05 April 2018

Early-career and seasoned professionals are increasingly committing time and skills to charities. And, if managed properly, it’s a win-win scenario.

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Not so long ago, for City professionals volunteering meant planting trees, painting walls and clearing land. Not the most valuable use of their skills. Increasingly, however, professionals are offering business skills rather than manual labour and involving themselves pro bono in the actual business of running a charity or social enterprise. In the last two years, the national volunteering charity Volunteering Matters has seen a near twenty-fold increase in the demand for skilled volunteering projects from their corporate clients.

From mentoring a CEO of a mental-health charity to becoming a trustee of a hospice or a school governor, helping a homeless charity develop a strategic plan or providing legal advice to a youth club – there are plenty of interesting ways to donate time and talent. There are even virtual projects where professionals can engage in charity work without leaving their desks. The UK charity The Grow Movement enables business volunteers to support African entrepreneurs through Skype, phone or email.

“We tend to take our everyday business expertise for granted. But these skills happen to be the most sought after in a charity,” says Graham Clempson, managing partner of private-equity firm Quartic Capital and chairman of Pilotlight, a charity that matches business executives – termed “Pilotlighters” – with charities to mentor and coach their leadership.

“If we put the two together, we’re giving something much more valuable than just a cheque because we are giving charity leaders the tools they need to achieve their goals, be sustainable and grow,” says Clempson. “Skills that I never thought I would apply outside a boardroom have made a difference to the lives of those who need it most.”

Clempson says that charities that have taken part in the Pilotlight scheme have increased their annual turnover by an average of 25 per cent within two years and the number of people reached through their services by an average of 50 per cent.

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Giving time and expertise is not limited to senior and retired executives. There is also a shift among younger professionals to participate, from advising a charity on a social-media campaign to helping disadvantaged teenagers with job applications. There are opportunities for volunteers at all career stages, and many charities are looking for younger trustees to diversify their boards.

And, of course, the benefits run both ways. Being a trustee gives professionals non-executive experience years before they might reach that point in their day jobs. In addition, becoming a trustee can introduce professionals to new networks and experiences that inform and influence their career path and even bolster their professional reputation. While it is rarely a primary motive, charity work is a good addition for the CV.

A word of caution, though, if you are thinking about that kind of commitment, particularly in light of increased publicity about the sector – not all of it positive. It is vital to understand the responsibilities and not go in naively.

It is not just a question of governance. Particularly in a small charity, the board is often called upon to support functions such as HR, fundraising or finance. As one young trustee says: “It is actually a lot of responsibility. But being a trustee has provided me with one of the most worthwhile learning curves of my career.”

People increasingly understand that any kind of skilled volunteering brings personal benefits. In a recent LinkedIn survey, 79 per cent of members said they favoured skilled over unskilled volunteering. Dr Beth Breeze, Director of the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent, says “Most volunteers intuitively know this to be true – whilst observers only see them giving, the volunteer is aware how much they are also receiving."

Skilled volunteering

Skilled volunteering can broaden your horizons and circle of friends, boost your confidence, even reduce stress and improve your health. Indeed, 95 per cent of Pilotlight’s business volunteers say the programme has increased their sense of happiness and well-being. On a professional level, it can test and stretch your business and leadership skills and teach you new ones.

Measuring the Good is a structured volunteering project where senior business executives help charities improve their approach to impact measurement. It is run by Volunteering Matters, a national volunteering charity, and 75 per cent of volunteers who have participated in the programme feel that they developed and improved skills that benefit their professional work.

A senior banker from Deutsche Bank who took part in the programme says: “I tell everyone who will listen that this kind of activity is a great one to get involved in. It is very rewarding but it is also free training. I got to practice lots of skills in a very safe environment.”

Successfully putting together volunteers and charities can be a complex business, however. According to Breeze’s report Philanthropic Journeys (published in June 2014), a major barrier for potential volunteers is “a lack of awareness of how to go about finding appropriate opportunities, and often a deep-seated fear that their skills would not be useful to charities”.

LinkedIn survey image

Projects need to be well managed – either by a company’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) team, the charity or a dedicated intermediary organisation. And working with skilled volunteers can actually swallow up a huge amount of time and resources for charities. “Companies don’t recognise the costs to the [charity] sector of taking on business volunteers,” says Jon Burchell, senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield and an expert in employee volunteering.

This means that potential supply of volunteers is actually outstripping demand. According to Meg Garlinghouse, who leads LinkedIn’s global volunteering programme, every week they get far more professionals registering their interest in skilled volunteering than charities listing opportunities. And it is easier for companies that have their own foundations or CSR departments to provide and manage worthwhile volunteering opportunities. For most Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) or individuals, it is more of a challenge.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of intermediaries that exist solely to match, facilitate and support skills-based volunteering.

A good place to start is Go Pro Bono, a digital database that brings together more than seventy skilled volunteering intermediaries, from those specifically for lawyers (Lawworks) or economists (ProBonoEconomics) to brokers that focus on a particular geographical region or social issue. By searching “Give pro bono” you will find a list of intermediaries that, in turn, can help connect you to a suitable volunteering project.

Meanwhile LinkedIn, in collaboration with Do-it Trust and Reach Volunteering (two of the largest UK charities facilitating volunteering), launched its UK online volunteer marketplace, LinkedIn for Volunteers, in February 2015. Offline and face-to-face, The Bulldog Trust – a charity providing financial and advisory assistance to smaller charities – runs the Engaging Experience Philanthropy Network events.

The Trust invites bankers, lawyers, civil servants, journalists and any other professionals with altruistic leanings to gather for drinks and canapés at its lavish headquarters at Two Temple Place in London to discover ways that they can give their commercial skills to forward-thinking charities, from “light touch” projects to longer-term governance roles or mentoring.

For professionals looking for board-level volunteering, TrusteeWorks and Getting on Board both provide services to help people become trustees. For skilled volunteering to be worthwhile and rewarding for all, says Oonagh Aitken, CEO of Volunteering Matters, “It is crucial for a volunteer to have clear goals and objectives and a timeframe at the outset and be clear about what you can and can’t do and achieve.”

Pilotlight business volunteers image

Again, intermediaries are there to facilitate skilled volunteering in a supported, structured and time-limited approach, designed for busy executives. They will ensure that a project is worthwhile and there is a good fit between the charity and the donors’ skills and expectations. The value of this service cannot be underestimated.

Dr. Angela Schlenkhoff-Hus, employee volunteering development manager at Volunteering Matters, observes: “Volunteer management is a specialist skill: it is about making those connections work and keeping the project on track. Without it, however well-intended, relationships can break down, there can be misunderstanding, unmet expectations and even conflict.”

On the Pilotlight programme, a dedicated project manager supports a team of business volunteers to mentor a charity over the course of ten to twelve months. The volunteers are required to provide three hours each month. Measuring the Good is a step-by-step, supported programme in which senior volunteers from the business and public sectors help a charity improve its process of impact measurement over the course of four months, with volunteers dedicating fifteen hours in meetings with the charity’s CEO and trustees.

Skillanthropy, as this professional charitable activity has been tagged, is truly a two-way exchange of skills, experience and reward. It can provide a welcome foil to the high-powered, pressurised world of business. It is likely to transform and inform your traditional giving and to take you on a personal philanthropic journey that could be life-changing.

Marina Sevier is a consultant and adviser on philanthropic and charitable work. She is passionate about effective philanthropy and results-driven charity, and has experience of running an operational charity and working for a grant-making foundation. Marina is a trustee of Coalition for Efficiency, a registered charity helping other charities to be more efficient and effective.


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