Employee volunteering has become an important element of corporate social investment, with numerous benefits for all involved


​Swapping your pinstriped suit for overalls to help renovate a neglected school, or changing your high heels for gumboots to plant a vegetable garden – without pay and in your free time – could be one of the best things to do for yourself and your company.

According to Colleen du Toit, CEO of Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) Southern Africa, ‘The majority of the large, listed companies now support some form of employee volunteering and this activity is often planned in a manner which complements corporate social investment [CSI] initiatives. So, for example, employees are encouraged to volunteer in NGOs where the company CSI takes place.

​‘This is the first step in aligning employee volunteering with business purpose as most large South African companies now require that their social investment activities align with business. Banks [for instance,] invest in financial literacy and mines invest in the communities where they operate.’

​Within companies, volunteering is becoming increasingly formalised, reports the CSI Handbook (16th edition), published by consultancy Trialogue. It found that in 2013, 78% of corporates encouraged employees to become involved in their communities. The handbook lists company-organised volunteering initiatives as a popular approach, followed by fundraising or collection drives and allowing staff to use company time for private volunteer work.

​Trialogue further reports that the prevalence of volunteering policies has risen. In 2007 only 46% of corporate respondents had such a policy in place, compared to 60% in 2013. The number of companies employing dedicated staff to co-ordinate the volunteering also increased from about 40% to 60% between 2007 and 2013. Almost two-thirds of these worked full-time on their volunteering activities.

CAF Southern Africa has more than 500 NGOs on its database and promotes volunteering and payroll giving (via its Give As You Earn programme) by individuals and within companies. Du Toit says: ‘We match the needs of NGOs with corporates. The volunteer knows that their contribution reaches a credible organisation and the NGO has the assurance that when we facilitate volunteering by corporates their real needs will be at the forefront.

‘We also administer payroll giving for a number of big companies. We do all the work – employees just need to sign up for a contribution from their payroll and we deal with disbursement, reporting, tax and everything else.’ ​The staff donations are deducted straight from their salary. Some companies such as Old Mutual match their employees’ contributions rand-for-rand with a company donation.

​The most popular type of employee volunteering remains ‘hands-on’ activities such as painting and gardening, as well as providing recreation and treats for children and the aged. However, the NGOs themselves are less enthusiastic about this type of involvement.

Du Toit says: ‘There is nothing wrong with these contributions, provided that the activity done by the corporate employees is something that is really needed by the host NGO or community organisation, and that the terms of engagement are negotiated in advance and properly managed throughout.

​‘Too often we see corporates invading the space of community organisations for their own needs – most popularly team building. This is fine if, for instance, the employee volunteers are being managed to do some form of construction but completely inappropriate in other circumstances such as well-meaning employees let loose in children’s homes, homes for the physically challenged or something similar.’

​Nonkqubela Maliza, director of corporate and government affairs at Volkswagen South Africa (VWSA), launched the Great Show of Hands employee volunteer programme in 2011 as a response to staff requesting such a programme.

She says: ‘Team building is entirely separate from community involvement at Volkswagen. The primary goal of our employee volunteer initiatives is to make a meaningful, measurable developmental impact.

‘One of the side effects and benefits to the company is that employees experience strong bonding and a sense of team culture. You end up working with someone you would not ordinarily work with, and that creates a greater sense of belonging within the organisation.’

Helping hands Pull Quote

‘Most large South African companies now require that their social investment activities align with business’


The benefits of employee volunteering are well documented: it raises morale, boosts health, provides skills development and increases career options and staff loyalty.

Anglo American firmly believes that this is a great way to ‘develop our human capital and put an enormously positive spin on our employees’ perceptions of CSR [corporate social responsibility]. Volunteerism as a tool is very easily mobilised to make a measurable difference in our society’.

Volunteerism also has considerable benefits for the employees involved. According to the widely respected Do Good. Live Well study (2010) by UnitedHealthcare, 92% of people who volunteer through their workplace report higher rates of physical and emotional health. Of the companies surveyed in a 2010 study by Corporate Citizenship in conjunction with the City of London, 94% believe that volunteering effectively raises employee morale, while 66% of employees reported a greater commitment to the company as a result of their experience volunteering.

‘Intercultural understanding is another personal benefit,’ says Du Toit. ‘In our own work we see amazing transformation within people, especially people from middle-class communities who, having never entered poor communities or townships before, are completely committed to continuing to work to make a difference.

‘Professional development is an often overlooked benefit. Through these engagements people learn to work in teams, to lead others. And the learning is not “one-way”; corporate employees are often surprised when they come away having learned something themselves from the communities and NGO staff where the volunteering is taking place.’

Some companies, such as Nedbank, Old Mutual and Absa, even give internal awards to employees for exceptional contributions to their communities.

Under its Great Show of Hands banner, VWSA has run several staff volunteering events, held outside of working hours. Most are related to early childhood development and schools.

Maliza says: ‘Many of our initiatives [involve] “extreme makeovers” of schools where we install play areas, plant fruit and vegetable gardens, fix leaky roofs, paint premises and bring in educational supplies like books, games and puzzles.’


66% of employees reported a greater commitment to the company as a result of their experience volunteering

​In celebration of Nelson Mandela International Day (July 18), VWSA has donated two container libraries to underprivileged schools, while its staff volunteered to paint and stock the new library with books, plant trees and lay lawn in the garden, and do general cleaning and repair work.

​Mandela Day is the largest volunteering initiative to originate in SA. Declared an annual international event by the UN, it encourages individuals, groups and companies to devote 67 minutes of their time to helping less fortunate people in honour of Nelson Mandela’s 67 years of public service.

​A great number of corporates such as Telkom, Pick n Pay, Woolworths, Discovery, MTN, Vodacom, SAA and Anglo American have embraced Mandela Day through their respective social investment programmes. FMCG group Tiger Brands, for example, distributed food parcels to approximately 17 000 learners from 13 non-fee paying schools in Gauteng.

The country’s first conference on employee volunteering was held in Johannesburg in 2013 under the motto ‘Beyond painting classrooms’. Du Toit, one of the organisers, says: ‘There is a small but growing realisation within some companies that their employees have skills and experience that are often lacking in the NGO sector.

‘While NGO staff are highly skilled in their particular areas of developmental expertise, they often do not have the person power necessary, for example, for strategic and financial planning, human resource management, marketing and so on. Many NGOs state that skills are often of more value to them than [for instance] painting walls, which they can usually do themselves.’

Skills-based volunteering is still in its infancy in SA. Transnet, however, recognises volunteering as a channel to match the skills of its more than 60 000 employees with the developmental needs of the communities in which it operates.

The company believes that it can ‘draw upon [its] broad pool of specialists and experts as well as extensive experience in projects related and linked to our core business. This adds immense value to the outreach initiatives and contributes to their sustainability’.

Whether employees offer their volunteering services in pinstriped suits or overalls, high heels or gumboots, there is space for volunteering – as long as it suits the needs of the beneficiaries. Because, as fable writer Aesop once said: No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.

By Silke Colquhoun
Image: Mr.Xerty ©