Business and the Voluntary Sector: Giving time, giving money, giving enough?

My last blog was about the relationship between the voluntary sector and local government, and how that relationship is changing. This one is about a different kind of relationship; between the voluntary and the private sector. Recent development funds for local infrastructure organisations (LIOs) have included significant drivers encouraging voluntary organisations to work more closely with the private sector. With some sources of income including local and national government on the decline, organisations are being encouraged to find new ways of working, new relationships and crucially new sources of funding.

Some great examples that I’ve come across in my work with LIOs include Chester Voluntary Action’s Skillshare programme, which brokers relationships between local businesses with particular skills and voluntary and community organisations in need of support. Services provided free of charge include business mentoring and planning, marketing, and support around architecture and planning, as well as supplying IT equipment, software and training. Voluntary Action North East Lincolnshire (VANEL) has created a leadership development scheme that brings together new leaders from the voluntary, public and private sectors to build skills, relationships and joint solutions to local problems. And Merton Voluntary Service Council (MVSC) has worked closely with Merton Chamber of Commerce to create Merton Means Business, encouraging businesses to donate time, money and skills to local voluntary and community organisations. MVSC employs a business engagement manager, who sits within the Chamber of Commerce, and works to build relationships between business and the community.

But attempts to develop new ways of working have not seen universal success. Problems with recruitment have held some organisations back, whilst others have not been able to generate the planned return on investment, in terms of income or goods and support in-kind. Indeed, a report produced by the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR), supported by NAVCA, called Local Business Giving: between the raffle prize and a new source of funding, concludes that local business support for and engagement with the local voluntary and community sector is very low. Few businesses contribute financial support, what is received represents a tiny fraction of a voluntary organisation’s overall income, and it usually goes to large organisations. Additionally, the Directory of Social Changes Company Giving Almanac 2013 finds that total support, including in-kind support, accounted for 2 per cent of all charities’ total income in 2013, and just 0.4 per cent of companies’ pre-tax profits. It also found that support given had fallen by 27 per cent compared to the previous year.

However, CRESR suggests that whilst returns are low now, the investment could well pay off in the future. One organisation that has invested time and resources in developing this work is TimeBank. It is an organisation that runs a range of mentoring and volunteering programmes, including employee volunteering. This March I met with Helen Walker, Chief Executive, and Filippo Artoni, Programme Manager, to discuss what had made their programme successful in engaging small and large businesses alike. They started their programme in 2006, after developing a relationship with T-Mobile. From here, they were able to develop their knowledge of what works, and the kind of language and approach needed to act as a broker between the voluntary and private sector.

Because, as Helen and Filippo stress, it is a different language that’s needed as well as a tailored approach. Businesses engage with employee volunteering for different reasons; to tick a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) box, to improve employee satisfaction and retention, to bring a team together and develop its skills or for more straightforward philanthropic reasons. Companies’ budgets for CSR have been squeezed over the past few years, and they are much more ‘picky’ about the service that they are prepared to pay for. A real professional service needs to recognize where a company is coming from, what it wants and how it wants to engage.

Of course, the voluntary organisation must also get something valuable out of the experience as well. For Helen it’s about bridging the gap between the two. TimeBank’s aim with employee volunteering is to create lifelong volunteers from these one-off experiences, experiences that benefit organisations and help provide support to people that need it, as much as providing a service to the business.

Does it make any money? It does cover costs, but the margins aren’t high, says Filippo. Given the high level of resources needed to build relationships and organize corporate volunteering events, there is limited potential for a new source of unsecured income. But that’s not the point. The point is the impact of this work, the journey of the individual, and the benefit to those in need. Engaging with the private sector involves new relationships, new language and new ways of working, but at the end of the day, the mission is the same. And this is just a means to that mission.

Are you a voluntary organisation that works closely with business? Or a business that works closely with charity? Or do you disagree with the whole concept? Leave a comment here or get in touch at ellie.munro@gmail.com

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2 thoughts on “Business and the Voluntary Sector: Giving time, giving money, giving enough?

  1. My project, Sector Connector, supports businesses to become involved with small, local VCS organisations in North Tyneside. One of the most striking aspects of Sector Connector is the number of sole traders, start-ups and SMEs which have enthusiastic contributors to the project. The key to understanding what works in this field, in my experience, is appreciating the diverse motivations behind business involvement in this type of activity. For newly established businesses, building a portfolio and gaining testimonials is key to successful development. Many more established businesses are also learning that the VCS is a significant marketplace and are keen to develop their offer to the sector

    1. Hi Ian, thanks for your comment, and for telling us about your work. Just for interest, Telford and Wreakin CVS also got in touch over twitter to tell me about their work: bit.ly/1gHtnxl I totally agree about the need to understand business motivations, which can be massively diverse, from increasing staff satisfaction and retention to individual passions and local connections (a factor identified by DSC’s Almanac). I think increasing understanding on both sides about who organisations are, what they do and why they do it is really important to the success of this kind of project.

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