12/12/2016 10:45 GMT | Updated 13/12/2017 05:12 GMT

How Employers Can Support Volunteering In The UK

Encouraging employees to volunteer is a daunting task for business. Many are keen to see its people use their knowledge, skills and times to help not for profit organisations and people in their society. But issues remain around achieving volunteering targets, giving employees time to volunteer, measuring the impact of employee volunteering and ensuring the volunteering is focussed enough to fit with a company's purpose. All this, while ensuring people are able to support the causes closest to their hearts. It's not easy.

My employer, BT, is well regarded in the UK as being one of the largest companies actively promoting employer supported volunteering (ESV). Not only does it comprise one of our 2020 purposeful business goals, aiming to have 66% of employees volunteering by 2020, but we also ensure volunteering is part of every one of our campaigns. In the 2012 London Olympics, which BT was a major sponsor of, our employees volunteered as Games Makers. For the Comic Relief and Children in Need campaigns, BT people have for many years run the phones at the call centres and the BT Tower, and are seen out and about fundraising. This year at the Patron's Lunch, many employees were out serving as celebration makers.

Volunteering is built into the culture of BT, and is driven at the very top by our Chairman Sir Mike Rake. Traditionally BT has run low-skilled volunteering programs, where teams of people would come together to paint fences, tidy up buildings amongst other activities. For some time now, charities have been charging employers for sending their people down to give their time to help. We made the decision this year to no longer fund this kind of volunteering; not only is it ineffective, having little lasting impact on the environment and the community, but often managers view this activity as team building. You can charge people for team building, but you should never pay for volunteering.

BT and other employers want skills based volunteering. Employers want their people delivering impact and having a positive, lasting effect on their communities, ensuring that the time they spend away from work (usually paid by the employer rather than taken as holiday) is useful and effective.

So, we're trying to a new approach to employer supported volunteering based around these three keys themes. Other employers can use this to enable their ESV and get a positive impact on their society and communities.

1. Make it easy - It might seem daft to say this as the first point, as no one intentionally sets out to make things difficult, but actually, so far, the volunteering community has failed to make it easy. Finding the opportunities, giving people the information they need to volunteer and ensuring they can report their time to their employer has to be simple and easy. BT is building a new digital platform which will have all this information in place, and we help us understand the impact of our volunteers.

2. Collaborate - To do the above can't be done by any one employer. There are many, many volunteering brokerages (organisations which pull in volunteering opportunities for many charities into one place) and getting them all to pull in the same direction, with the same standards and use of digital opportunities, is too much for one company. We have been working alongside the Skills Exchange organisation based in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, who help enable employee supported volunteering. We are also working with other major UK employers, ensuring we all get as many of our people volunteering.

3. Reward the volunteers - I'm not talking about paying them; that's not what volunteering is about. But ensure they get rewarded with skills and recognition. At BT, we have the annual chairman's awards, where our Chairman recognises the best of our volunteers and fundraisers, donating BT money to the causes of their choice. We are working to help volunteers of all ages get recognition on their CVs for skilled based volunteering. We encourage many of our senior leaders to be trustees and non-exec directors. It's a great way to build experience ready for that next big promotion.

As we approach Christmas, employers need to think hard about giving their employees time to volunteer and ensuring they are free to serve these causes. The Skills Exchange is an excellent organisation to work with, and BT are keen to help employers learn about effective ESV. Get in touch with me or the Skills exchange to learn more about employer supported volunteering, and how this Christmas and in 2017 we can make positive changes to people's lives through our work skills.