Skills-based volunteering is seen as a win for all involved, but employees often don't view it in the same way as their organisation writes Dr Kiera Dempsey-BrenchSchool of Business 

Now more than ever, firms are ramping up their focus on social responsibility. One of fastest growing ways for organisations to do this is through skills-based volunteering. Employee volunteering isn’t new: companies have supported their employees for decades to tidy a beach or help at a local food bank while on company time.

On the other hand, skills-based volunteering requires employees to use their professional skills for a good cause. For example, an accountant supporting a non-profit facing financial difficulties, or a communications specialist editing grant proposals are engaging in skills-based volunteering.

Skills-based volunteering is touted to provide a "triple win" for stakeholders. Non-profits win because they gain access to new knowledge and specialist skills. Employers win from enhanced employee engagement. Employees who use their professional skills while volunteering stand to benefit too: they find volunteering more valuable and report higher levels of skill development.

Over the course of a year, we looked at an organisation that had deliberately included more skills-based volunteering activities and purposefully blended volunteering with the firm’s learning and development initiatives. The company had clear policies and internal marketing campaigns that emphasised the connection between volunteering and skill development, and employees were encouraged to mention volunteering efforts in performance reviews with line managers.

We asked 27 employee volunteers for their thoughts on learning from volunteering. Our findings came as quite a surprise. Although previous survey-based research has found a positive relationship between volunteering and skill development, we found that employees did not make this connection naturally on their own. Approximately two-thirds of interviewees responded with curiosity to the link between volunteering and learning.

They used the interview process to reflect and rationalise their experiences. Only after some time did they recognise that they had learned something. For example, one said: "I think that just talking to you, what I am realising is that we are doing this volunteering and most people participating probably aren’t understanding what they are learning from it, including myself". Others explained how volunteering had developed their soft skills, such as empathy, resilience, and leadership capabilities.

Even more surprising, the remaining third of respondents reacted defensively or with outright anger. These employees were enraged that volunteering could be used for anything other than giving back to the community. One person responded in a raised voice: "It’s not about developing me as a person for the benefit of my company; it is about using my skills to give back to the community". These individuals expressed their personal moral motives to participate in volunteering - to give back, not to gain - and repeatedly reiterated that "you don’t volunteer for the benefits for you".

What's behind these two vastly different responses?

Their reactions hinged on two factors. The first is employees’ beliefs regarding why their employer supports volunteering in the first place. Volunteers who became angry at the thought of learning from volunteering were suspicious of their firm’s motives to engage in volunteering. Some laughed at the idea that their company might have genuine intentions, and instead suggested that volunteering programs were a publicity stunt or "tick-box exercise".

Conversely, employees who recognised that volunteering is a route to development believed that their firm had genuine, selfless motives that were aligned with their own. They believed that volunteering and learning aligned with their organisation’s DNA.

The second factor was line managers. Line managers who make volunteer opportunities available and accessible, and who take part in volunteer activities themselves, positively influence their employees’ beliefs regarding why their firm supports volunteering. Managers who 'walk the talk’, and clearly signpost to employees the learning that can be gained from skills-based volunteering activities clearly support a firm’s social responsibility efforts.

How can organisations optimise the "win-win-win" of skills-based volunteering? We identified two key strategies. First, organisations need to clearly articulate why they engage in skills-based volunteering. Volunteering programs can, in principle, meet several goals simultaneously, including learning and skill development and supporting important charitable causes.

But employees may feel conned if they are led to believe that the company’s sole motive is to give back to the community, and then later realise that volunteering affects their performance review. Many volunteers in our study were cynical about their company’s intentions and therefore cognitively blocked any potential connection between volunteering and learning. Transparency regarding motivations and potential gains is therefore paramount.

Second of all, firms need to recognise the importance of reflection. We found that the majority of employees did not naturally make the connection between learning and volunteering and used the interview process to ‘connect the dots’. Interviewees stated that they came away from the interview with a greater sense of pride and with goals to further their development through volunteering. Leaders should therefore provide volunteers with the time and space to reflect, discuss and rationalise their volunteer experiences to optimise development and stimulate positive reactions toward the firm.

This article originally appeared on RTE Brainstorm. 

 Prof Amanda Shantz, Professor of Management and Director of the University of St Gallen MBA, co-wrote this article.