From Global to Local – what Corporate Volunteering can Learn from Mutual Aid Groups?

This time last year, when Emerging World launched the 2019 Corporate International Service Learning Impact Benchmark, I reflected on the growing number of multinational companies that now have international corporate volunteering programmes that leverage their employees’ skills to benefit communities around the world. These CISL programs, as we describe them, provide a brilliant way to address people’s search for meaning in their work as they leave their normal workplaces and serve the needs of communities in a different part of the world.

A year on, Covid-19 has changed so much in our world. Companies offering international corporate volunteering programmes have had to rethink how they deliver them, while research shows that employees are even more keen to make that connection between their passions and the the purpose of their work and to make a difference. But with corporate travel restrictions and government quarantine requirements, employees can’t travel overseas – and in some cases even in to their workplace – and so they’ve sought other ways to volunteer and to serve their local communities while they’re working remotely. Companies have found some creative ways to support employees in these efforts.

As well as being a passionate champion for the international corporate volunteering approach, on a personal level, I’ve been involved with my local Mutual Aid Group. Mutual Aid Groups come together to organise how to meet their own needs, outside of the formal frameworks of charities, NGOs and government. They operate on the concept of mutualism which breaks down the divide between helper and helped, and emphasise equality between the two. Our Group came together, in a spirit of solidarity, to support and look out for our neighbours. Ours is very local and started off small, organising in groups each covering just a few streets. We began by helping people with shopping and picking up prescriptions or with dog-walking. As time moved on we established a team that dealt with more complex requests, attracted a few grants so that we could cover some other emergency needs of our neighbours and made connections with local charities to support their work.  People did what they felt comfortable with and even those that were shielding were able to get involved by co-ordinating volunteers, posting on social media, manning the phone, etc. Our Mutual Aid Group is one of over over 4,000 groups in the UK – many of which were started just this year and beyond the UK, there are around 6,000 globally.

Bringing the personal and professional together, I’ve recognised some connections between Mutual Aid Groups and Emerging World’s new INmersive Corporate Volunteering approach. Both approaches use people’s skills and passions to serve people or groups beyond their normal day to day experience and they both emphasise practical engagement and an equality of interest and influence between helper and helped. Companies could signpost employees to a local Mutual Aid Group if they want to volunteer or if there isn’t one, encourage employeees to self organise and set one up. Perhaps our PRISM Approach would provide useful principles to help them approach such a programme:

One of the findings of a report by the UK’s New Local Government Network is how Mutual Aid groups illustrate the wider potential of community power and how they provide an example of the potential of community-led movements. In parallel, one of the trends I’ve observed is how companies have been responding to employees’ community interests at this time and offering employees the chance to put forward causes and fundraising ideas for their colleagues to support.

Mutual Aid Groups have the concept of reciprocity at their heart in a similar way to that of our PRISM approach to corporate volunteering where effective programs recognise and support real partner needs and offer reciprocal learning where employees and partners learn from each other.

The small scale nature of Mutual Aid Groups is key. They operate on a hyper-local basis, and require local coordination and locally-specific support. The learning for corporate volunteering leaders looking to encourage employee engagement of this kind can be adapted from the report recommendations that cite the need for those in the centre to:

  • Play a facilitating role – operating in the grey area between doing nothing and doing everything with creativity, trust and above all an understanding of the value that these Groups add within their communities
  • Create a community support financial package to help local teams and offer training
  • Offer a flexible working policy to give employees more time to volunteer

In conclusion, I’d again quote from the Mutual Aid report where it states that there’s “a great reservoir of latent goodwill and community spirit which can translate into actual capability in times of crisis” – I would say the same for employee volunteers the world over right now.