Are you in the process of starting an employee volunteering scheme or struggling with an existing scheme that has lost focus or momentum?

The proportion of firms engaging in employee volunteering in some sense has increased from around 30 percent in the early 90s to over three quarters today.

What’s more, employee volunteering is evolving: Leading firms are concentrating increasingly on the value they deliver to the charity, rather than measuring volunteering success solely by the level of engagement with their staff.

Whether you’re starting a new scheme or re-invigorating an old one, the pointers below will help you maximise the impact you have on the charities you support.

Use your skills – ‘hard’ and ‘soft’

As a corporate – whatever industry you work in – you have plenty to both offer and gain through employee volunteering. The temptation may be to default to manual labour, but you have more to offer than an extra paint-brush!

Think about how you can apply expertise specific to your business, industry or workforce – this often involves applying ‘hard’ skills in areas such as; employability workshops, IT skills and mentoring or offering pro-bono support.

Some of your employees will always rather be more hands-on, completing activities that are a total departure from their day-to-day tasks – and to maximise impact you need to find a way to engage these people in volunteering too.

This doesn’t mean you can’t still maintain a focus on skills. Just concentrate on opportunities where they can demonstrate and develop ‘softer’ ones. Working with charities on service delivery – everything from homework clubs to Older People’s services – develops skills like confidence, empathy, communication and teamwork. All of these are really relevant for any professional job.

We’ve found providing staff with a list of employee volunteering options – rather than being too prescriptive – keeps volunteering in line with charity-needs while ensuring staff can support charities they are passionate about.

Focus on what the charity needs, not what you want

Far too much volunteering is ‘corporate-led’ – companies deciding what they’d like to do and when they want to do it, and then seeking a charity who is prepared to cater for them.

The needs of the community should be paramount when organising volunteering, so start by working with a charity to find out what support they really need and be open minded about providing this.

Sometimes this might not be your ‘dream task’ or conveniently scheduled for the same day as your company-wide meeting, but might suit the charity better.

A common faux pas from firms is the desire idea to get the entire corporate team to volunteer on the same day for the same charity. But before you suggest this, have a think about the implication for the charity. To put it this way:  if you were sent a small group of great professional people to help in your organisation, you’d have no trouble assigning them tasks – but imagine the preparation required to accommodate a group of forty!

If you’re keen to support just one charity, you can get around this by sending smaller numbers more frequently. Alternatively if you do need everyone out on the same day, split your team into sub-groups and deploy them to different charities. You can maintain the team ethos by re-grouping in the pub afterwards to share stories.

Minimise the burden on the charity

We’ve stressed the importance of maximising the benefit of your volunteers and a big part of this is how you minimise the burden to the charity.

It may seem slightly perverse – on the basis you’re offering the free time and the support of your staff to help a charity out – but many third sector organisations actually find the process of organising volunteers, particularly in large numbers, quite overwhelming.

Ask the charity how you need to prepare: this might include designing a skills session, distributing a risk assessment or circulating the dress-code. Once you’ve set out the plan brief your employees before they set out to volunteer and allocate a team leader to manage queries. This will reduce the number of questions asked upon arrival at the organisation.

We recently heard a horror story where a group of volunteers spent the day at a Primary School in a deprived area of North London where most of the kids were on free school meals. At lunchtime the volunteers tucked into a lunch from Pret in full view of the kids – not a great start to breaking down social barriers. Think about what you need to know about the charity and their service users to ensure you’re being sensitive when you get there.

The charity will have invested valuable time preparing for your visit or enlisting service users so keep on top of your attendees to make sure they don’t drop out, and make sure they turn up on-time. Cancellations quickly erode relationships with charities, and your reputation too.

Don’t be afraid to get help

If your firm is new to corporate volunteering and you’re not quite sure where to start, don’t panic.

If you are just starting out, we’d recommend getting in touch with other organisations to see how you can learn from their success and failures.

Increasingly, there seems to be an appetite for companies with complementary skills or resources to join forces to deliver joint-programmes and this can create more impact than multiple companies offering the same charity separate programmes of support. Building links with other firms will help identify existing projects where you can add value or establish a joint initiative with another firm.

In addition, there are a number of brokers which can support your employee volunteering programme, from matching your business to voluntary opportunities, carrying out risk assessments and having a bank of knowledge of existing charities and events they can help to get you set up.  If you’re looking for pro-bono opportunities check out GiveWhatYoureGoodAt or if you want to help out with more conventional opportunities check out Benefacto’s employee volunteering portal.