Is corporate volunteering a wash out?

It’s inarguably altruistic but does corporate volunteering really equip employees with transferrable skills? One new study casts some doubt.

Many business leaders and volunteers credit corporate volunteering programs for giving participants work-related skills that improve their job performance.

A new study of volunteers from Google, Cisco, Cognizant and Fidelity in the US has found there is truth to this.

However, it suggests that the extent to which each skill is developed is linked to the personal characteristics of the volunteer and the nature of the volunteering experience.

The study relied on quantitative survey data collected from 74 employees, and one-third to one-half of the volunteers reported skill improvements in 10 key areas.

These included leadership, mentorship, motivating others, project management, providing feedback, public speaking, teamwork and time management.

The researchers collected data from the employees before and after completing a 10-week service experience and working as teachers with Citizen Schools (a national non-profit that partners with middle schools to extend the learning day in an effort to bridge the opportunity gap for low-income students).

It found that participants who had more opportunities to use and practice a given skill while volunteering had significantly greater improvement in that skill.

"As it turns out people with more confidence in their ability to improve their skills gained even more from the pre-volunteer prep courses," said study author David A. Jones, professor in the Grossman School of Business at the University of Vermont.

"That could be because people with high self-efficacy engage in goal setting and task planning during the prep courses. Then they use work-related skills to execute during their service experience while their less confident counterparts might be more nervous or apprehensive about trying new skills."

While Jones is confident that some of the employee volunteers in his study improved their work-related skills, he cautions that this won't necessarily occur through any corporate volunteering program.

"Three important conditions were present in this volunteering experience through Citizen Schools -- the volunteers were engaged in meaningful work, and they performed tasks outside their comfort zone in a socially supportive environment, said Jones.

“Many other settings in which employees volunteer do not include all three, or even any, of these conditions. Some are largely limited to one-day events where employees pick up garbage or raise money for a cause they didn't choose to support."

The volunteers worked with students for 90 minutes each week on subjects like financial planning, mentoring or career opportunities often in STEM-related fields. This resulted in student presentations of major projects at the end of the apprenticeship.

"Some of the volunteers are IT folks who code most of the day and are used to talking with like-minded people," said Jones.

"All of a sudden they are teaching and mentoring middle school students in an after-hours program in what may be a challenged neighbourhood - talk about being pushed beyond your comfort zone.

“But they know what they're doing matters, and if they have any trouble or fall down, one of the other volunteers or a staff member from Citizen Schools who is always present will pick them up. That's an atmosphere that fosters skill development.

"While more research is needed to better understand how to best promote employee skill development through volunteering, it seems clear that corporate volunteering programs can lead to a win-win-win for employers, employees and the communities they serve."

The article will be published in Frontiers in Psychology.

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