More than painting a classroom

Employee volunteering is showing remarkable growth as a feature of corporate citizenship. Next week South Africa’s first conference on employee volunteering takes place in Johannesburg to rethink the role of corporate volunteers in sustainable development and social change in South Africa.

Titled Beyond Painting Classrooms, the conference aims to raise the prominence of employee volunteering in South Africa and to strengthen its practice.

The conference is rooted in a unique partnership between business and civil society.

The partners — FirstRand Volunteers Programme, Volunteer and Service Enquiry Southern Africa (Vosesa) and the Charities Aid Foundation Southern Africa (Cafsa) — are convening the conference on August 13 and 14 with the shared goal of inspiring and challenging companies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to strengthen employee volunteering as a force for development.

The conference grew out of a two-year consultation process with 40 corporates and 40 NGOs.

“Through a series of workshops held over the past two years, we worked together to determine whether or not there was an appetite for a corporate employee volunteering conference,” explained Desiree Storey, manager of the FirstRand Volunteers Programme.

“Despite corporate competitiveness, the consultation produced such a positive response that we realised this was an important platform we needed to develop.”

The partners believe there is enormous potential to increase and leverage employee involvement as a component of social transformation and enlightened business practice.

“This conference is designed to help corporates and their NGO partners implement employee volunteering strategically and in a way that contributes more effectively to poverty eradication and sustainable change,” says Helene Perold, executive director of Vosesa.

But employee volunteering is not without its challenges.

“It has been challenging to convince South African corporates of the benefits of aligning corporate social responsibility with corporate citizenship and business strategy,” explains Colleen du Toit, chief executive of Cafsa.

According to Du Toit, the publication of the King Report on corporate governance convinced business leadership of the value of integrated planning and reporting. This paved the way for aligning employee volunteering with both national development priorities and business success.

The value of employee volunteering depends on top leadership support, says Karena Cronin, projects and outreach manager at Vosesa.

“Throughout the consultation process employee volunteer managers spoke candidly about the lack of support from the executive and middle management,” she says.

The partners are working towards a model that requires business leaders to stand up and lead the way.

“At FirstRand, the CEO was completely behind building the volunteer programme,” says Du Toit. “I believe that his leadership inspired both staff and management in the group to participate so enthusiastically.”

The next challenge is to assess the impact of employee volunteering.

“Corporates have to invest in rigorous research to determine the impact of employee volunteering in communities and to calculate the corporate return on investment,” says Perold.

Monitoring, evaluation and impact assessment currently have a low profile in the employee volunteering field. This makes it difficult to convince company executives of the value it adds and to motivate for more substantial human and financial investments in employee volunteer programmes.

“Every business has its own methodology for aligning their employee volunteer programmes with their business,” says Storey, “These conversations are an important part of the conference. We all do things differently and we want people to open up and share these alternative ways of handling volunteering so we can learn from each other.”

Beyond Painting Classrooms also offers conference participants a window into the benefits of cooperative relationships between corporates and NGOs. Participants will have the opportunity to engage with influential voices and form strategic relationships that that will last long after the conference has ended.

“Through the conference we hope to help defuse the unequal employee power relations often inherent in volunteering programmes,” says Du Toit.

Cronin says this is reflected in the conference sessions, in which NGOs and companies are equally represented.

“The conference is focused on sharing practical ways of strengthening employee volunteering programmes and developing mutually beneficial partnerships.

“We aim to have participants rethink their strategies in ways that align with business imperatives while engaging with the country’s socio-economic and development challenges.”