Workplace volunteering: looking beyond the traditional charity partnership

How meaningful volunteering opportunities make good business sense.

Nowadays, is it enough for companies to simply demonstrate their corporate social responsibility? Back in 2012, commentators were already declaring the traditional approach to CSR – a largely cosmetic “add-on”, kept at arms’ length from the rest of the business – as dead and obsolete. And accordingly there has been a growing trend in recent years for companies to adopt a ‘whole-business’ approach to CSR, looking beyond a financial relationship with a charity partner, and exploring ways to develop that relationship to mutually benefit both parties.

Integrity sells

There is good reason for this, with businesses recognising the multiple rewards they will reap from investing in their reputation as a responsible employer. In a competitive market, integrity has become a marketing tool – as anyone who has watched the latest NatWest UK advert can plainly see. And the research is compelling: Edelman’s 2016 Trust Barometer showed that that 55% of people in the USA and 43% of people in the UK do not trust the companies they work for, with France, India, Australia and Mexico not far behind. The report goes on to state that 80% of the general public expect that businesses could both increase profits and improve economic and social conditions in the communities in which they operate. Meanwhile, a recent survey by Environics International reveals how more than one in five consumers reported having either rewarded or punished companies based on their perceived social performance.

“A recent Deloitte report warns businesses to adjust their focus or lose a large proportion of their workforce – and recommends prioritising the sense of purpose around people.”

Companies failing to offer employees a sense of purpose can expect to lose out

So it goes without saying that a more sophisticated approach to CSR is not only good for business, but as a recruitment tool, it can set companies apart in the eyes of the talented staff they are hoping to attract. While much has been said and written about the so-called millennial generation’s fixation with ‘finding meaning’, a recent Deloitte report warns businesses to adjust their focus or lose a large proportion of their workforce: and recommends prioritising the sense of purpose around people rather than growth or profit maximization. With an integrated approach, CSR activities can attract, retain, and develop employees while fulfilling additional core purposes: often referred to as quadruple bottom line (people, profit, planet and purpose). And by looking beyond traditional charity partnerships, businesses are beginning to understand how the non-profit sector can offer so much more than just ‘greenwashing’.

Volunteering engages and develops staff: a win-win for businesses

Business In the Community has noted how more and more companies are using volunteering not only to engage and motivate their staff, but as a learning and development opportunity too. In just the last couple of years, the trend has rocketed: in 2016, 84% of businesses surveyed were using volunteering to engage and motivate staff compared to 73% in 2014, and 56% were using volunteering as a learning and development opportunity in 2016, compared to 39% in 2014.

Looking beyond borders

At SeeBeyondBorders, from the beginning we have implicitly understood how meaningful volunteering opportunities make good business sense.  For us, with our operational focus in Cambodia and the majority of our supporters based in Australia or the UK, our starting point was to provide people with the opportunity to connect first hand with the issues we had set out to address.  It has always been at the core of what we do to enabling people around the world to “see beyond borders” and understand the impact that a small act of generosity, delivered appropriately, can have for those less fortunate than themselves.

“At SeeBeyondBorders, from the beginning we have implicitly understood how meaningful volunteering opportunities make good business sense.”

Over the years, as we have started to build our relationships with corporate partners, we have come to understand that our volunteering opportunities can form a core part of the partnership, with far-ranging benefits to the companies, to SeeBeyondBorders, and most importantly, to the communities with whom we work in Cambodia.

Aimia’s experience

The benefits of such an experience were apparent when we hosted a group of volunteers from Aimia in November 2016. Prior to this, the group of volunteers spent six months fundraising on our behalf. They characterised the fundraising aspect as a “great team-building” activity in itself, with a disparate group from different departments (and in one case, even a different country!) collaborating to raise an ambitious target of £20,000. Through film nights, marathons, bucket collections, and an impressive raffle and auction evening, the participants drew on all their talents, resources and contacts to reach their target, demonstrating incredible commitment, initiative and leadership.

The Aimia team in Cambodia

When it came to the trip itself, the group were able to strengthen their bonds further as they worked together to help us implement our programs across schools in North West Cambodia. We work in the more rural areas in Cambodia, where many teachers are underqualified and under-resourced. Over 50 per cent of the teachers in our programs have not completed high school. We aim to address the skills gap in the workforce and the barriers preventing children from accessing a quality education. We make sure our volunteers contribute to projects which provide useful and sustainable solutions to the challenges facing schools, teachers and children in Cambodia.

Every project team spends their one to two weeks contributing to projects that make schools safer, more healthy, and attractive places to be. This involved helping deliver health and sports lessons to children and their families, working with local communities to determine the best ways to improve the schools, and then putting some of those plans into action through good old fashioned manual labour!

After the trip, the Aimia team told us: “Thanks to the support we received back home, we have helped make a few Khmer parents and their children smile and made at least a small difference to their lives through SeeBeyondBorders’ programs.  What these guys do here is quite astounding. They see so much poverty but any improvement, however small, makes the effort worthwhile and gives continuous hope that bigger change can happen. Change most definitely starts with education.”

“SHAPE Australia have incorporated our volunteering experience into an annual team building exercise… a more cost-effective option that can actually also achieve further-reaching results.”

An ongoing partnership

Another partner, SHAPE Australia, have incorporated our volunteering experience into an annual team building exercise, and will shortly be sending a group of volunteers to join us in Cambodia for a third year running. With ‘corporate retreats’ and ‘team-building away days’ struggling to shake their associations with the worst of pre-recession excess, SHAPE’s approach shows how this more cost-effective option can actually also achieve further-reaching results.

Of course, we are still learning too, and we are looking at ways to further strengthen this offering – be that through skills-based volunteering opportunities or sabbaticals, or ongoing staff development activities after the trip has concluded. But if you are looking for ways to re-energise and engage your staff whilst enhancing your business, we would love you to join us on this journey.

To find out more about our corporate partnerships and overseas volunteering or sabbatical opportunities, please visit or email [email protected].

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