In the past, volunteering at work meant offering to make tea or organize the Secret Santa round of mystery gifts at Christmas. Now, however, employers are waking up to the idea that corporate social responsibility entails more than just sponsoring a fun run.
Business ethics are being scrutinized by pressure groups, shareholders, customers, potential investors and business partners. So it's in the interests of employers to give something back to the communities they make a profit from.
Employee volunteering can take many forms, from a year-long placement in a developing country, to regularly helping the local community, to one-off team challenges. The benefits are three-fold -- the charity or organization receives skilled help, the employee spends time away from the office doing rewarding tasks, and the company boosts its PR and benefits from more fulfilled, and, therefore, more motivated staff.
Volunteering is particularly high on the agenda in the UK at the moment because this year is the year of the volunteer, a Home Office-led initiative to encourage more people to get involved.
Home Office employees get five days' annual paid leave for volunteering, a response to the prime minister Tony Blair's challenge to employers to give all staff one day's leave for voluntary work.
Assistant private secretary Nana Acquah has volunteered with Night Watch, a charity that helps homeless people in Croydon, south London, for three years, and is now its secretary. She organizes training for volunteers, such as how to deal with homeless people with drug or alcohol problems.
"The five days' leave means I can do committee work, because things like booking training courses have to be done during office hours," says Acquah. "I recently took a day off to look into funding for a training scheme. In the Home Office, there are quite a few people who volunteer, because the extra leave means you can really get involved and make a difference."
The big multinational companies are ahead of the game with employee volunteering. Many have partnered charities, so staff can regularly volunteer. Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), a charity that sends professionals to use their skills in the developing world, set up its business partnerships scheme six years ago.
So far 80 people have volunteered, for up to two years, from firms including Shell and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Jobs are kept open for volunteers, although firms generally suspend employees' salaries. "Instead of losing employees who want to take career breaks and grown-up gap years, they use their professional skills and return to work," explains Catherine Raynor from VSO.
Gib Bulloch, from Accenture, a global management and technology consultancy, transformed his career after spending a year on a placement in Macedonia. A consultant at the time, he acted as a small business adviser to help kick-start economic development in an area damaged by the Balkans conflict.
"I'd always assumed VSO was for doctors and social workers, but I had an epiphany when I read about its business partnerships," he says. "I was enjoying my job, but there was a missing link. I wanted to do something that was a bit more worthwhile. Accenture contributed towards my mortgage and my job was held open, so I wasn't going to be in debt."
"My satisfaction at seeing the skills and confidence of the individuals I was working with grow was immense. It helped develop my soft skills: management, coaching, communication, definitely leadership. My career wasn't put on hold, and like many volunteers I came back more motivated," says Bulloch.