Why giving your staff one day off a year to volunteer is not working

Why giving your staff one day off a year to volunteer is not working

Corporate volunteering comes in a number of different forms, with the most common that businesses give their staff one day off a year to go and volunteer with their favourite charity.  Now there are certainly plenty of twists to the model and these days can be hugely beneficial to all involved if they are engineered correctly. 

When we consider who has a stake in the activity there are three groups; the employee, the company and the charity.  If you can hand on heart say that all three have gained a measurable positive outcome from the experience, then you’re on a winner.  But often that is not the case.

Seldom is it the lack of intent or desire that results in unmatched expectations, just the execution of the activity and more to the point your charity partner not knowing or more accurately, a reluctance of saying no to their corporate partners.  For the charity partner often the volunteering is linked to other forms of support including a financial contribution.  So they have an interest in keeping their funders happy. 

But consider that the business you are in right now is in fact a not for profit and you have a well meaning, well educated and highly qualified individual turn up for the day to help. 

Just for one day.

Once a year.

After you get the introductions out of the way, you’ve shared a coffee and arranged a security pass for the day, they have approximately six hours worth of productive time left before they leave your office and return again, perhaps, in a years time. 

No one stands to get a lot of value out of this type of relationship, really how can they?

One of two things is likely to happen with staff who avail themselves of the one day off a year to engage in corporate volunteering.  Those who take the day off and work productively with a charity have in all likelihood been doing this for several years, on a weekly or monthly basis and it is already part of their life.  You giving them the day off, just allows them to go on company time. 

The other likely scenario is that the day is spent at the beach working on catching waves or a tan.

But it can work.   Just like any other initiative the company takes if there is a considered strategy behind the program there is a greater chance of success and a meaningful value exchange between both parties can be achieved.

In Doing Good by Doing Good a book that I wrote last year which helps companies turn their Corporate Social Responsibility strategy into a profit centre I share a number of examples as to how volunteering can work, from your large corporate firms down to small business and even the sole practitioner. 

Often the most effective use of resources that you can offer a charity or not-for-profit is those skills that you utilise on a daily basis and get financially rewarded for.  If you are an accountant, lawyer, or provider of professional services there is a strong chance that you are better at providing those services than you are at building houses, mending leaking roofs or fixing the electrical work at the local scout hall. 

Sashi Veale from Sashi Veale and Associates is an accountant who for years has been supporting charity through volunteering in the best way possible.  From her small firm in Western Sydney she prepares the financial accounts for a select number of charities on a voluntary basis.  She does this above and beyond her commercial work and although I haven’t seen Sashi on the end of a hammer I have a strong suspicion that the value she brings to the charities she supports is far greater through her provision of ‘voluntary’ professional services.  And after all THIS is what the charities that she supports need. 

Part of the argument around the corporate volunteering is if the firm that I’m a partner of only offers our professional services on a pro bono basis, do we miss out on the engagement and the shared experience of actually “getting our hands dirty”? 

After all, isn’t part of a good corporate social responsibility program the shared experience that leads to higher levels of staff engagement, improved morale, increased staff retention and if so how is doing more of what they do, but for no fee achieving that outcome?

This is where a strategic approach is required.  By asking those internally who are participating on the program, who is this volunteering really for?  If the honest answer is the charity partner then the provision of those professional services they are likely in need of will achieve that outcome.  If it is more akin to a team building exercise and the charity is the vehicle for that program then the direction of the program is different.  The later is not wrong, just a different approach and a different outcome.

Oz Harvest is a wonderful organisation that collects food that would otherwise go into landfill and provides it to those in need of nutritious meals.  They not only welcome their army of corporate volunteers on a short term basis, but their growth and even survival is dependent upon those volunteers to drive the trucks, collect the food and then deliver to those in need.

It’s about getting the strategy right and this is where I think the opportunity to create a meaningful experience really exists. 

Let’s return to the concept of volunteering one day a year exists.  You might be the senior executive or director of a organisation with 400 people.  You offer each of them one day off a year to volunteer with their charity of choice or perhaps with the charity that your business supports. The first question to ask is how many of those 400 staff actually avail themselves of the day and use it for the intended purpose.  Of those how many are providing meaningful assistance to the charity they are working with?  Another question,  how many of those who don’t take it would be happy to see it used by someone who was interested and did have the relationship?  Now this is where we can leverage some real value.

How about if two thirds of the staff donated their day back to the organisation and the days were taken consecutively by one person, supporting one organisation.  This would mean the organisation you are supporting now gets someone to work within their group, full time, for one full year.  Now we start to see real value to the charity partner.  What flows back to your business? A story of meaningful change that the multiplier effect has had.  One person working full time within a charity, leading a project can bring about real change.

So does this discussion mean that there is no place for the group volunteering days when we all put the overalls on and insert a paint brush into our right hand?  No it does not.

One of the most memorable days I have had working with a corporate team was when I lead 103 members of AIA Insurance into the Khlong Toei slums of Bangkok in Thailand.  For close to eight hours 103 Australian’s toiled away in a place they had never been and were unlikely to ever return, for people they had never met nor likely to meet again but had one of the richest shared experiences you can imagine.  They transformed this dilapidated school in the slums into something that represented hope, love and compassion.  The experience that was shared in the slums is still spoken about today, years later by the AIA members.  The school stands as a reminder to those in the slums that people do care.

If you have a volunteering as part of your CSR platform or you are looking to introduce one, ask yourself a number of questions


1.           Is there a strategy behind our corporate volunteering?

2.           Is it aligned to our values?

3.           Who is it really designed to benefit and are those who are meant to benefit from the program, in fact doing so?

4.           Can we re-engineer our volunteering to create a multiplier effect or shared experience? and

5.           What is the return to our business and how are we measuring it?


If you can answer the last of the five questions in the affirmative and clearly articulate the positive return to YOUR business from the program then you are well ahead of 90% of organisations who are engaged in corporate volunteering. 

If your answer to the final question is in the negative, then you are missing opportunities and you are failing to capitalise on the returns you might otherwise would have.

It’s not only in the communities interests for you to get this right, but it is in your interests.