Corporate Volunteering in China

Last week, I was asked to speak at the British Chamber of Commerce about corporate volunteering in China. Specifically, how can firms develop a program that has a long-term benefit to the community. I was encouraged to see between 30-35 firms in attendance, and my counterpart, Roy Zhang from Abbott, and I spent about a hour on the process and benefits of building a program.

In my presentation, the slides are above, and in the Q&A I focused more on the how to vs. the why. Primarily because I wanted the participants to be able to walk away and get started .vs walk away inspired without the tools to get started… and I thought readers would benefit from a brief post on what I feel are the steps a firm needs to take in order to successfully build and manage an internally managed volunteer program.

The first step being answer the 5 questions.

  1. What is the issue of interest?
  2. How many volunteers does the firm want to engage?
  3. When (and how often) does the firm want to participate in activities?
  4. where (geographically) does the firm want to be deployed?
  5. What is the budget?

These really are the core questions.  Questions, that if answered honestly, allow the firm to put the rest of the pieces together that will create a strong program.

1) What is the issue of interest – this is perhaps the most difficult question to answer for some as selecting an issue is often a very personally driven decision, and it depends on who is asking the question.  For a firm with a strictly manage global list, the risk is that locally the issues do not align, and that either the volunteers who will staff the project or the foundation who will pay for the project will engage. But, for firms who are driven by local need, this question is more a matter of understanding what is important to those who will be most active in the projects, ie. not executive interest.

2) How many volunteers does the firm want to engage?  Ego and ambition aside, a firm with a goal of 100% participation is setting itself up for failure.  As last year’s IBM program highlighted.  But in general a firm who wants to develop a one off event, painting a school, will find it easy to get a large number of volunteers to a worthwhile event.  For firms who are looking for a more sustained effort, this changes.  sometimes dramatically.  6-8 volunteers on a weekly basis is possible only for some of the largest organization, where 6-8 people missing will not have an impact to the firm.  Which can be an issue for some firms, particularly in the business services industry, or those with high number of sales staff.  So, setting clear and achievable targets is absolutely critical.

3) When, and how often, does the firm want to offer an engagement – this is tied to the previous issue as it is related to the firm’s ability to maintain its volunteer force, but it goes deeper than that as the timing of a volunteer event can be just as important to its expected size and frequency.  giving employees 2 days a year to volunteer during work hours will have a different impact than expecting volunteers to participate only in their free time (i.e. weekends).  An impact that could ultimately determine the success or failure of the program.

4) Where (geographically) does the firm want to offer programs – this is again linked to the above, as long distances between office and site increase the risk of drop off over time, but more than that, firms need to consider that the farther a volunteer travels the impact that has to their sense of community and engagement.  Walking 5 minutes from the office, to site, will create a sense that the office is part of a community that also has needs.  Needs that they are walking 5 minutes away to address.  But, getting in a car and driving across town, or across borders, and it becomes “we” need to help “them”.  A disconnect is created, and that will also impact the way that the project is judged.

5) How much is the firm willing to spend – unfortunately volunteering is not entirely free, and even if the firm chooses not to engage a third party to help them establish the program, internal resources are still required.   Time and money of staff, in addition to materials, logistics, and a post event meal/ beer.  For many firms, these are seen as an expense to be minimized, but the best firms see it as an investment that should be made wisely.  That, with a smart investment in resources, a strong project will be made possible.  Which will bring positive returns to the firm in terms of reduced HR spend, improved productivity, and (over time) positive branding externally.

Once answered, these questions then lead to next steps. Step that hopefully are honest, aligned, and sustainable. For volunteering is perhaps the most intimate means to give back, and should the program be dishonest (to those participating), the risk of fallout will increase.

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