Volunteering is good for both you and your job

Volunteering is good for both you and your job In Ireland 4 out of 10 people regularly give up their time

Andrew Hill

Most big charities are now run more like businesses, drawing on the advice of corporate donors and board members.

Most big charities are now run more like businesses, drawing on the advice of corporate donors and board members.

If you feel overwhelmed by work – the main reason people claim they cannot devote time to a good cause – then volunteer. It will teach you something you can use to improve as a manager and as an employee.

It sounds counter-intuitive. Some groups run by volunteers are, frankly, a mess. Everyone knows of an amateur sports team held back by disorganised amateur coaches; a choral society torn apart by discord over what to sing and who should sing it; or a local charity bogged down by endless debate about its terms of reference.

Poor stewardship hurts the people non-profit organisations help. It is also bound to depress their many supporters.

In the US, Canada and New Zealand, more than 40 per cent of people devote time to volunteering every month. Those are the highest ranking developed countries in the latest World Giving Index.

In the UK nearly three in 10 people volunteer regularly, still an impressive commitment. In Ireland, the figure is even better – at more than four in 10.

Improving how charities and voluntary groups are managed is therefore critical. Peter Drucker was, as often, ahead of his time in spotting why. He wrote in a 1990 handbook for the sector that non-profits, from Girl Scouts to Bible circles, “know they need management so they can concentrate on their mission”.

Rick Wartzman, of the Drucker Institute, says the management writer realised “non-profits are as important for their volunteers, in giving them a sense of purpose and citizenship, as for the people they serve”.

As a result of such insights, most big charities are now run more like businesses, drawing on the advice of corporate donors and board members.

At the same time, companies themselves now know, and often crow about, how their staff contribute to the community. They are finding ways in which staff can reap benefits from involvement in corporate giving campaigns.

Ever since I heard a junior banker complain that his boss had threatened his team that their bonuses would be in danger if they did not take part in a charity “fun run”, I have worried about the coercion implicit in such initiatives. But no matter, they are usually well-intentioned.

But as Justin Davis Smith of the UK’s National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) wrote last year, charities “hear very little about reciprocal learning – what we in the sector can teach businesses”.

My own experience helping a school, a university and a charity suggests managers could benefit just by trying to work out why unpaid helpers keep turning up.


Shared purpose is one answer. Purpose is already a perilously overused buzzword in modern business, but it is built into the way every voluntary organisation operates.

Peter Tihanyi, a consultant who had a long career in the area, asked volunteers in the 1990s why they came and stayed. The reply: “Because they enjoy the work, because they feel valued, and because they want to serve the [beneficiary] population.”

Of course, unlike volunteers, many people work because they have to, and have little choice about what they do. But managers should still strive to achieve Mr Tihanyi’s treble: merely by trying, they would increase the chance of developing a happy team.

Their staff would, in turn – as good volunteers do – almost certainly attract similarly dedicated new recruits.

Volunteers tend to melt away if they are fed up or bored; paid workers are contractually obliged not to play truant. But a business leader whose team is physically present but mentally elsewhere is in a worse position than a charity head who can fill a gap with other well-motivated volunteers.

As for the main difference between employees and volunteers – pay – many companies already rely on staff goodwill at critical moments. Monetary incentives, beyond the requirement to offer a fair salary, are of limited use in keeping staff keen. Bonuses may even reduce the quality of work done. Softer motivational tools are underused.

The NCVO’s Mr Davis Smith called on companies to commission voluntary groups to teach them how to develop “a psychological contract in place of the ‘cash nexus’” and nurture engagement.

It is a great idea. But as a manager, you could simply start by asking yourself this: what would you do to persuade your staff to come to work if you could no longer pay them?

If you know the answer, why are you not already doing it? If you do not, then volunteer. You may well find out. – Copyright The Financial Times Limitied 2015

Previously published in The Irish Times.


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