‘Volunteering brings people together’

Practical science

Doing community service while building your skills, network, team spirit or corporate identity. It’s exactly why both ‘service learning’ and ‘corporate volunteering’ have become buzzwords. Two EUR researchers explain what makes it work (and what really doesn’t).

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ABOUT LONNEKE ROZA
Lonneke Roza (1984) is a researcher at the Business-Society Management department at the Rotterdam School of Management. Her PhD subject was employee engagement and corporate social responsibility. Up until recently, the general assumption was that volunteer work initiated by businesses would be budget-neutral at best, or even cost money. Her research shows that both the business world and non-profit organisations benefit from stimulating and facilitating community service by employees. Ongoing support for her research and the Kenniscentrum Maatschappelijke Betrokkenheid (‘knowledge centre social engagement’) she established, is provided by a coalition of companies: NUON, Alliander, IBM, KPMG, NN Group, ING, Vebego, Tommy Hilfiger and Ricoh.M, KPMG, NN Group, ING, Vebego, Tommy Hilfiger en Ricoh.

ABOUT LUCAS MEIJS
Lucas Meijs (1963) is a Professor Strategic Philantropy at Erasmus University and Professor Volunteering, Civil Society and Businesses at the Rotterdam School of Management. His specializes in the management of volunteer organisations, community involvement and interaction between non-profit and other organisations, such as the worlds of business and education. In his research of service learning he focuses on the question of how to integrate volunteering with education, resulting in equal benefits for both parties. 

Last year Lonneke Roza joined a company outing organised by a large energy company. No paint balling or Snow World for them, they were going volunteering. For the duration of the day, Account Managers and their B2B relations helped the Opkikker Foundation, which organises day trips for children with disabilities (and their families). Afterwards, one of the employees was in tears. A coworker noticed – Wow, did it affect you that much? – and they started talking. Turns out she had a child at home with a chronic illness. But no one knew.

Roza, who has attended dozens of these activities, has seen it happen before: people who’ve known each other for years get to know each other in a totally different way during a day of volunteer work. They build new, often stronger ties. ‘The more personal it gets, the more people feel committed to their coworkers and the team.’

Having fun, learning a thing or two

Volunteering as a form of team building, as a study module or a way to strengthen corporate identity. It all fits the trend that recognizes community service as a means to a different type of end, says Professor Volunteering, Civil Society and Business Lucas Meijs.

‘We notice that increasingly, people set specific goals for their volunteer activities. They want to have fun, learn something or meet new people; add value in some sort of way.’ Meijs and Roza are the authorities in the field of scientific research of volunteer work and philantropy. Meijs is the tenured professor who over the course of the last twenty years put the field on the map in the Netherlands. Roza is the young researcher, and the first in the Netherlands to do a PhD on the role of employee engagement with corporate social responsibility. 

Business has come to play an important part in philantropy. Mirroring Anglo-saxon examples, and in accordance with the concept of a participation society, the government has been retreating in several areas.

Consequently, other institutions are expected to fill the gap. Of the 5,5 billion euros donated each year in the Netherlands, 2 billion come from business, in the form of both money and time. Which is wonderful. But are these funds being spent in the right place? Why do companies invest? And is it in any way possible to create the expected win-win situation?

One wall, six paint layers

Because things do go wrong. Roza remembers touring the grounds of a youth care institution. At one point the manager stopped and pointed at a wall. It had been painted over six times that year. Red, pink, blue, every colour of the rainbow. Why? Because a lot of companies decide to go ‘do something good for society’ on a random Wednesday afternoon. Preferably something quick and easy to arrange. Roza: ‘I call it ‘playing Santa Claus’. Some company will call and say, next week we want to stop by with a one hundred people; based on the idea that giving back is a good thing. But it does make sense to look into what a community actually needs.’

She has noticed – ‘fortunately’ – that collaborations between the business world and non-profits are becoming more and more professionalized. Companies facilitate employees’ volunteering for three reasons. The first one is instrumental: it generates results. That makes sense. Telecom provider KPN’s reputation improved significantly after launching a campaign to fight loneliness, with the help of its employees. Secondly, many companies feel they have an intrinsic social responsibility (often those are family businesses, remarks Roza). Thirdly, organisations are feeling the pressure to engage with a social project from stakeholders. Either the government expects more from businesses that are interested in public tenders, or the demand might come from their own employees.

‘We all want to work in a place that makes us feel at home. A place that shares our values. And employers prefer to have people stay on for longer’

Clever marketing?

It’s not really clear how many people engage in volunteer activities for the aforementioned reasons. Figuring that out will require more research. The fact is, however, that 14 percent of the larger companies now offer the opportunity. Which demonstrably leads to increased loyalty and commitment, even among employees who know about these social activities but choose not to engage. Roza: ‘We all want to work in a place that makes us feel at home. A place that shares our values. And employers prefer to have people stay on for longer, because it’s very expensive to constantly recruit and train new staff.’

Sounds good. But isn’t it just some sort of clever marketing that, first and foremost, benefits these businesses themselves? ‘Of course companies like KPN or energy company NUON make a strategic choice to go this route. But the same can be said about the non-profit organisation jumping at the prospect of taking advantage of that company’s resources.’ 

