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Corporate volunteering: The four biggest mistakes

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By Yury Erofeev

· 5 min read

This article delves into the common pitfalls of inclusive corporate volunteering, offering strategic advice to companies eager to make their programs genuinely beneficial. It emphasizes the importance of leveraging social sector expertise, debunking stereotypes, avoiding exploitation for motivational purposes, and not overlooking internal inclusivity. By adhering to these guidelines, businesses can develop meaningful and impactful volunteer initiatives that respect and truly aid people, including those with disabilities.

How can we avoid mistakes?

Many companies today have corporate volunteer programs. To support the business, they choose a variety of environmental and social initiatives, including inclusion projects. The topic of inclusion is particularly sensitive, and programs that are implemented without considering its idiosyncrasies often end in disappointment.

Mistake n.1: Implementing a volunteer program without social sector expertise

Often, companies approach beneficiaries with ready-made ideas, asking for implementation support. In 2018, a well-known European company contacted us and asked us to organize a themed day dedicated to people with disabilities. The idea was that all 300+ employees had to “do something for them.”

It was obvious that people with disabilities were just tools for solving team-building problems in this story. We abandoned the project because, in this format, it was only impossible to do anything truly beneficial.

How to avoid it

It is important to remember that the third sector is not just a beneficiary but a bearer of expertise. NGOs and social projects know which real problems a particular social group faces and how they could be helped to solve them.

It will therefore always be better, for a company set on starting to work with a topic it is still unfamiliar with, to find a partner in this area. Often the NPO will already have a volunteer program you can join, or has long wanted to launch a project you can support through contributing resources, including volunteer participation.

Mistake n.2: Building projects based on stereotypes about people with disabilities, their abilities, and their needs

It often seems to people who are not immersed in the problem that people with disabilities do not live prosperous lives. They have no family, friends, work, hobbies. And to do something useful for them, it is enough to offer some simple form of leisure.

How to avoid it

Today, NGOs and inclusive projects have many diverse programs that require volunteer participation. These programs aim to train people with disabilities and integrate them into society and the professional world.

Mistake n.3: Conducting team-building activities with the ‘inspirational’ participation of people with disabilities

At first glance, this seems quite harmless—company employees can listen to the story of a guest speaker with a disability and be inspired by their resilience and optimism. But here, a person with a disability is just an object whose task is to inspire and motivate.

There is even a particular term for this phenomenon: “inspiration porn.” It came about thanks to disabled journalist Stella Young who, in an article, tried to explain that people with disabilities would not want to be a tool to “improve someone’s mood.”

How to avoid it

This does not mean that people with disabilities cannot participate in corporate events or volunteer gatherings. For example, it is appropriate to involve people with disabilities as consultants on inclusive communication or to educate participants in an online hackathon about user nuances while creating a new digital solution for blind people.

Mistake n.4: Implementing programs only externally, forgetting about one’s own employees with disabilities or with disabled relatives

The law prohibits asking employees for health information, so it is difficult to know how many employees with disabilities work in your company — the employee must be willing to disclose their disability to the employer.

Internal D&I (Diversity & Inclusion) studies that we conduct in large companies, where people can anonymously report the presence of a disability certificate, show that their number can be up to 15% of respondents. And the number of those who have relatives with disabilities in their families is probably more significant.

Companies should not forget about this category of employees. Moreover, programs aimed at supporting people with disabilities, including volunteer initiatives, are essential for all employees. Employees respond with greater loyalty to a business that cares, feels more secure, and is willing to work for the company longer.

How to avoid it

It’s a good idea to start inclusive volunteer programs with projects that target your employees or support a theme that will resonate with the majority. For example, programs that will help those who have elderly relatives with dementia or family members who have suffered a stroke.

A checklist: what must one consider when developing inclusive volunteer programs?:

  • Involve partners from the social sector. This will allow you to develop truly beneficial projects and implement them in an environmentally friendly manner.

  • Be sure to provide training on inclusive communication and rules of care. It is important that the training be applied and take into account the details of a specific event: venue, composition of guests, format of communication, etc. You can ask your NGO partners to organize such training.

  • Avoid glorification and the “inspiration porn” discussed above. A person with a disability is just a person; a disability does not make him a hero. Often, this phenomenon can be found in phrases like “I admire you, I couldn’t do it,” and “I look at your life, and my problems seem trivial.”

  • Don’t forget about accessibility and communication if your projects involve people with disabilities. The site must be barrier-free, and all materials must be adapted for people with different disabilities.

  • Use correct and ethical terminology when communicating an inclusion initiative internally or externally.

Businesses today have a serious demand for participation in inclusive initiatives. Many companies are seeking to integrate the agenda into their ESG and CSR programs, including through the development of corporate volunteer programs.

Volunteers are a huge resource and support for any charitable organization and social project. Without their participation, many critical initiatives would not be possible. We believe that with the proper setup, inclusive volunteering could be much more valuable and beneficial for all parties.

Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Yury Erofeev is a Business Analyst at SQUAKE, utilizing a solid foundation in Physics, Mathematics, and Sustainable Development to drive meaningful industry changes through data-driven decision-making.

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