Sunday, June 01, 2008

Helping others helps us, by Sophie Toomey - The Australian - 24th May 2008

Volunteering brings rewards for worker and employer alike, writes Sophie Toomey

Not many of us can afford such generous gestures as Drew Barrymore's when she recently handed a cheque for $1 million to the World Food Program. But thousands of Australians do make gestures of extraordinary generosity, and with the help of their employers, to a huge variety of causes.

Philanthropy Australia estimates that Australian businesses and individuals give $11 billion each year in money, goods and services to not-for-profit organisations. While some of that money comes from large-scale corporate fund raising and donations, there are many employees giving up time, money and expertise for charity.

Belinda Morrissey is director of Goodcompany, an organisation matching volunteer employees with volunteer projects that utilise their professional expertise.

"The idea of Goodcompany is to match wishes for skills. It's beautiful in its simplicity," says Morrissey. "In 2000, the first year, we had 15 charities and 150 members. Today we have over 600 charities and have achieved 1000 outcomes worth over $7 million in professional services for the community."

Morrissey says the fact that Goodcompany is an online experience appeals to professionals. "Time-poor professionals wouldn't be interested in us without that model. Our volunteers search online and apply for one of many projects listed by community groups." Morrissey says her volunteers are driven by a strong desire to make Australia a better place.

Martin Walker is manager of Still Moving Design. He volunteered as a web and graphic designer to Goodcompany, and was linked with organisations needing help with corporate-style websites or annual reports. His projects so far include annual reports for The Infants Home and Quest for Life and websites for HeartKids Australia, African relief and welfare agencies.

Walker is clear about what motivates him to volunteer his time: "I really like helping out. It is as simple as that." Walker says he provides work that might otherwise cost $5000 in design fees. "Time-wise it's not that expensive for me. They provide the images and it's a case of doing what I love, which is concentrating on design."

Walker says that projects don't always fit into the time allotted, and volunteers must be prepared to be leaned on a little. "Some charities need a lot of attention, particularly when being introduced to new concepts. You need patience."

Morrissey says there has been a rise in the number of companies interested in fostering volunteering among their workers. She says there are benefits in staff involvement in such important activities: "Progressive companies understand this. Many of the companies we talk to are not interested in the traditional approach to employee volunteering of painting fences or serving soup. They realise they have skills and they see skilled volunteering as a value-add to their organisation."

Morrissey says smart companies see they have to engage their staff. "Gen X and Y have a strong social conscience and are looking for employers who match their views. There is an increased sense of satisfaction and pride in work and, importantly, an increased understanding of the broader social scene."

Hunter Hall investments is one company with corporate generosity built into its mandate. The company decided five years ago that all shareholders would take part in a compulsory shareholder donations program.

Suzanne Daniel is chair of the Hunter Hall shareholder nominated charitable donations scheme and a director of Hunter Hall International Limited.

Daniels says that the company's founder, Peter Hall, had always personally donated to charity and when he floated the company on the Australian stock exchange in 2001 he decided that 5 per cent of its pre-tax profits would go to charities. The company later decided that staff should be actively involved, on company time, with those charities.

Daniel says the company's leanings seem to have attracted staff with altruistic leanings, and she has never encountered an employee who did not embrace the involvement. "We surveyed staff a couple of years ago about working for us, and two things they were most proud of were our ethical involvements and our charity scheme."

Staff involvement is practical and structured, but they can become more involved if they wish. "Staff take a paid day off each year to volunteer to one of our charities, and almost all staff members have done this." Daniels says the projects can be as diverse as packing hampers for the Smith Family to helping with the organisation of an education day for the Australian Orangutan Project.

Christina Christopherson is relationship manager for Hunter Hall Investments. She is a member of the charities committee for the company, and has volunteered for the Northcott swimming carnival on several occasions. Northcott is an organisation helping children with disabilites. She has also been involved outside work time with fundraising for the Sydney Children's Hospital.

Christopherson says she is motivated to volunteer by the perspective it gives her on her life. "There are a lot of pressures around daily life and spending a day volunteering puts that into perspective. Plus, of course, there is a certain feel-good factor in it for me."

Christopherson says working with charities has given her a better understanding of how hard the people behind them work. "I have such admiration for their work, but I have also got a far better understanding of people with disabilities from working with Northcott."

PriceWaterhouseCoopers Australia is another company with a significant charitable foundation and which has extended its reach into employee volunteering. The foundation was set up five years ago to co-ordinate PWC's charity activities, donations and corporate community leadership.

Anita Poppy, manager of communications at PWC Australia, says "we have 21 charities across five cause areas such as health, poverty, youth and the environment". Poppy says employees can involve themselves in any number of ways, including active volunteering or payroll deductions. "Staff are encouraged to trial new activities. This leads to some challenging activities, like sitting down to lunch with marginalised and homeless people." Poppy says the payroll scheme is hugely successful, with PWC matching employee donations dollar-for-dollar.

Anita Burer is an executive assistant with PWC Melbourne, and was recently rewarded by PWC with a prize for her volunteer work. "It felt odd to be rewarded for something I enjoy doing so much. It really doesn't feel like hard work. Both my parents volunteered and as a teenager I helped my mum with Meals on Wheels. When I left home and wasn't volunteering, I felt like something was missing."

Brurer has been involved in many things, from distributing hampers for the Smith Family to tree planting for Landcare and assisting in fundraising events for breast cancer and leukemia.

Brurer says there are enormous personal rewards in volunteering. "It makes me realise I am part of a community, of something bigger than me and that my actions -- good or bad -- impact on that community. I also love getting others involved. "

Brurer says it has developed her on a personal level. "I've learnt so much, and volunteering has forced me out of my comfort zone so many times. I've learnt that engaging people involves a good deal of skill!"

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