An example is the De Zonnebloem foundation, which organises day trips and outings for people with physical disabilities. It’s eager to use the services provided by businesses that opt for the socially responsible team outing. ‘For someone in a wheelchair who needs help, it really doesn’t matter whether the person who’s riding them around the Hermitage museum is employed by company A, and the person who does the same thing at the Efteling amusement park is from company B. What matters is that the parties involved experience a mutually beneficial relationship.’

Study slash help

Lucas Meijs encounters similar challenges with the research he’s currently conducting into that other popular service combo: service learning, or doing volunteer work as part of an education. There are certain constraints. The volunteer work cannot hinder the studying process, and vice versa. Sometimes that throws in a bit of a monkey wrench, says Meijs. Because as long as you’re still learning, you don’t actually have the intended skill. ‘For instance, you wouldn’t let someone who doesn’t have their driver’s license drive people with disabilities around, or school children. When in theory it would be an excellent example of service learning.’

He explains. It has to be a planned learning experience, within a university or college environment. It has to address specific skills, be quantifiable and assessable. ‘My boys are doing all kinds of stuff at Scouting. But that’s an unplanned learning experience. And even though they learn a lot, it would be hard to assess.’

Meijs isn’t simply researching the phenomenon, he’s one of the first people who introduced service learning to the Dutch educational system. Twelve years ago he had a group of Business Administration students practice consultancy by having them study the diversity policy of Rotterdam volunteer organisations. What struck him is that students gained a lot more from it than they did from the ‘dead cases’ he usually presented. It freed up a lot of energy that previously remained confined to the lecture halls. 

There were some bumps in the road, however. Meijs chuckles. ‘Students tend to live in their twelve week bubble; which is how long a subject takes. And as interesting as they may find the real world, it’s not supposed to create a fuss. So if the real world provides a problem, for instance because someone calls in sick, they’ll be on my doorstep right away. And I’ll have to say, come on, get on the phone. This is how it’s going to be later in life, you know.’

Or that one time, when some of his students were involved in making a small opera stage in Rotterdam Delfshaven more sustainable. The first thing the client did was invite them to an actual opera. The students, none of them opera aficionados, were like, ‘no way’. ‘I had to tell them, once you become a consultant and your client invites you to an Ajax match, you just go. No matter if you like soccer or not.’

Getting it right

Even though it’s now been a buzzword in education for years, Meijs admits that decent examples of service learning experiences are few and far between. More often than not, one half of the deal puts too much weight in the scale. Medical residents who help nurses out during their home care shifts, without it being part of a subject ‒ that’s just learning. And students who dispense legal assistance without any explicit study goals attached? Equally lovely, but no different than regular community service. 

Over the years Meijs encountered organisations that had no interest whatsoever in the noble purposes of service learning; instead regarding his students as a source of free labour. ‘I’ve had to tell a few of them: we won’t be doing business with you any longer. They’d have a survey they just wanted to see handed out quickly, without the student having any say in the research question or the methodology.’ 

Meijs is pleading his case for a university centre that will help staff implement service learning. He even thought of a name for it: Communiversit

Communiversity

And to be honest, not everyone within the university was chomping at the bit to embrace this miracle cure. A significant amount of networking skills are required to get all these civil organisations to the point where they’re willing to work with a group of students. Not all of whom will be brilliant. So if they write a business plan, chances are it will not be perfect. But the real issue, says Meijs, is that the world of education is a lot more comfortable with force-feeding facts, churning out questions and pulling multiple-choice tests through the checking machine. ‘Once you commit to service learning, you’re suddenly dealing with something that’s much more complex to evaluate.’

Meijs is pleading his case for a university centre that will help staff implement service learning. He even thought of a name for it: Communiversity. ‘Wouldn’t it be great if all of our first year Business Administration students – English and Dutch-taught together about 1,200 of them ‒ could be sent out into the world for a subject like finance? Go to a local sports club, talk to the treasurer, give them advice and write a paper reflecting on your learning experience. It would make the subject of finance much more transparent and help those sports clubs in a number of ways. But it’s a massive job.’

HALF OF ALL DUTCH VOLUNTEER

Just under 50 percent of all Dutch people volunteer, statistics from CBS institute indicate, this being adults (15 or older) who engage in volunteer work at least once a year. The majority are involved with sports clubs (15 percent) and schools (12 procent), but home care and church activities also depend heavily on volunteers. Most of them enjoyed some form of higher education, with 60 percent almost twice the majority of the lower educated group. How many Dutchmen volunteer through their work or through education, is hard to discern at this point, with the research still in its early stages. Estimates vary between 5 to 25 percent. It does seem to involve less time-consuming projects in comparison to regular volunteer jobs, Lucas Meijs points out. Someone who is a soccer referee every weekend would volunteer for the boss only a few hours each year. Lonneke Roza: ‘It would be interesting to see how these types of volunteering are related. To find out whether someone starts volunteering in their spare time after being invited by their employer. Or if both types replace or suppress each other. That could be possible as well.’

TEXT: Geert Maarse
PHOTO'S: Jochem Sanders

Lonneke Roza and Lucas Meijs