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Volunteering and Social Inclusion

by Ornella Schillaci

Social inclusion has become a buzzword. Alongside this great concept, we often hear about volunteering and why it is so important to start offering employees the opportunity to volunteer X hours a month to their favorite nonprofit or a cause that they feel connected to. These are just some random ideas that we have in mind but we have clearly no idea about what it is for real, do we?

So what is social inclusion and what are the mechanisms we can use to achieve it?

Because we always aim at offering you the best tips and tricks and the most relevant insight for you to be able to run a smooth volunteering program, we decided to turn to some experts from the CSR world. You can thus hear from our discussion with Thomas Pickering and from Chris Jarvis. But you can also discover the most inspiring and insightul bits from this conversation now in this article. Enjoy and don't forget to share it with you favorite colleagues.

Chris: I think we always have to be very careful in how we use labels in everything, in life and I think social inclusion is very much about looking at the problem. A kind of from a distance and taking a space and look at what is stopping countries from developing. And if you look at the Sustainable Development Goals, they very clearly show you that there are areas where even in the most developed nations, there are challenges to social inclusion. So for me, social inclusion is to look at the areas or the dimensions where society is not delivering for everybody. 

Thomas: I would say there's a first step which is from inside the company. First of all, you need to understand what it is and how you can contribute. But even before that, you need to understand why. What is the objective? And we work with companies and we sit down with companies and they say we want to support, let's say, education because it's important for our society. Yes, but what business objective does this serve? And the business objective could be very much about employee morale, employee engagement, and asserting the brand, making people more resilient in difficult times like this of endless disruption. So first, to understand what objective this serves, because otherwise, it's something that is floating. It's the right thing to do. But then when times of crisis come, you have to stop it because it's not. It's not business-critical, right? So it has to be business-critical as much as anything else the business does. So that's the first point. The second point is to understand what is it that you can contribute? Is it money? Is it time? Is it volunteering? Is it resources? Is it books or whiteboards for the school? Are laptops or is it the knowledge and the skills of your people? And some studies say that when companies volunteer skills, so it's knowledge and legal knowledge and marketing experience, leadership strategy, all those amazing skills. It has five times more impact than if a company wants to contribute cash. I know it's the first thing that we think intuitively is like, of course, this association, this charity, this cause needs cash or money or financial support. So think wisely about what you can contribute. Think about what would it drive and then reach out to the community? And that reach out is the part that then it's the outside in which I would say understand what are the most pressing social issues? A company might say, Well, we want to do something specific about, I don't know the enjoyment of the sport, but maybe that's not a critical issue in your local community. And this is very much about doing research as much as it is talking to the local community and their companies, for instance, that organize local community panels to try and understand what the needs are. And sometimes what you realize is that those dialogs can be super enriching in terms of the topics and the issues that can be supported. So that's that, I would say, is the starting point to understand what the needs are. 

Optimy: What are the most common mistakes corporations make when creating social inclusion programs? 

Thomas: I would say probably taking this whole process of dialog for granted. And sometimes I talk to companies and they say "Well, our employees want to do something about X topic." And here in Ireland, most of the time when you ask staff to, to choose or to or to contribute to that, they would say children and they would say sickness, you know, cancer, etc. And I think the mistake is not having a broad view of what all the issues are and sometimes recognizing that some causes are very visible, very high profile and others are very, very low profile, but they have a lot of need. So trying to engage our employees and make them feel excited about this, of course. But it has to be influenced by objective information. So that would be would be one mistake. The second mistake would be to commit and say, of course, we're going to offer all these hours of volunteering, et cetera, but then not knowing if they're capable of delivering on that commitment. And that can be can be a mistake in an equal way. Sometimes the communities would say, of course, we're willing to welcome all those volunteers and help with the children in hospital, and then they can. So having realistic expectations is the point. I was trying to say that's something companies need to avoid because it is a common mistake. And then my third point would be being short-minded. We think we have to do something about minorities in our country and our community. But then six months later, we change our minds: we think it should be about education. And six months later, we think it should be about homelessness. So, having a strategy, having a long-term vision, and understanding the needs of your community would be my key, my key suggestions. 

Optimy: A document from the UN points out that volunteering can be a powerful mechanism for promoting social inclusion throughout the world with the support of research-based evidence. It demonstrates how the values inherent in volunteering open up diverse pathways for marginalized groups to overcome social exclusion while enabling them to become drivers of development action. Do you believe that volunteering projects can indeed promote social inclusion?  

Thomas: Yes, of course, it can, and it does. And I think it's when it's well managed and structured, that it can. So I can give you the example of a retailer here in Ireland that has for many years been providing a program that is based on the work experience of people that have been marginalized. In most cases, people would have faced homelessness, substance abuse, alcohol, drug abuse, and mental health background. What's even more interesting is that around each person doing this work placement, there's a group of volunteers within the company that is coaching. And that is where you can see the transformational impact of volunteering. 

A business leader can sit down with the leadership of a charity and help them develop a strategic plan or a marketing plan, and I know that sounds very unglamorous or something that's not very tangible, but that can be very transformational as well. So a senior business person teaching somebody about negotiation and resilience and skills allocation, conflict management, all of those skills are fundamental and they're going to be very, very valuable. So that also contributes to social inclusion. I think it's important to have the two levels of how volunteering makes an impact, but it's endless.  

