Companies are increasingly supporting corporate volunteering, where employees are encouraged to engage in out-of-office experiences to boost their CVs and broaden their skills, while giving back to society. Many organizations, such as Deloitte, Salesforce, and Microsoft, have programs that encourage employees to engage in volunteer experiences, and some organizations are even offering paid time off to do so. These experiences can be local or international in scope. The United Nations notes that volunteerism can play an important role in supporting global sustainable development initiatives while building the volunteer’s skills.
The company’s role
However, some development specialists and academics caution that the rising trend of short-term volunteering could do more harm than good if not executed in an appropriate and responsible way. Organizations need to tread carefully when encouraging and facilitating employee volunteering, especially if employees cross international borders. Failure to do so can result in wasted volunteer efforts and squandered company resources, and worse, could cause harm to host communities and prompt ethical and human rights concerns.
For example, well-meaning volunteers have traveled to orphanages around the globe, often paying a steep fee to do so. This may seem like a win-win, as the volunteers gain experience and skills and the orphanages get an influx of labor and money. However, reports such as those of the non-profit organization Save the Children indicate that volunteers can cause damage due to their lack of expertise in this area. Further, the Guardian recently reported that some orphanages purposely keep children in subpar conditions or even traffic non-orphans in order to gain access to the volunteers’ money.
As reported by the US State Department, between 80 and 90 percent of children in orphanages worldwide have a parent still living. As a result, there is a growing move towards supporting community-based care instead of orphanages. Volunteer organizations such as Projects Abroad are also taking action and terminating volunteer programs with orphanages, and the London School of Economics and Political Science, for example, is leading a petition to stop organizations from promoting trips involving orphanages.
Companies would ideally ensure that the volunteer organizations and programs that their employees are involved in have been thoroughly vetted to ensure compliance with quality, ethical, and human-rights standards.
Towards a positive impact
To avoid potential pitfalls, and to ensure a positive impact for the involved employees and the local communities, we suggest companies carefully assess their internal volunteer programs and consider implementing these four recommendations:
- Companies would ideally ensure that the volunteer organizations and programs that their employees are involved in have been thoroughly vetted to ensure compliance with quality, ethical, and human-rights standards. Although the development of a certification system for volunteer-sending organizations is on the horizon, regulations regarding such organizations often fall short or are nonexistent. However, companies can utilize the membership list of the International Volunteer Programs Association, which holds its members to 35 comprehensive principles and practices to guarantee program quality and appropriate volunteer behavior. This level of vetting can help managers ensure that their company and employees are supporting a worthwhile initiative in a responsible way. For a more bespoke approach, well-established volunteer organizations such as Cuso International offer tailored and responsible programming for corporate partners.
- Managers should seek to forge strict internal corporate policies around the areas and types of volunteer work open to their employees, favoring initiatives that focus on building local capacities and respecting local contexts. Volunteer opportunities would ideally align with the employees’ core competencies and preferably align with the overall core competencies and goals of their companies. Volunteer contributions should also respond to community needs and prioritize community partnerships. For example, a marketing expert could provide training for local entrepreneurs on social media use, in partnership with a local organization or institution. Managers would ideally avoid encouraging volunteering opportunities that provide non-technical labor, such as constructing housing or schools, which could displace local employment and expertise.
- Companies can encourage their employees to pursue appropriate training for any upcoming volunteering. Proper training, particularly for international volunteers, can help ensure contextual understanding and cultural awareness and sensitivity. Major volunteer organizations such as Voluntary Services Overseas already provide such training. Managers can ensure that employees use volunteer-sending organizations that provide such training by integrating this requirement into corporate policies. This additional training can be a win-win for both organizations and communities: Employees gain diverse skills while communities benefit from appropriate volunteering partnerships and actions.
- After a volunteering experience, managers would ideally encourage employees to reflect on their experiences while also ensuring that they gain concrete insights into the impact that the volunteering had on the community. Recent research by Steele, Dredge, and Scherrer has found that, although many volunteer organizations discuss the importance of the volunteers’ impact on communities, markedly fewer have rigorous processes for assessing community impact. Attention has instead focused on the satisfaction of the volunteers themselves. To balance this, employees can be encouraged to join up with organizations that provide concrete and verifiable results.
Volunteering has a key role to play in sustainable development efforts in an increasingly globalized and inter-connected world.
Assuring sustainable development efforts
Volunteering can be a rewarding experience that benefits the communities, the volunteers, and the companies involved. Volunteering, both locally and internationally, has a key role to play in sustainable development efforts in an increasingly globalized and inter-connected world. However, companies need to ensure that their employees are engaging in responsible corporate volunteering that supports sustainable development, well-being, and resilience in communities.
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