Employer Supported Volunteering (ESV) has got some real issues. Don’t get me wrong, there are businesses, voluntary sector brokers (not least my own) and charities who are doing great with improving work in this field. However, the ESV sector is massively under-developed, with the majority of work carried out piecemeal, low in impact, not sustained, disjointed and with no good practice guidelines. We have not even come close to unlocking the full potential of support for the voluntary sector from businesses.
The problem and the solution
I cannot count the number of times I have heard an nongovernmental organisation (NGO) complain about businesses trying to do some sort of ESV project: “They just don’t get it… they claim they don’t have money yet spend thousands on something else… they don’t seem to realise that volunteering doesn’t just happen by itself.” Some of these complaints may be true, but why do we expect businesses to understand the over-complicated, fragmented, territory-focused and often just-a-bit-crazy voluntary sector, when we ourselves find it difficult?
Can you imagine a world where the voluntary sector is so organised and co-ordinated that it can lead, rather than being led by businesses, in addressing social issues on a much larger and more sustained scale than currently happens? Imagine a voluntary sector that can tell global corporates that a particular region has a particular social issue which the corporates can help tackle by providing volunteers and other resources, whilst meeting their own individual corporate social responsibility (CSR) and community support goals – all facilitated by local NGOs.
Sounds like a crazy dream, but in London we are trying to make that happen. Last February, the ESV brokerage programmes of Hammersmith & Fulham Volunteer Centre (Works4U) and Southwark Volunteer Centre (Involve) decided to set up the London ESV Network. We were told it could not happen. They said there was too much fear of territory and client stealing for organisations to work together on ESV.
A new venture
We waited nervously in the boardroom of Westfield London, who had kindly given us a room to use, to see if anyone would show up. Thankfully they did. A room full of people from organisations from across London sat quietly as Joseph Morrell (then Southwark VC) and I presented our vision for the network, and asked them whether they wanted to join (free), and help to shape and develop the network.
We adopted an open, collaborative approach and developed terms of reference (including a rotating chair) and, later, meetings sponsored by PWC, GE, City Hall and Credit Suisse. The network developed a statement explaining why businesses need to pay for ESV events, something which is a common challenge for ESV brokers and providers, this statement has been adopted by other organisations across the country and even internationally.
As an unfunded network we are not able to move as quickly as we would like and coordinating a large group of voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) organisations is very much like herding cats. However we have made good progress and will soon be launching a corporate facing website. The website aims to make it easier for businesses to interact with and support the voluntary sector, without having to fully understand and navigate the more complicated aspects of it. We also aim to be the lead for ESV in London, helping businesses to deliver larger programmes which harness the frontline expertise and connections of our NGO members in order to make a real difference in London communities. We are only a short way down a long road, but please wish us luck.