/ 10 April 2014

Purpose-driven volunteering

olunteers help out at Stop Hunger Now Southern Africa. The non-profit organisation is developing a skills utilisation model that allows volunteers to apply their area of expertise.
olunteers help out at Stop Hunger Now Southern Africa. The non-profit organisation is developing a skills utilisation model that allows volunteers to apply their area of expertise.

Getting employees to volunteer their time and energy for social good may help boost a company’s corporate social investment rating. While there are broad-based black economic empowerment scorecard incentives and benefits, recent amendments to the scorecard have reduced the weighting of contributions to non-governmental and civil society projects, and volunteered hours cannot be substituted for the legislated financial contributions expected.

This tests companies’ willingness to dilute the productivity of their workforce, and has the debilitating effect of further setting back access by non-profit organisations to much-needed support. One trend that has gained prominence and that overcomes some of these challenges is skills-based volunteering.

The approach is founded on the principle that NGOs and recipient organisations are more sustainable if they focus on their work and use volunteers’ professional skills for business-critical functions, ranging from strategy and policy formulation to accounting, auditing and IT expertise.

With this emphasis on promoting sustainability, companies and their employees are also able to narrow their attention to activities that create value and align them to their corporate values or associated areas of business.

Reach and impact

Fiona Budd of Charities Aid Foundation Southern Africa, which helps companies develop employee volunteerism strategies, says that while structured programmes are emerging in South Africa this has not always been the case.

Although the more formal programmes are evident mostly in large organisations, more companies are starting to develop volunteer strategies to ensure reach and impact. “This is because they realise the need to look at employee volunteering in a holistic and structured way to continually align such programmes with their core focus as a business and in terms of what they wish to achieve,” Budd says.

The foundation has assisted Anglo American to develop a programme that has the ambitious goal of introducing employee volunteerism throughout its global operations, which cover five continents and more than 145 000 employees and contractors. Mariam January, Anglo American’s social performance advisor, who has been spearheading the development of its strategy, sees “tremendous scope to harness this base to add tangible value” to communities and organisations through a more directed approach.

“It’s really about including this in the social sphere and aspects of our business,” she said. “This is in addition to what we are already doing within our social development work scope. What we want to do is see how we can involve more employees in employee volunteering in a structured and strategic programme.”

The process has involved benchmark studies and analysis of existing activities undertaken by Anglo itself and by individual employees. “If you look at the skill base of a company such as this, it has a tremendous amount of skills and a broad range. All of our employees are skilled in a particular way — and we are not differentiating between the artisans and management; everybody has skills to offer. The idea is to provide a framework in which people can express their different skills,” January said.

She cited the opportunity to include employees in the group’s municipal capacity-building project, which has been running in partnership with the Development Bank of Southern Africa. This project aims to build the skills and capacity of local municipalities in and around its operations, which opens many doors for Anglo staff to share their expertise with constrained municipal employees.

“For example, we have town planners who could be seconded to municipalities in that position for six months. They could help train the town planner and upskill them so that by the time they leave they have built the skills and capacity of that municipality,” she said.

Long-term benefits

Budd said the transference of skills to deliver long-term benefits is at the heart of the skills-based volunteering approach. “Non-profits are usually very stretched in terms of human resources, with a small team of staff each handling the work of three or four people,” she said.

“Skills-based volunteering can assist in taking organisations to the next level of functionality and deliverability in terms of capacity building and skills development.”

Barry Mey, chief executive of Stop Hunger Now Southern Africa, has made this approach the subject of his studies in social entrepreneurship, which he is completing at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. His motivation lies in his belief that NGOs will be better positioned to attract the attention of corporate volunteer programmes if their skills-based volunteer requests are aligned with what the companies are looking to achieve.

Through his studies and research, he hopes to design a skills utilisation model that allows volunteers to easily apply their area of expertise, specifically in his organisation’s hunger eradication model. A recent strategy session identified a lack of expertise to take Stop Hunger Now to the next level, Mey said. “The non-profit organisations have to be thinking about this strategically,” he said. “The context in South Africa is so different to anywhere else in the world because of our past inequalities.”

International call to action

Evidence that the concept of skills-based volunteering is not a new concept is found in the work done over the past 56 years by Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). The organisation is focused on fighting poverty in developing countries by harnessing the goodwill of international volunteers who commit to sharing their skills for periods ranging from a few weeks to two years or more. According to VSO’s country manager for South Africa, Bongai Mundeta, the primary focus is on building capacity in non-governmental and community-based organisations.

Its core focus areas are education, health and HIV and Aids, food security and improving these organisations’ effectiveness in lobbying and governance. The local office is active in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. VSO relies on the goodwill of individuals who have specialist skills that help promote the sustainability of civil society organisations.

This ranges from management and infrastructure skills through to lobbying, policy and strategic inputs. “We look at various levels, such as bringing in experts in strategic planning or policy formulation,” says Mundeta. The policy formulation and lobbying role is critical for civil society to influence or sway government plans of action to bring about meaningful change.

There is no shortage of interest from volunteers to get involved in the 34 countries around the globe where VSO is active. In 2013, 1 845 international volunteers participated in its programmes that provided more than 340 000 volunteering days to millions of people in needy communities. VSO also has a national volunteering programme that provided 2.6-million volunteering days last year to 160 partners in 25 countries.

Mundeta said these programmes tend to be of shorter duration and are less reliant on professional skills than its international programme. “But it would be help us a lot if the corporate sector through employee volunteer programmes started supporting the work we do locally.” – Johann Barnard