Beyond fence painting – new research identifies 3 areas of corporate volunteering that offer real value

I tried a little experiment recently using word association and the results were disappointing, although perhaps predictable. I asked a number of friends, family members and acquaintances what first springs to mind when they hear the phrase “corporate volunteering”.  Overwhelmingly the result was “painting a fence/wall” (note: ‘tidying gardens’, ‘team building’, ‘bake sales’ and ‘fundraising’ also featured heavily)Now, this may just be a reflection on the company that I keep, but I like to think my friends and family are a reasonably intelligent, nice bunch of people and, indeed, I believe that if this flash survey was widened out on a national scale the results would not be dissimilar.

Indeed, team building activities such as fence painting still feature heavily in CSR reports under corporate employee volunteering and are still regularly ‘offered’ by charities to corporate ‘partners’.  There are some very good reasons for this, not least the request from companies to their charity ‘partners’ to provide volunteering opportunities for 100’s of staff on one particular day of the year (a difficult proposition for any size organisation).

I’m also not saying that these type of activities are inherently a bad thing to do – they offer a great entry point for companies into philanthropic activities, they are (largely) enjoyable for the individuals that take part and are often the ‘hook’ that gets vital corporate donations for the charity.  So you could argue that, on one level, it is an example of a ‘shared value’ partnership – companies do benefit from off-site team building, and charities benefit from the accompanying corporate donation (and perhaps a short term benefit from the new lick of paint, although I have heard numerous horror stories of “we had to get the professional painters in afterwards to do the job properly…”).

But surely the skills, capabilities and resources of a company could be put to better use?  So what types of volunteering programmes can corporates get involved in that would add real long-term value to their charity partners, and help achieve the desired business objectives of such partnerships such as improved employee retention, more effective skills development and top graduate recruitment?

In our research of over 100 cross-sector partnerships we have identified 3 focus areas of corporate volunteering that utilise the skills and capabilities from both partners and bring real value to the organisations and individuals involved:

  1. Charity Operations: The focus is on improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the charity partner, reducing their operational costs.  Employees from the partner company will be primarily focused on improving the ‘back office’ operations of a charity, including; HR, IT, finance, marketing, communications, fundraising, legal and trading activities.  A good example of this is the partnership between Shelter and Fujitsu – with Fujitsu using its expertise in technology to increase the reach and capacity of Shelter to help more people into homes.
  2. Service Provision: The focus is on scaling or strengthening the delivery or a programme or service that a charity is running. Employees from the partner company will be involved in delivering a programme or service that directly impacts beneficiaries e.g. improving the well-being of young people.  Employees will either work directly with the beneficiaries to deliver the service or help to plan, setup and implement the service. See the Age UK Call in Time service supported by Zurich Community Trust for a good example.
  3. Product Innovation: Arguably the most exciting focus area – the charity and corporate partner work together to develop a new product or service that will help to solve an identified social issue. The corporate may be supporting the development of the product/service with a charity partner or leading the development.  A great example is the Fuel Management Programme developed between Macmillan Cancer and npower to alleviate fuel poverty in cancer sufferers – read more about this great programme here.

I’m not saying that everyone should throw their paint brushes away (professional decorating firms should be actively encouraged to use their skills in this way!), but I would urge companies and charities to think long and hard about developing programmes that will maximise the utilisation of capabilities from both organisations, helping to deliver long term, strategic value to both partners.  We recommend using the above definitions as a loose framework to help organisations categorise and develop programmes with their partners.


Blog written by Rick Benfield, CEO of thirdbridge



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