How volunteering helps communities to connect

June 7, 2017 Andy Melia

As Volunteers' Week draws to a close, it is important to both thank people for the amazing work that they do as volunteers, and highlight the on-going support they provide throughout the year. At Business in the Community, volunteering is at the heart of what we do, and a core element of our business approach to being a force for good in society. This is most readily seen through our Give & Gain activity, sponsored by Waitrose, which celebrates the power of relationships between businesses and charities, and the skills, insights and mutual understanding shared as a result. The time and support offered by businesses through their employees enables the sharing of knowledge and expertise to help charities address key social challenges.

What can often be forgotten, but which is as powerful, is the opportunity provided by volunteering for a business to connect with and understand the places and communities in which it operates. Reflecting on recent events, globally and locally, there is a level of disconnection and lack of trust within communities. Polling commissioned by BITC through YouGov in April 2016 demonstrated people’s expectations of the role of businesses in society, with 53 per cent of respondents agreeing that their employer could do more to connect with the local area in which the organisation is based (rising to 62 per cent amongst 18-24 year olds). This is confirmed by the Edelman Trust Barometer, a global annual study, which illustrates a very telling story. The latest survey conducted in 2017, highlights that in the UK, 60 per cent of respondents believe that the current system is not working for them. Alongside this, only around 50 per cent of respondents said that they trust businesses or non-governmental organisations (charities) to do the right thing.

BITC, working with Waitrose, believe that the incredible work undertaken by individuals as volunteers, either on their own or on behalf of their business, offers a key way to address this disconnection. Central to this is the need to bring people together to understand each other. From March to May this year, with the support of Waitrose, we organised a series of Community Conversations, bringing together representatives from businesses, community organisations and local government to explore the issues affecting local communities and demonstrate how different organisations can combine to build a connected society. Taking place from Bracknell to Leeds, and Cardiff to Great Yarmouth, the Conversations covered topics as diverse as child literacy, the isolation of elderly people, supporting young offenders to reintegrate into society and enabling the growth of social enterprise, and included representatives from 133 business and 156 community organisations.

Conversations are just the starting point however. They are fundamental to building trust, but require action to drive support and impact. As a result of the Conversations, we are already starting to see new relationships between businesses and communities. For example, Waitrose organised the Bracknell Community Conversation. At the event, Panasonic committed to using its resources to help develop community organisations by offering to give away their old laptops and cameras to Berkshire Youth. And in Birmingham, Mondelez International has developed a new relationship with Smart Works, who support women into work. The relationship includes connecting Smart Works to the Mondelez HR team, who will be advising and supporting local women when they return to work, and the Mondelez women’s group in Northern Europe; and considering ways in which Mondelez employees can advise and support Smart Works with a range of skills such as finance and marketing. Other relationships are continuing to develop. You can find out more about the different Conversations at www.bitc.org.uk/giveandgain.

Core to the effectiveness of these relationships is the sharing of knowledge and skills, which is fundamental to ensuring that any volunteering achieves impact. It’s fair to say that sharing skills and helping an organisation to improve their capacity to deliver can be a powerful way to drive long-term positive value in communities. Research produced by the Universities of Hull and Sheffield, supported by BITC, has demonstrated the importance of sharing skills that address the needs of community organisations. Businesses and community organisations working together to complement their respective strengths and harnessing these in a mutually beneficial way can build the longer-term partnerships that get to the root cause of an issue. We encourage all businesses to engage with their communities to build effective relationships that both address trust and share knowledge whilst addressing the key challenges in communities that are most relevant to the business.

By volunteering in this way, businesses can also develop the skills of their employees, alongside developing satisfaction and pride in their organisation. A recent report published by Accenture in 2016 demonstrates that volunteering resulted in 89 per cent of employees reporting increased job satisfaction, 87 per cent reported greater pride, and 76 per cent of volunteers said they developed core work skills. This focus on skills-based employee volunteering will be increasingly important for business, as they seek to attract and engage the Millennial generation. Motivations for volunteering are evolving. BITC’s April 2016 poll demonstrated that whilst over 56 per cent of adults aged over 24 volunteered to ‘give back’ to their community, 48 per cent of young people aged 18-24 volunteer are seeking to gain new skills, and 38 per cent feel that volunteering has boosted their career options.Therefore, volunteering needs to have shared benefits; for the business, the community and the individual involved. However, that does not mean that we should ever forget the incredible support provided by volunteers. So, as Volunteers' Week draws to a close, it is important to remember to say thank you; to the individuals who volunteer, to the businesses that provide the opportunities for them to do so, and to the incredible range of charitable organisations working hard in our communities to support people who need it.

Happy volunteering all!

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