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Podcast: Our Planet, Our Plan - Plant gifts, not trees – why we need to transform corporate volunteering

The Future in Focus

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LRQA recently launched Our Planet, Our Plan - an internal sustainability programme that outlines our ambitious Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) commitments over the next seven years, underpinned by time-bound performance metrics.

To accompany the programme, LRQA also launched an eight-episode podcast series to explore each of the seven commitments within Our Planet, Our Plan. The fifth episode, ‘Plant gifts, not trees – why we need to transform corporate volunteering’, sees Benjamin Western, LRQA’s Head of Sustainability, take a fresh perspective and new approach to corporate volunteering. How do we use our strongest skills and assess where they could make the greatest impact? Listen to find out.

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Well, hello there and welcome back to LRQA's Future in Focus podcast. My name is Holly Wild. I am the Global External Communications Manager for LRQA, and it is my pleasure to record this podcast today with my colleague, Ben Weston.

Hello, Ben. How are you doing?

Hi Holly, I'm great, thank you. Great to be with you.

Oh, thank you. It's not your first time on the podcast actually, but even so, would you like to briefly reintroduce yourself to our listeners and your role within LRQA?

Yeah, great. So, I head up sustainability at LRQA, and that at the moment has a particular focus on our own internal commitments. So, my role is essentially to ensure that LRQA as a business does the right thing by our clients, our communities, our colleagues, our suppliers, and of course, the planet.

And so, ensuring that whatever we do, whatever action we take, that we are having the most net positive impact on those around us.

Brilliant, thanks Ben. now let's get down to business straight away. Why have I invited you on the podcast today? Our listeners may already be aware that we have recently launched our very own internal sustainability strategy called Our Planet, Our Plan.

Quick recap for those of you who haven't heard of it before. Our Planet, Our Plan sets out LRQA's environmental, social and governance ambitions, otherwise known as ESG, to deliver a positive impact for our clients, our colleagues, suppliers, communities, and our planet. The list goes on. And, just as you've been describing Ben, what your role is involved with.

So, the plan stretches over seven years and is organized into seven commitments. That's safety, equity, environment, inclusivity, education, governance, and community. Now through our Future in Focus podcast channel, we'll be interviewing a technical expert for each of those pillars, with community being the topic for today.

I'll be speaking with Ben, who actually founded Our Planet, Our Plan in its entirety, but that's a story for another episode, which you can find on our website and Spotify channel. This time Ben's joining us to talk about the community pillar.

So, let's get started. Before recording today, I asked Ben to think a bit of, an introductory story or an anecdote. I asked for something that's really stuck with you or caught your attention recently under the community theme. So Ben, what have you got for our listeners today?

Well, community is something that's always been important to me. When I was growing up, my, my granddad, Harry Hanks, was just the most generous and kind-hearted person that did so much in his community to help others.

And, and he did it in the shadows without blowing his trumpet. And when I'd finished the education, I wasn't sure whether to go into business or to the humanitarian aid sector. And I started a business based on actually some advice from my granddad, one of his three children, one being my mother.

And I was very lucky to join a big global business on their graduate scheme. this was in 2008, wide eye, very excitable, probably over, overly so, a young sort of person going into business and really interested just to learn about how a global organisation worked. And, you know, I have to say that almost everything about working for that business was, was a real privilege.

They treat their people superbly. They were very, considerate about their impact on, the planet and, and having a net positive impact as a business. But the thing that sort of stuck out for me was that being someone that cared about community, that often you hear the metaphor of the, the ivory tower, and they had sort of a, a literal big glass tower in London, and a gorgeous office.

And it overlooked and was in one of the poorest parts of London and something didn't sit quite right that you would see this sort of stream of very nice cars mostly come in every single day, people doing great work, which has a really net positive impact on, on a global scale and including the people that employ, but there was absolutely no interaction with the community at all.

And that's not uncommon. In fact, I think what they were doing, which I'll come on to was probably more than almost all. similar organisations. And I was very pleased to see, I don't know, it must have been about a year in, that they'd organized a volunteering day. And so, I signed up. It was kind of mandatory and we all went out for the day.

