Why I changed my mind about corporate volunteering

I believe in volunteering: both supporting it and, where possible, volunteering myself. The caveat “where possible” is important. Weeks slip away as I try to juggle work with desperate attempts to exercise, a growing stack of unread books, family demands and finding enough relaxation time to make the week manageable. Voluntary donation of time is difficult when more pressing activities dominate.

Despite these difficulties, the concept of corporate volunteering – the obligatory charity work which some employers require staff to take part in during working hours – initially left me with some reservations. Is volunteering still valid if you’re “made” to do it? I had also been exposed to criticism of the idea of corporate social responsibility, and was somewhat cynical about why a company might choose to be associated with one charity brand over another.

However, having recently spent six months working with corporate volunteers as part of my job at the east London social action charity Community Links, my perspective has changed dramatically. I now realise that spending two days doing voluntary work is not something to be disregarded, and can be a great starting point for further voluntary activity.

Most importantly, I realised that whether someone actively seeks a volunteer opportunity or responds to an offer from their workplace, the attitude they come in with is their own. I have met hundreds of volunteers and encountered enthusiasm, dedication and a genuine desire to make a difference. People take to a variety of tasks from the strenuous to the downright messy with fervour and impressively good humour.

Corporate volunteers engage in a range of activities with Community Links; from gardening and constructing play equipment at our community centres, to interview and employability skills training with young people and mentoring entrepreneurs.

In addition to allocated time, we also measure the impact corporate volunteers have in other ways. Often the measure is practical; for example improvements to an outdoor site which are there for all to see. The impact of volunteering on the volunteers themselves can also be measured through assessing their feedback. It’s more difficult to quantify the effect volunteering has on an employee’s personal understanding of your charity’s cause – but in my opinion this is of overwhelming importance.

Few journeys show both the cultural richness and economic disparity of the UK more clearly than the one between Canning Town, where Community Links is based, and Canary Wharf. It is dangerously easy to exist in one part of the city without straying into another; but volunteers have commented on how much they have learnt about the realities of east London as a result of working with Community Links.

But here is the best bit. After spending time with us, corporate volunteers have asked to be personally involved in subsequent events. As a charity we’ve got a big vision and a lot to do – we need partners, supporters and volunteers to help us.

Whether it is as a result of personal impulse, organisational engineering or peer pressure, we could all volunteer more, and it doesn’t hurt to open our eyes to worlds which are not our own every now and again.

Eleanor Rosenbach is a fundraising officer at Community Links