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Building a culture of volunteering: lessons learned and future aspirations

Over the last 24 months, at Irwin Mitchell we’ve seen the number of colleagues recording volunteering time rise from 16.8% in 2021/2022 to 25.9% in 2022/2023. A figure we are proud to say has been continuing to increase during the current financial year too.  

This isn’t entirely unexpected, it reflects a level of investment in our community investment strategy including the appointment of a new Volunteering and Pro Bono Programme Manager, Clemmie Burch, as a permanent addition to the Responsible Business team.  However, it also reflects some level of cultural change with a focus on volunteering as a long-term organisational commitment, and that has, perhaps unsurprisingly, created some challenges along the way.  If you find yourselves at the start of 2024 determined to make your colleague volunteering proposition more impactful, here are a few lessons we’ve learned:

  • There is a balance between ensuring colleague volunteering opportunities are strategic, aligned with corporate purpose and objectives, and genuinely engaging and motivating your workforce.  One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given about community investment is to preserve its authenticity, when people are cynical over your motivations it can undermine everything you do in this space. Colleagues and other stakeholders want to know you are committed to creating change and will see through initiatives they don’t believe are genuinely motivated. 
  • Volunteering should be good for your business. To some extent, I think we are seeing a gradual move away from traditional one-off volunteer ‘days’ (although I appreciate there is still a place for some of these).  Our approach is certainly maturing to consider how we can align our people’s time and skills with volunteering roles, so they not only maximise the value they provide to our community partners but can further their own personal development at the same time.  Our aspiration is for 2024 to be the year where we start to see that becoming business as usual and not just a happy coincidence when it is achieved.
  •  Senior leaders role modelling behaviours and actively volunteering inspires and empowers others. For us, this means having senior leader sponsors for our key relationships and the engagement of our Regional Managing Partners who champion, endorse and support.  Linked to this is the recognition from senior leaders of the value of colleagues’ time spent volunteering.  Admittedly, this is not always easy to achieve and will vary in interpretation between organisations, but embedding volunteering in wider people policies and processes is a real indicator of the value the company places on it.
  • Staying focussed is key. We ask our colleagues to ensure their volunteering activities are consistent with our Responsible Business strategy.  In 2023, we undertook a double materiality assessment to understand the environmental, social and governance issues which are likely to have the most impact on the future of our business and the issues we have the greatest opportunity to influence. Our Responsible Business strategy is evolving as a result, and by linking our volunteering commitments directly to this, we can help our people use their time and skills to make a bigger difference in their communities.
  • Think about your policies and processes and measure what you do.  Having effective governance, policies and processes around volunteering is essential to help people volunteer safely with awareness of the risks involved.    Our focus is on trying to make it as easy as possible for people to volunteer, listening to the advice of our external community partners and our internal experts wherever possible, and ensuring we have a centralised source of ‘know how’ colleagues can access.    Finally, try to measure what you do so you can identify any issues and continually improve your approach.  That doesn’t have to be particularly sophisticated to start with - we have internal KPIs around volunteering which are used to assess progress against our strategy on a monthly basis.

Whilst all of the above have been important lessons learned for us, perhaps the best advice is to always remember the ultimate goal of volunteering i.e., to make a difference in our communities.  Even with the best of intentions, organisations sometimes get that wrong.  It might be convenient for volunteering to fit in to a ‘department away day’ as a way of team building and a one-off activity (and I appreciate this can sometimes work very successfully). However, for many schools, charities, and community organisations what they often need most is a longer-term relationship and a regular commitment of time from people – even if that is weekly or monthly or managed within a team so that it can be accommodated around other commitments.

Volunteering and a commitment to working with our local communities has been a long-standing part of our values and culture at Irwin Mitchell.  It sounds clichéd but seeing the firm’s impact on my local community in Sheffield, was one of the things which attracted me to join.  We often receive questions from potential recruits about our community investment programme and we know that being a responsible business is helping us to attract and retain talent.  Many, perhaps even most, people want to work for an organisation which adheres to its values and lives its purpose – investing in meaningful volunteering and sharing your stories with others is one way to do that.

We’ve started to see more clients, suppliers and business contacts interested in collaboration in this space and this is something we are keen to explore more in 2024.  We know how much our colleagues can achieve by volunteering together – if we can create opportunities to engage a wider group of stakeholders, imagine how much more we can achieve.