And I had this moment where I'm in this community centre painting a wall. I'm quite a dab hand of a paintbrush now, but I wasn't then. In fact, none of us were. And we were painting this community centre really badly. And I sort of looked around me and I saw... One of the finest marketing directors in the entire world, one of the finest financial minds, a legal mind, and I thought none of us are painters, gardeners, all these activities we're doing.

I worked out we'd spent tens of thousands of pounds in expenses, and you could also argue potentially like inverted commas like lost revenue, and I remember thinking surely there could be a different way to be doing this. So, it really sparked something in me, it struck a chord and it just so happened to coincide with and something that were very accommodating.

I was part of building a sort of quite transformational volunteering organisation, non-profit organisation that really transformed how international volunteering is done. So suddenly I was immersed in these two worlds and my career since has been on these two tracks, which is one has been the commercial world.

And then the other has been the volunteering hanitarian aid world. And so, it's been a real passion project for me ever since. And as I'm sure we'll get into, suddenly over the past 14 years, a lot's happened since that kind of volunteering day.

I love that story. Thank you, Ben. It sounds like those formative years in your career really sparked something within you. Why is it, do you think, that businesses have taken this archetypal approach to volunteering in the first place?

I think the first thing to say is that the legal definition let's have PLCs. Now, we're not just talking about PLCs here, we're talking about all businesses. Their legal obligation is to earn profits.

And when you look at the empirical evidence, the societies which tend to, have certainly created a certain sense of wellbeing are those with the strongest economies. And now we could get the philosophical thing about actually, there's also downsides of that, but just to make it simple for a second that a society or innovation that has strong businesses that are solid businesses that do great work are by definition correct solving some sort of problem in the world.

And so, a business's primary aim. It certainly always has to be running a healthy business, which earns healthy profits, but of course you want to ensure that they're causing no damage along the way and having a net positive impact on everything. And so, I think there's multiple reasons as to why this happens is that firstly.

To do volunteering really well, as I'm sure we'll come on to in a bit more detail, is that it does take effort and I think there's something beautiful in the fact that businesses do this volunteering, which perhaps isn't as impactful as it could be because it's based on good intentions. I think it's too easy to look at businesses.

From some sectors, and I say this from someone that's worked in a lot of activity circles, to lament businesses as these sort of evil empires, and in my view, almost all people in all businesses are trying to do something positive. And so the fact that businesses even try to do volunteering and do coordinate volunteering is a really good thing.

But naturally what happens is it becomes a sort of one-off event one day a year. And the reason that happens is because it's about all they can manage to do. And so what then ends up happening is that they want to do good. They do good. But it basically becomes the lowest common denominator essential form of volunteering.

And it's important to say that that volunteering isn't in itself. bad. Like if you go and paint a community centre or dig up an allotment or serve in a soup kitchen, that is good stuff. But the case I make is that that doesn't need to sit in a business, that should sit in your own personal life and your own individual volunteering. And I think that businesses can actually do something far more ambitious and impactful.

That's such refreshing insight. You're right. When you look beneath the surface, you can see some of the problems with the current volunteering structure, I guess. So, in light of what you've said, what does great corporate volunteering look like, Ben?

Simply put, it's using the gifts that you already have. So, if you're a law firm, the gifts that you have, the great skills you have is law. If you work in business assurance, and let's say, for example, I did some volunteering with a wonderful person of business called Dave Padgett. He's an inspector of refrigeration, which is linked to food safety, of course. That's David's gift.

And so, to me, the And a lot of businesses, of course, already do this, like your volunteering should focus on what you do best, because that's the greatest value that you can add to the world. Now, that isn't saying that you can't go outside of that box. So to give an example, if you imagine a company such as Google, and let's say you've got a team that work in the advertising part of their business, i.e. making sure the right ads appear when someone does some sort of search on Google. You can tell I'm not technically minded here, right? Those people are very likely to have very good design thinking skills. So you could go and work for a non profit and say, the humanitarian aid sector, which is totally nothing to do with your job, but the thing that you bring to them is how to run a great design sprint, because that itself is a skill that I know firsthand a lot of non profits won't have.

