Get ahead by volunteering


There’s a very grumpy (but very successful) chief executive of a big City institution and, every time we meet, I challenge myself to see how quickly I can get him angry about something.

My biggest slam-dunk in this deeply trivial pursuit was when I told him I heard that one of his rivals had implemented a policy across the whole company saying that every employee was now entitled to undertake volunteering programmes. I told him how brilliant I thought that was.

Watching him turn from red to purple then inner green with envy for not having thought of it himself made me smile – but what he then uttered made me laugh out loud. “I’ll do better than that,” he said through gritted teeth. “I’ll make everyone do it.” I replied: “You can’t make people volunteer, it’s antithetical to the term.”

And while many large firms say they at least encourage volunteering, I suspect that few actually find themselves doing so. The latest phrase I keep hearing is that companies wish to ‘go beyond painting the church wall’. I don’t know about the state of church walls where you are, but none in central London look as if swathes of accountants and lawyers have recently slapped them with a coat of Dulux.

The most obvious reason for this lack of uptake is that offering to do stuff on company time would mean taking one’s eye off the corporate ball. While Jack goes off to paint that church wall, Jill is gaining internal advantage and advancement.

I’ve seen something similar in my own company. For years I’ve been involved in what I call social meddling activities, and in the past this would involve only my time. But I imagine that in the early days of my doing so, anything that involved colleagues’ time was considered a chore to please the boss rather than an engaged process over which they had shared ownership. That was my fault, not theirs: I hadn’t sold the reasons for my activities, let alone the rewards gleaned from undertaking them.

For years, via a great project called Switchback, I’ve been bringing groups of recently released prisoners to come and have breakfast with me at Roast, followed by a tour of Borough Market [south London] where we’re based. They are then split up for some real-life experiences: some are placed in the kitchen; some are taught how to make cocktails; some are shown how to lay out a table for service.

The people in my team who undertook such sessions in the past probably did so and finished off quickly so they could get back to their ‘real job’.

So one day last year I invited some of our chefs and managers down to Brixton Prison’s Clink restaurant and took them to the kitchens afterwards to meet the prisoners who’d made our meals. I left them to it so they could build their own conversations. Without any further intervention from me, two prisoners started work experience with us on day release and another was offered a job when his sentence was over. Meanwhile, on the morning of writing this column, a group of my team are going to another prison. Without me.

To turn the perception of a corporate volunteer from a loser to a big winner turned out to be relatively easy for us once I’d worked it out. Your performance in the company is judged in part because of your volunteering activity – not in spite of it. If in employee evaluations and assessments everyone was asked what volunteering projects they’d undertaken (on company time) they’d at least feel empowered enough to get involved and might even seek best-in-class status for their actions.

That’s surely a better path than pretending or even forcing.

Iqbal Wahhab OBE is the founder of Roast. You can tweet him @IqbalWahhab

About author

Iqbal Wahhab

Iqbal Wahhab

Iqbal Wahhab is a restaurateur who drives social impacts to the core of his businesses. The founder of The Cinnamon Club and Roast is chair or patron of a variety of social projects and is planning more restaurants this year.

1 comment

  1. Giles Sibbald 2 April, 2015 at 07:43 Reply

    Getting larger employee engagement is important, but getting quality employee engagement is equally as important. Encouraging the right culture takes time but it is absolutely essential. Those who believe in volunteering can play a massive role in championing the causes.

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