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Setting up a company volunteers programme

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Providence Row share their experience of setting up a company volunteers programme, in order to benefit from skilled volunteers coming from local companies.


Providence Row is a homelessness charity, based just off Brick Lane in East London. We work with rough sleepers and people who are at risk of homelessness, to help them get off and stay off the streets. We do this by offering advice around money, housing and health, support with mental health and substance misuse issues as well as learning and training programmes to get people back into work.

The charity has been built on a legacy of volunteering. In fact we exist thanks to a tenacious and passionate group of volunteers, an order of nuns called The Sisters of Mercy, who founded the organisation more than 150 years ago. Providence Row is still working in the community today with ongoing support not only from The Sisters of Mercy, but from a wide range of volunteers including beneficiaries and people living and working in the local area.

The issues we faced

In the City, awareness of homelessness and poverty, was low and the charity was receiving little support (both in fundraising and volunteering) from local companies. However, we knew that companies would appreciate opportunities for volunteering so close to their place of work.

We were aware that homeless people tend to be in contact with either support staff or other homeless people. We were keen to broaden their experience of meeting a wider spectrum of people, including those in work. However, internally our staff were concerned about supervising company volunteers and how well people would really integrate.

The actions we took

The organisation saw this as an opportunity to launch a company volunteers programme in order to:

  1. change perceptions of homelessness locally
  2. garner extra practical hands on support to deliver better services by harnessing company volunteer knowledge and skills
  3. give beneficiaries the opportunity to meet people in regular employment
  4. provide a pool of potential new supporters as well as a regular income stream.

We spent two years testing the water, piloting simple company challenges and engaging some pro bono strategic support. In 2013/14 we were ready to market volunteering activities proactively to local companies, who could book to join us for an activity in return for a donation to the organisation.

We use volunteers for a whole range of activities where news skills and/or extra pairs of hands are needed, from serving lunch to IT lessons and CV building workshops.

Positive outcomes

This company volunteering programme has gone from strength to strength, with more than 300 company volunteers having joined us last year. The programme has helped attract charity partnerships with companies including Natixis Global Asset Management, Berkeley Homes and BBMV. Alongside funding, companies like these can offer important skills, business support and vital hands on deck.

For example, Natixis were looking for a long term charity partner and found us through Team London. In the first year of the partnership, they built a greenhouse for our garden. They went on to volunteer in our regular IT classes, and helped our staff team develop their presentation skills and PR work. They have also raised almost £20,000 through donations and fundraising and have donated computers and desks for our IT suite.

Another example is our partnership with BBMV, who are building the Crossrail link in the area. With expert construction volunteers, we were able to build two fantastic gardens, including a rooftop allotment garden. Work continues on these gardens with volunteers and gardening trainees growing more than 140 varieties of fruit and veg, tending to our two resident bee hives and building new additions to the roof garden including a wildlife pond and an irrigation system.

Other positive outcomes

  • Increasing capacity and resources
    Since April 2014 we have welcomed 756 volunteers from city-based organisations, who together have contributed 2140 hours supporting staff to run the 65+ learning and training sessions we run each month.
  • Raising awareness of homelessness
    Around half of those who took part last year reported that their perceptions of people affected by homelessness had changed after volunteering with us, becoming more positive.
  • Raising funds
    Last year we brought in more than £10,000 from companies paying for volunteering experiences with us with an additional £10,000 being fundraised by those volunteers.
  • Improving the experiences of our beneficiaries
    Our employability programme for our beneficiaries, ‘Working on It’, has seen great results by incorporating company volunteers. The volunteers run sessions on debating skills, customers services and interview techniques among others. Figures from last year show 20% of those who attended a workshop run by our company volunteers have started some form of employment, against a 15% rate for the programme as a whole.

Negative outcomes

It was difficult to get cross-organisational buy-in from the teams delivering the services. It was important to promote the benefits of company volunteers internally, ensuring staff understood the added value volunteers could bring to their service.

We overcame this by creating clear and simple processes for recruitment and marketing of volunteering opportunities. We also undertook a good deal of internal championing, led by the fundraising team, as well as running training workshops with frontline staff. The services teams have now come to recognise company volunteering as an extra resource they can easily draw on to help run their activities.

On launch of the programme we put in place systems to gather feedback from volunteers. However we have not put in place easy ways to collate feedback from our beneficiaries (people we work with). We are now working on putting a clear feedback process in place so we are able to better demonstrate the positive impact our volunteers have on our beneficiaries’ experiences while working with us.

Lessons learnt

It’s important to have genuinely useful projects with a tangible ‘before and after’ so that volunteers can see the real impact. This can be followed up by reports back about the difference being made as a result, as well as ongoing volunteering.

Attitudes and priorities differ between companies and not all have the same approach. It’s useful to identify companies with overlapping priorities between the charity and the company’s corporate social responsibility agenda. Therefore, it is possible to create a ‘win-win’ between the company, the volunteers and charity as the basis of a genuine partnership.

If it’s possible to establish a long term relationship between your charity and companies (ie over several years or more) then there is more scope for staff teams to get to know each other. This provides the opportunity to try out ideas, make mistakes and learn together – rather than having a one off team event which goes wrong and everyone feels a bit dissatisfied at the end. Longer term relationships can also lead to greater added value. Long term partnerships take time to develop but the difference made is much greater having made the investment.

We have found getting our beneficiaries working together with staff and volunteers on practical projects is beneficial to all, with volunteers getting as much out of it as our beneficiaries. In this way, the garden has been a particularly powerful project because, rather than the traditional paradigm of volunteers helping beneficiaries, everyone involved has contributed to making it possible, empowering beneficiaries and volunteers alike.


Page last edited Jun 22, 2016

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