Is it time to start challenging team challenges? (Pursue Positive Social Impact)

When you hear the words ‘corporate volunteering’ does the image of a small army clad in matching white t-shirts pop into your head?

These ‘Team Challenges’ are a mainstay of employee volunteering for rather obvious reasons: they offer a team building opportunity and engage lots of staff in one go. But, the primary purpose of volunteering is to support the community and for charities, team challenges are often more of a burden than a benefit.

At a recent corporate volunteering networking event – attended by some of the bigger UK charities –the difficulties associated with manual-work team-based volunteering were discussed. Fundamentally, corporate demand for ‘Paint and Fix’ days far outweighs the meaningful opportunities to do them. For charities these days require a great deal of preparation and supervision on the day and, because many office workers don’t have good DIY skills, there is often some clearing up to do afterwards.

The challenge was summed up by Aimee Perry from Macmillan: "We struggle to accommodate large groups of volunteers who want to take part in manual projects as, like many other charities, we don’t own buildings or have the staff capacity to manage that many people. If corporates approached us with smaller teams we could accommodate them far more easily whilst still aligning the volunteering activities with our charitable objectives".

Skills-based volunteering is more valuable, but organising a team to engage effectively en mass is just as problematic. Who will prepare the content? Who will be the master of ceremonies for the day? For a team of 15 volunteers at least as many participants from the charity will be needed.

Do team challenges really work for corporates?

The irony is that – when the day arrives – having half the office away from their desks is bad news. Who will answer the phones, attend that important client meeting or turn around that report? These challenges are reflected in the prevalence of the last minute drop-out of attendees experienced by many companies.

Many CSR practitioners recognise that team challenges are a necessary evil for keeping staff participation in volunteering high, but some have made innovative changes to their earlier practice. I recently met Roisin Murphy acting Head of CSR at KPMG, a company that has made a complete departure from traditional, manual, volunteering opportunities. They now offer ‘SPRING’, a programme focused on using staff skills and experience to improve social mobility. 

Roisin explained “Of course there were a few grumblings when we relaunched our programme and moved away from the traditional approach. So we built a really strong and compelling alternative – including providing toolkits to run capacity-building sessions with charities and skills-sessions with young people.  We also added a new dimension that focuses on educating our people about social mobility so they can see how their experiences and skills through volunteering can really help to drive positive change. The feedback from the business has been really positive and I am confident that our overall impact of the time we spend in the community will increase!”

So how can we make team challenges work?

Team challenges will remain popular, we know, but what is important is to make sure they are of maximum benefit to everyone involved. Here are some tips for doing so:

Educate your staff:  Nearly every week I get a call from someone wanting to do team building – sometimes with as many as 150 colleagues, all wanting to volunteer at the same time.

The analogy I use is that if I send individuals or even a small group of great professional people to your corporate offices for day you could find something for them to do, right? What about if I send 20? Probably not.

Charities – the majority of which have <100k of turnover – have the same challenge, so let your staff know the limitations of team challenges and present the options for doing volunteering differently.

Spread out the team:  Recently at Benefacto we designed a volunteering day for legal firm CMS Cameron McKenna where we got an entire department out on one day, but divided into smaller teams to support six charities. It took some organising, but we found activities that were of real benefit to the charities and where the volunteers felt they were making a meaningful contribution.

Another way of doing it is to find one or two charities that need regular support from small numbers of people over a longer period. Get a department to commit a couple of volunteers for one or two days a week for a number of weeks, with the staff managing the handover between themselves. It will still be a group experience because everyone will be involved in the same project.

Offer a compelling alternative: Team challenges often attract high-engagement, often because there is one energetic ring-leader who presents his or her colleagues with an activity and collars them into attending.

Without the ring-leader, to encourage your staff to volunteer either on their own or in smaller groups you will need to put the opportunities on a plate, publicise them and make them easy to get involved with.

Keep the group big but be flexible and open-minded:  A small army of helpers is usually going to be an overwhelming offer to any charity, except perhaps on the very few days each year when they actually need it!

If you want to help out in big groups, ask your charity partners when and where they need this type of support. For example, many of London’s food banks do a big food drive twice a year and at those times they need all the help they can get.

In short, if team challenges are advantageous to you as a company, you will need to be creative if you want both to achieve your corporate aspirations and to help your partner charities achieve theirs. 

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