So simply it's, what are you best at? And that's the thing that you should give to the community. And as a couple of subtitles beneath that, don't try and include everybody. Certainly from the beginning, like start small. One of the reasons that volunteering is sort of the basic version is let's say you've got a business of a hundred people that went all a hundred people to volunteer and to coordinate that is beyond difficult.

It's difficult to get sometimes one person to volunteer. So, it's like focus on what you're best at, start really small and most importantly, find the people that are already passionate about this. Because I guarantee there'll be about 10 to 30 percent of your people in your business to already volunteer avidly outside of work and like that knowledge is really important.

Genuinely such good advice. So if I'm a business and I know what my skills, what my core capability areas are, how does that business assess and discern where they can make a great impact?

And this is when you sort of get to the next level of, I guess, I don't want to say the word complexity, but let's call it effortful.

One of the challenges in the non profit sector, and I use that term broadly because you've got NGOs, you've got not for profits, you've got charities, and a lot of these semantics, of course, overlap. But ultimately, it's organisations that are focused on doing something without profit. That sector tends to be very under resourced, almost by default, because they're not the for profit sector.

And one of the things that can be difficult is even finding the right non profits to benefit from what you do. So, it will really depend on what your services are. So, let's say, for example, you're a business that does cyber security. You know fully well that any business with a computer system, which is pretty much, sorry, any organisation with a computer system, which is basically everybody, with a reason, maybe not like a landscaping business, is that they would benefit from cyber security. So, you could almost guarantee that reaching out to non profit organisations that benefit from cyber security is, is much easier. Whereas, let's say you're a law firm and let's say you're in commercial law, that might not be as relevant to non profits in the areas that you work.

And again, you want to make it easy. And the case that I would always make is start where your office is and start with non profits in that area because You then literally directly and physically connect yourself to the community and you start to see how this can then start to have this ripple effect.

And so, the starting point is, I would say, two avenues. Ask your employees, because the chances are a lot of them will all be volunteering near that office. And they'll say, actually, I volunteer for this non profit, and I know they could benefit from this, and I've had that first hand experience endless times.

The second way is, you've got to kind of get involved, and what I mean by that is, literally step into the community. In most big cities, and even small towns, there's normally one centre point that know all the non profits. Sometimes that's the library. Sometimes it's literally called the Volunteering Services Centre or something like that.

Sometimes it's the Community Centre. And step in there, tell them the skills that you have and say, like, we're looking to help nonprofits in this area. And the chances are, you'll find the person that will find the person. Sometimes it might take a few minutes, a few different people. And that's why one of the recommended steps is to just give this to a few people in your business that are passionate about this and give them a bit of time, talking two, three days to do that bit of work. And then the great thing about businesses is that it's always full of very talented people. And so, you'll just work it out, but they're the first steps you've got to take.

You're really spoiling us here with, really practical advice. thank you so much. And, and you're rightly so, being transparent as well. You, you said earlier that this approach could, in fairness, require a lot more effort from a company. So, so let's dig into that a little bit more deeply. Let's, let's cover all angles here. Is there an argent to say that a business would be better off focusing on their business without concerning themselves with volunteering?

Yeah, absolutely. One of the things that we see, particularly over the last few years, but it's been ever present, is This idea of greenwashing, which is ultimately you, you, you do something different to what you say you do, and pretending to be more virtuous than you are, which is a natural han condition, or you'll have a tendency to, I heard something on a Tyra Bryant podcast recently, which says we lie between one and four times a day, and we have this tendency to embellish stories, and, and then when you put a hundred people together, you essentially get that like, you're a hundredfold, right?

So, I would definitely argue that you will make the case for that if you're going to do this and do this well, you have to give license and you have to have skin in the game and you have to give those people time. So, for example, if you're a young business that's trying to grow. It might not be the right thing to do from the beginning because you've just got to get your business safe and stable first.