Chris: I think many companies are thinking about certain outcomes and benefits for the company as a result of an employee volunteering program as it relates to how they appear to the public, either shareholders or stakeholders. This is one of many things they're doing to demonstrate that they are a good citizen, a corporate citizen and that they care about communities, right? So that's important for the employees who live in those communities. But it's also important for other companies that operate in those communities. If it's a B2B or if it's the B2C, obviously your customers in my community and the appearance of doing something typically is as far as they think, right? So from a company perspective, they may say "Well, we don't want to do something wrong and we want to have a good story to tell. " So they tend to identify projects or investments that are unique, interesting, newsworthy in line with their key competencies and are of importance to both their employees and to the customers. Whether it's other companies or people in a community. And that's all. That's all great. But that tends to get translated into how many hours, how many dollars, how many people, how many places, how many walls do we paint because it's hard with that objective to do something interesting that other people will find interesting. It's hard with that objective to set some goals that are meaningful beyond just output metrics.  They don't speak about the value of it. And so that creates a problem for the company because they can achieve that objective. You're not going to solve homelessness in a city like Baltimore by donating. It's just never going to happen. So the best they can hope for is "we look like we're doing something". And that's it. So a lot of the true value for what employees could hope to see is more inclusive teams, a more equitable workplace or a more inclusive mindset, open to asking new questions and learning new things, open to learning about the social environmental issues that may not directly affect me but affect my community. I'm not homeless, living on a street, but that is the big issue here in Baltimore. Does my volunteering result in me being more aware of it and me being more aware of it? Does that result in me taking more ownership of the over the option that the part that companies don't think through because they don't understand? Many people don't understand how to get that value, even if they're presented with it. So we can talk about employee volunteering will result in your team's being. Share more knowledge. So the more I do things with other people that I think are meaningful and the more we share values and the sort of a shared identity as people who are good pro-social people more likely am to follow through on that initial identity with things that affirm that that's who I am, right? 

Optimy: So if there are so many benefits to corporate volunteering and social inclusion programs, how come many corporations haven't seen those results yet? 

Chris: So companies are a lot like people and in the aggregate, they act like a big company will act like a person. We want to achieve things. We want to sell things, we want to make a profit. All that, that's kind of Maslow's lower level of needs, right? And then once they get past that, they do want to craft their own identity.  I want the result, but I don't want to do the work. What is the shortest way possible to not have to do this much work and still get that the quickest, easiest way is to bring somebody in to talk about it. We need continual experiences to change the shape of both of those things. And until our brain changes its neural net, we cannot think differently. We are locked into thinking what our brain allows us to think. That's that. So if you want to think differently, you need to have different experiences that change the physiology of your brain. 

Optimy: How can we know if our corporate volunteering programs are indeed transformational and not only transactional? 

Chris:  First thing is to ask yourself: did you set it up? How did you design it to be transformative? You have to have a brief at the beginning because you need to create proximity with the people, the community, and the issue that you're addressing. So the brief is just 15 minutes. Here's what we're doing. Here's what we're going to do and here's why it matters. The "why it matters" is where we invite people to imagine what it would be like to be a person who struggles with mental illness and doesn't have a safe place to live. And you frame it up that way and people take the first step to say, what would it be like to be in that situation? Because I know my partner over here is the employee over here. So you begin to put yourself in the situation. That's the brief. Then, you have to have critical reflection if there's no critical reflection or chance for rational discourse like back and forth, what did we experience or how does it make sense? It's just transactional. We just do it and forget it. And in the middle, you have check-ins where the person running the event checks in with everybody. How are you doing? Do you have any experience with this problem so that you can design a transformative space? But that doesn't guarantee anybody's going to have a transformation. It just means the spaces, right? So that's the first step. And your question was, how do you know it's happening? So, you know, it's happening if you design the space where it can happen. So that's step number one, step number two. Is then setting up some indicators where you can see if any change is happening. And three changes happen based on a transformative approach. One is the psychological change, how I perceived myself. If I'm perceiving myself as more prosocial, more inclusive and somebody who understands and cares about issues that I may not have before. That's progress. A conviction will change what I believe to be true. If we can get employees to challenge our own beliefs, homeless people are homeless because they're lazy. That's where I started. So I'm not only informed about issues, but I believe differently, and that shows progress. And then finally, behavior, so a psychological change, a conviction will change and a behavioral change. Do I volunteer more? Am I open to learning more? Do I ask more questions? Am I reading different news sources? Any you could take any kind of behavior, but I always suggest picking three behaviors that line up with what you want to achieve that could show that you're cheating. We follow the psychological impact on behavioral changes, and we test for that. So design the space where it can happen and then design the metrics to show you that it's happening. 


We can speak about social inclusion and volunteering projects if we're willing to do the hard work of providing meaningful volunteering experiences to do so. You need to detach yourself from preconceived ideas of what local communities need. Instead, you should start dialogs with there is a need to better understand their issues and challenges. Once that communication is established, you will be able to provide corporate volunteering experiences that aren't transactional and transformative to both employees and society.