Acts of kindness

CSI-linked staff-volunteering initiatives are mutually beneficial for all involved

Acts of kindness

It’s no secret that CSI budgets have waned since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, while demand for services provided by charities and NPOs has risen sharply, resulting in a pressing need to find new ways of addressing this gap. Two solutions that work hand in hand include digital transformation in the NGO space and corporate staff volunteerism.

Leading the way in SA is ForGood, the country’s largest corporate and public online volunteering platform, which facilitates staff volunteerism for some of the country’s biggest corporate entities, such as Vodacom, Standard Bank, Liberty Group, Momentum Metropolitan and African Bank. The platform connects ‘causes’ (NGOs, NPOs and so on) with people or organisations that have the skills, funds or goods they need to solve social problems and continue serving. Businesses can also register their staff-volunteerism programmes, putting them in direct contact with those on whom their contribution will have the greatest impact, while allowing them to track the quality and quantity of their staff’s involvement.

‘The NPO sector in South Africa is and has been over-stretched and under-budgeted for many years,’ according to ForGood CEO Romy Heldsinger. ‘Total estimated CSI expenditure in 2021 was R10.3 billion – a 4% decrease year-on-year. Over half of South African companies reported a decrease in CSI expenditure, largely due to decreased profits. Already fragile before the pandemic, the sector is now devastated.

‘Enter the role of professionals, offering skills and services for free, and which causes would not normally have access to. One of our causes, Khulisa Social Services, has measured that they have received over R500 000 worth of volunteering skills in the past 12 months. So, yes. I am not only a believer, but a strong advocate for staff volunteering and volunteering in general.’

Corporate volunteerism is on the rise globally, notes the Harvard Business Review, despite the stagnation of public volunteerism. ‘Paid time off for volunteering is one of the few employee benefits that has increased significantly in recent years. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 47% of US companies offered community volunteer programmes in 2018, up from 40% in 2014.’

Although it’s not yet clear how the pandemic has affected this trend worldwide, in 2021, 71% of SA companies had employee-volunteer programmes, while 87% offered company-organised volunteering initiatives, according to research by CSI consultancy Trialogue.

Digitalisation in this space is on the rise, with 18% of companies introducing new online volunteering programmes last year. Heldsinger confirms this. ‘During the pandemic, we saw a huge need for a sense of connection and shared purpose,’ she says. ‘Virtual volunteering has proved an important force in driving this. For the first time, ForGood partnered with corporate social investment consultancy Trialogue to conduct research into employee participation and also the perceptions of company volunteering platforms.

‘The day the country went into lockdown, to be honest, we panicked. Employee volunteering services weren’t viewed as business-critical to begin with, and we were asking the question: would our entire company be wiped out in six months? Spoiler alert – it wasn’t. Although we lost four clients, we gained three new large corporates, and that growth has just continued. In the last financial year, two-thirds of all volunteer actions on our platform were performed by employees of our corporate clients, which include some of the biggest multinationals and listed companies operating in South Africa. Money donations have doubled, year-on-year from corporate volunteers.’

The positive impacts of staff volunteerism are by no means restricted to selected causes – numerous studies have found that, when conscientiously implemented, there can be improvements in employees’ mental health, job satisfaction and perception of their employer – which can only bolster staff retention and a positive company image. It’s win-win-win all round. With mental health concerns increasing as a result of lockdowns and other COVID impacts, improving mental health is a vital priority for many organisations.

There are, of course, caveats. Companies that promote staff volunteerism purely to tick a box, or as a vanity project for the appearance of philanthropy, will do more harm than good. Experts maintain that staff should be part of the decision-making process, and they can take ownership of their actions.

Tshego Bokaba, CSI manager at Momentum Metropolitan Holdings, confirms that staff volunteerism has had a positive effect on its employees. The financial services group has 1 759 registered and verified volunteers on the ForGood platform.

‘We do not have company-specific data to quantify this, but anecdotally we see that employees who feel welcomed, seen and valued – because they are able to contribute to their communities as official representatives of their company – are also employees who are engaged and more fulfilled,’ says Bokaba. ‘Momentum Corporate’s 2021 Insights report, which aimed to reveal the formula for business resilience and longevity, showed that 70% of the employees surveyed felt connected to their organisation, based on the company’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic; and that 98% of those who felt this connection were also very clear on their company’s purpose.’

Six percent of Momentum Metropolitan’s overall CSI budget is allocated to staff-volunteerism initiatives, which include a payroll-donation programme, the Lesedi Awards (one SA’s largest employer-driven volunteer-recognition programmes) and the NPO Business Challenge, a skills-based volunteering event aimed at youth development.

Old Mutual, which has one of the most extensive corporate employee-volunteerism programmes in the nation, is placing increasing importance on volunteerism in its value proposition for staff.

‘In 2021 we partnered with our human capital and communications teams, as well as the Old Mutual Staff Volunteer Fund Trust, and began a journey of evaluating our current employee-volunteer programme offerings to re-imagine and design a new employee-volunteer offering that was more relevant to our current world of work, aligned to our core business activities, and that would also entice our younger employees to participate, as we had noticed lower volunteer numbers among this group,’ says Dianne Richards, Old Mutual group marketing, public affairs and sustainability manager. Old Mutual’s Staff Community Builder programme is one of the longest-standing employee-volunteer initiatives of the Old Mutual Foundation, established in 1993.

‘This initiative encourages and supports our employees who are actively involved in volunteer work in their local communities, and offers eligible volunteers the opportunity to apply for funding for resources for the organisation at which they volunteer.’

The Old Mutual Staff Payroll Giving programme enables employees to make a monthly donation from their salaries towards causes they care about. ‘Since inception in 2002, staff have contributed more than R25 million towards these causes,’ says Richards. ‘In 2021 more than 1 903 employees participated in the programme, raising over R1.7 million in donation funding, and have contributed their time, skills and expertise.’

Tracking the progress and impact of staff volunteerism is a key element of a successful programme – something Sasol undertook recently with its employee-volunteerism programme, Sasol for Good. ‘To remain a leading programme, we embarked on a process to review Sasol for Good,’ says Alex Anderson, senior manager of external communications at Sasol.

‘The COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on the approach to employee volunteering. The review aims to improve Sasol for Good’s employee value proposition; to revitalise and motivate increased employee participation; and, ultimately, more benefits reaching our fenceline communities. The launch of the reviewed Sasol for Good programme will take place in July 2022.’

The programme supports Sasol employees by granting 40 hours per annum paid leave – ‘which is significantly above industry average of around 18 hours’, says Anderson – to spend on volunteering initiatives, and also complement their financial contribution and fundraising initiatives to organisations of their choice via payroll deduction, matching gifts and volunteer grants.

While volunteerism still comprises a fraction of most companies’ CSI spend, it could be that we are about to see a significant boost in the size, proliferation, impact and sophistication of employee-volunteerism programmes, thanks to expanded possibilities generated by digital innovation and its appeal to both corporates and their employees.

By Robyn MacLarty
Image: Gallo/Getty Images