If your business has had like a minus 10 percent year, if you think about net positivity, what's going to be more positive for that society or that organisation? 10 people going out doing some great volunteering, but at the cost of 10 people losing their jobs. And the truth is that none of this stuff is ever straightforward.

And so, I would always say that volunteering works best. When you know that for the next few years, you're able to commit X amount of time from X amount of employees to go and do something, and it's not to say one of the argents comes back to say, well, the thing is last year that we had 50 of us went out.

We did a litter pick and it was really great. It's great team building. I'm not saying you should never do that type of stuff because it can be great. And the most important thing, though, here is asking what does your community need? Because if your community is saying, look, there's a lot of litter and we need 50 people, sometimes the very best thing can be a business to do it.

Why? Because you could hit 50 people with a message straight away and away you go and do it, but just make sure that you distinguish why you're doing that and why you might not be. And therefore, one of the cases I would make in this is speak to a volunteering expert. Experts are always available in this space, and I often see what businesses do is they have these great intentions.

It's loaded on someone's lap. Let's say someone works in CSR, ESG, they have no voluntary experience. They're not volunteer managers. And then they're given this almost poison chalice to kind of like do something meaningful. And it's a nightmare to organize. It can cost a lot of money. So, I would definitely recommend hiring in like a volunteering expert and asking their advice and helping and work with them if you need to build it. Again, it all depends on the complexity of business, what time of focus you can give to this. but I'd absolutely say the first step in anything is to do nothing, right? And so, until you're confident you can really get behind it, you know, I would definitely say there is a case to not do it.

Thank you for your candor there. I think it's important to cover companies at both ends of that kind of maturity scale in terms of volunteering. If I'm a company listening to this, this podcast right now, I'm thinking this all sounds fantastic. I've got a better understanding of how to do more effective volunteering here. Where do I start? If a company does wish to commit to this more ambitious approach to volunteering, where do they begin?

It's a great question. And I guess in some ways it's the, it's the most important question where you've got to begin is with what you're trying to do as an organisation. And that goes to the roots of your, of your strategy, your vision for your company, who you are and who you want to be.

So, for example, to use an example from, from LRQA, when we began designing our plan, our plan, we said, right, we want to build a seven-year sustainability plan. And we want to discern where we can have the most net positive impact on the planet, our communities and our colleagues, et cetera. And so, we brought people together from across the organisation.

We ran over 20 design sprints, which over a hundred people came together. We ran an employee survey where over a thousand people, and we asked them, where do you think that our business can make the biggest difference in the world? And of course, we gave them some different ideas and wasn't just there was open questions and there was more closed questions and it was really important to our people to our colleagues that we give back to the community and the chance that you'll see that most organisations, but it might not necessarily be.

So, the first place to begin is to is to ask your people. Don't make it a survey of a few people. So, for example, if one of your strategic pillars as a company is to possibly impact the planet or possibly impact the community or whatever it might be. It's like, okay, well, there's something in there. And then the next step is to ensure that is to really think about and indeed ensure whether if you're going to think about doing something philanthropic in inverted commas, right? Whether that's giving money or giving time, that it naturally links to everything else you're trying to do as a business.

I call it like the, the plumb bob, right? So, the plumb bob is for those that don't know, and I'm certainly not an engineer is an ancient instrument, which gives, it looks like an upside down bullet, which gives a true and perfect line from top to bottom.

So, you'll see when people build and brick wall, they use a plumb bob. And so that's how you show a solid engineering structure. And you need to ensure that from your vision statement. through to your values, your strategic priorities, the objectives that you set people, the behaviours you expect of people, and basically everything you do as a business has this one perfect true line.

Because as soon as there is a, a diversion from that, any point in that sort of pyramid, if you like, the thing's going to start to wobble. So, if you're really genuinely committed to giving back to the community, whether it's through volunteering or otherwise, you've got to ensure that it aligns perfectly with what you're trying to do strategically as a business.

