Banish thoughts of dishing up stewed tea in a draughty community hall - there's far more to volunteering than that. No surprise then that employers are starting to see it as a valuable tool in career development.
Nearly three-quarters of FTSE 100 companies have an employee volunteering programme. Small and medium-sized firms have also realised the huge importance of local relationships to their business with 61% involved in their community.
Spokesman Jason Tanner says: 'Employees who may, for example, help improve the reading age of a child in a school during their lunch hour or mentor a person in a care setting, return to the workplace feeling refreshed and valued, often with better communication skills and team-working abilities. The people they help benefit, and research indicates the employer is likely to have an employee who feels rewarded and more committed to their workplace, so a 'win-win' situation all round.'
At the moment, few local authorities run employee volunteering schemes, although organisations such as CSV are talking to senior figures to get schemes off the ground. But there are exceptions - most notably Kent CC. Carole Kincaid is county co-ordinator for volunteering, a post created six years ago after Kent identified promoting volunteering as one of its aims. She has now been joined by a part-time employee volunteer officer, who helps broker the perfect volunteering match for staff members.
Kent staff are allowed two days a year paid leave to volunteer and are encouraged to sign up for public services, such as being a magistrate or school governor, for which up to 26 half-days' leave a year is available.
Ms Kincaid says: 'Individual and team volunteering is recognised and woven into staff development from induction to pre-retirement. Feedback from staff and managers shows this hits the right buttons for motivation. The role of volunteering in career development is highlighted by staff and line managers who now understand that, just as learning is transferable, there is added value in the experiences of staff who choose to volunteer out of their field in work supported or their own time.'
It is up to staff how they spend their two days. In the strategic planning directorate, it all tends to happen once a year, in volunteering week, and en masse, with the manager planning a team challenge, such as clearing a pond. 'Managers say this has really motivated staff and built the team,' says Ms Kincaid.
Ms Kincaid encourages staff to do something completely different from their day job. 'An administrative officer, whose job is not so demanding, might go for a senior role in a volunteer group, making key decisions. Equally we get senior managers to just be one of the troops when they volunteer.'
She says there are particular benefits for non-front line staff. 'We had people go out into schools to help pupils with their reading and they come back and say they can't believe the difference they can make. It builds up their understanding of the customer base. It gives them a clearer idea of what is going on out in the community. We also think it helps retention.'
Kent is not alone in encouraging its staff to put time back into the community. At Manchester City Council, managers are encouraged to sign up for the Manchester Challenge, which gives teams or groups of individuals a day off work to go out into the community to undertake a task - anything from environmental work to helping disabled children go horse riding.
Portsmouth City Council has poured energy into promoting school governorship. Staff are offered up to 18 days time off and the council uses newsletters, payslip notifications, briefings and intranet links to drum up interest. Andy Heaword, governor services officer, explains: 'For people in business it is good training: you work as a team and look at budgets. It's continuing professional development. In the larger schools governors are responsible for budgets of up to£6.5m but most people don't realise that.'