These days, charity begins at work. At least, growing numbers of British businesses seem to be convinced that it's in their own interest, not to mention the general interest, that employees should take part in voluntary projects in the community. And it's a moot point whether the main beneficiary of all this do-gooding is supposed to be the community, the company or the individual.
Action - Employees in the Community, the leading broker of secondments and other volunteering initiatives, organised 3,000 employee assignments last year, involving workers in 166 companies. Yet according to David Hemsworth, Action's communications director, 'Our work is just a fraction of all the employer-supported activity in the UK at present.' Whitbread, for example, which was one of the earliest supporters of volunteering in the country, now has 25 staff committees underpinning its wide-ranging activities.
The tasks undertaken by employee volunteers are amazingly diverse. One of the Royal Mail's many projects, up in Fife, is concerned with rebuiding a riding stables for the disabled. For the past four years Sedgwick, the insurance broker, has been running a drop-in 'job club' for Norwich prison inmates who are nearing their release. Less exotically, NatWest's volunteers tend to be assigned as treasurers or trustees of charities or other voluntary bodies.
According to Action, the benefits to companies of all this activity include improved morale, opportunities for staff development and, of course, improved community and public relations. Any business with a record of corporate volunteering obviously takes its social responsibilities seriously, and a recent poll by the Henley Centre for Forecasting found that 64% of shoppers claimed to be swayed by such matters when making their purchases.
But from an employer's point of view - and certainly from an employee's - the greatest attraction of volunteering lies in the opportunity it creates for personal development. Eight out of 10 respondents to a survey of over 700 NatWest employees thought that assignments had assisted their development, especially in the areas of communication and teamworking. A more broadly based survey, of 3,000 members of the Institute of Management, led to the conclusion that 'the main benefit gained from voluntary activity is personal satisfaction ... but one-third of employees developed existing skills and one in three acquired new skills. More than two-thirds of respondents believed that the company benefited in terms of staff development and public relations.'
Bringing this down to the level of the individual, Sandra Adamson, a network consultant with Prudential Corporation, carried out a 100 hour-long project last year, at Shepherd's Bush Women's Refuge. 'I gained project management experience which would not have been available to me in my current role or level within Prudential,' she reports. 'The breadth of experience I gained at the women's refuge would not have been part of my everyday work.'
Enthusiasm for volunteering is by no means limited to individuals and a few high-minded middle managers. It extends to the chairmen of major companies. 'I'm convinced it really does give the individual an extra dimension to life by providing new experiences outside the usual business and social environment,' declares Sir Neil Shaw of Tate & Lyle. 'It benefits local communities, increases self-confidence and produces a more rounded person.'
GrandMet first became interested in 'putting something back into the community' in the early 1980s. At that time unemployment was on the increase, Lord Sheppard points out. 'We were worried about the social havoc it might bring. Now we think community relations should be a normal part of business.' Today, says Sheppard, GrandMet sees no difference 'between allocating £17 million of shareholders' money to charity work and £900 million worldwide to marketing - both benefit the company'.
Perhaps the only potential loser from volunteering is the unambitious - or uncharitably inclined - employee. For Sheppard, 'It's a big part of career development. I like to see people in the trenches, not stuck in the back office. It's better than a thousand management courses - it's playing the game for real ... There's no compulsion on staff to participate but the chairman is not unhappy for employees to believe that taking part will do no harm to their career prospects.' What, still no volunteers?