So, for example, if your strategic priority as a business is we've had two really bad years and we're trying to survive, the chances are that the last thing you need to do is spend time trying to volunteer. Because then people might lose their jobs and that's really bad. But for most businesses, I would definitely advocate that there's an opportunity for some volunteering to happen.

And so, speak to your people, ensure it's aligned to strategic priorities. And then if that's kind of given the green tick, then the next place to begin is to bring together the people that are passionate about this. Don't force it on people that don't care about it or don't have time for it. Bring them together and then run a design sprint where you work out, okay, where is the biggest difference that we could make?

And once you've got that, then you can start to design a volunteering program.

Thanks, Ben. As always, I love your metaphors, so thank you for helping bring it to life for us. Now finally, in LRQA's community commitments, you are going beyond just volunteering. So can we touch on that please? What does that look like?

Yeah, absolutely. So volunteering is, is a cornerstone part of it, but when we carried out our design sprints for our planet, our plan, it was clear that one thing that was important to people is if we really need, and I think this is true of any organisation, a real sort of set of diverse thinking in the organisation, you know, we work across the globe, we work in communities, which are some of the most financially deprived communities across the globe, or we work in some of the most extreme environments across the globe.

And It's almost impossible to truly solve those humanitarian and environmental problems if you don't have people in your organisation that have actually had that experience and know what it's like, for example, to work in a factory whereby the human rights aren't where they should be, or to live in a community which is being devastated by environmental impact.

They're the types of problems that we solve. And as we well know that in corporations, there has absolutely been, an over index on people come from certain social backgrounds and underrepresentation for other backgrounds. Now, we've got other episodes talking about this, and, you know, I would say that when it comes to equity and equality and inclusivity and diversity, these are bombastically controversial topics that I think there's tons of greenwashing, and there's also, you know, there's a lot of insincerity in that space, but there's also a lot of goodwill, but there's also a lot of disagreement.

So, if you talk about, think about how the Democrats or the Republicans talk about these two topics, they are just speaking different languages, but what we've recognized certainly is that. We wish to ensure that we are hiring people into this business that have come from the full spectrum of different backgrounds and it's too easy just to hire from the same sort of universities and the best schools and there is absolutely hidden treasure, incredible people that we would love to be part of our organisation and to bring in the background experiences that perhaps we don't have here now.

And so. What we're also looking to do is to really connect with our communities. And so, we are a building of a corporation that this community does not know who they are. So, we'll engage with the community, we'll be running events whereby people that might not normally get a chance to experience what a company like ours is like, or apply for a company like ours, will come in.

And so, what we're hoping, therefore, is that when anyone in the community walks by us and sees the LRQA logo, they know who we are, they know what we do. And they say positive things about us because we do generally positive things. And then finally, the, the other element of community is about being there in a crisis.

So, since I joined the business 19 months ago, there was the earthquake in Turkey, in Syria, there's been the war in Ukraine. And of course, now there's been the, the terrible earthquake in Morocco as well. In all of those three incidents, we had people in those areas and not just that we had. Families of people that work for us.

And so, we wish to ensure that when there was a crisis situation, that we're there for our colleagues and we're there for our clients and we're there for our, the extended family of those, those people as well. So that includes fundraisers in those crises and even our people to volunteer in those crises and ensuring that we do the right thing in a speedy fashion and effective way when a devastating event like that happens.

Thank you so much, Ben. That's all we've got time for today, but your passion for this topic, and internal sustainability more broadly, it really brings your guidance to life. I'm sure you've inspired many today and convinced them of the power of effective volunteering, but also thank you for your candour in terms of what more needs to be done and where we are on the journey. Thanks, Ben.

Thanks so much, Holly. It's been really great spending time with you.

And finally, just a reminder to our listeners that you can learn more about Our Planet, Our Plan on the LRQA website and see our digital dashboard which tracks our progress against all seven pillars.

You’ve been listening to the LRQA Future in Focus podcast, thanks so much for giving us your time and we hope to see you soon.

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