. We should be active citizens and improve the conditions of those that are not as privileged as we are,” said chief executive of FirstRand Limited Sizwe Nxasana.

“Organisations compete on various levels, including in the corporate CSR sphere. Competition is healthy, but if companies collaborate we can achieve more,” he said.

“This year’s event came out of a series of conversations between companies and non-profit organisations hosted by FirstRand, Vosesa and Cafsa in 2012. The workshops highlighted the need to learn and share practices of excellence and come together for a robust conversation,” said Desiree Storey, manager of the FirstRand Volunteers.

The conference highlighted the need to ascertain the requirements of NGOs and to align corporate volunteer programmes accordingly.

“This conference aims to build co-operation between businesses and the nongovernmental sector in the interest of more sustainable practices in the area of volunteerism,” says Colleen du Toit, chief executive of Cafsa.

Adding value to kindness
It also aims to create partnerships between corporate companies and NGOs, and start a discussion between the two.

It is futile for NGOs to merely be grateful for what they get from corporate volunteers rather than strategising together about what can be done beyond, for instance, once-off painting of classrooms.

While volunteering is seen as a practice of goodwill, companies need to start asking if their acts of kindness are actually adding value, Nxasana said.

“Very often, companies focus on customers, employees and shareholders and fail to spend enough time looking at the roles that could be played in broader society and focus on ways to back the National Development Plan,” he said.

Volunteerism can take on many forms, such as community care with blanket and food drives for poorer communities, animal welfare projects and others.

Shell South Africa's chairman and general manager, Bonang Mohale, said: “Undoubtedly, these projects are beneficial, but companies should also look at long-lasting projects. Sport, for example, is a unifier and will assist in bringing together different communities,” he said.

"We often carry out corporate social investment initiatives such as planting vegetable gardens, but don’t involve the community," he added. "We plant gardens and soon after we have left, the goats come and chew it up – do we go back and check? We don’t involve the community who can guide us in helping them."

Most problems stem from the inability of corporate entities to engage with NGOs that are on the ground in communities.

“The gap in communication and consultation between companies and grassroots organisations poses a problem,” said Helene Perold, executive director of Vosesa. “Without this conversation, companies tend to assist impoverished communities with resources that don't really fit their list of needs at that time.

“Sustainability means ‘enough for all forever’ and this requires ongoing support from corporate volunteers, because things such as food gardens and educational initiatives take continuous management and support if it is to sustain its communities,” she said.

“Good execution can save even a mediocre plan,” said Mohale. “Spend time working on the conversation, and it will benefit those in need far more than a badly executed plan that may not deliver on the desired outcome.”

Driving success through communication
The long-term goal of creating opportunities for those who need it is at the heart of volunteerism. This is also a means of creating opportunities and jobs for themselves.

“Education is the only way that ordinary people can jump classes. When they are training or employing people, organisations should consider the three Fs: family, faith and fiscals. This thinking will ensure honest, hardworking citizens that will ultimately benefit the country as a whole," said Mohale.

“Through the Beyond Painting Classrooms platform we hope to establish a community of practice for the corporate employee volunteering sector, and we will be pursuing this through further dialogue forums with conference participants in the months to come,” said Storey.

When the conference closed on Wednesday afternoon, delegates were left with the challenge to develop partnerships and communicate better with various stakeholders.

The idea of creating a governing body for volunteering to help streamline activities in this sector was raised and, perhaps, that is just what is needed.