You may not have heard, but there’s a controversy brewing across the pond, as the re-elected Conservative UK government has mandated that all companies must provide at least 3 days of paid time off (PTO) to their employees to volunteer. UK Prime Minister David Cameron said during the campaign: “What I want to do here is help people who want to do more to help their communities, to help others to volunteer, to build a stronger society.”

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By Corey Diamond

The policy, which applies to both public and private sector companies with more than 250 people, is part of a broader conversation playing out in many countries around the world.

You can put the reactions to this policy into the following three categories:


You Can’t Make Volunteering Mandatory

On the surface, it would seem as if the policy is another example of the heavy hand of government forcing the private sector to become more benevolent. When you juxtapose the words volunteer and mandatory, the knee-jerk reaction is to scoff at the concept. You may even sing a few lines from an Alanis Morrissette song. But if you stop what you’re doing, put down your phone and think for 10 seconds, you realize that there is nothing mandatory about the policy. In fact, it could not be more voluntary – if you give enough space for people to get involved in the community, then you’re increasing the chance that they will voluntarily do something prosocial.

A well designed PTO policy sends a strong signal to employees that the company cares about the many causes those employees care about. It also helps to build what Mary Kunnenkeril of Three Hands (a leading UK company specializing in skills based volunteering) calls “a culture of volunteerism”. According to her, “getting business to a point where they acknowledge the key role they play in society is an important first step. Leveraging the policy to drive business is the next logical step.” In other words, without the key structural conditions, volunteer programs can’t succeed to their full potential.

OK, so let’s turn our attention to argument #2 …


The Policy Doesn’t Matter; No One Takes Time Off to Volunteer Anyway

Enter stage right: the clinic cynic. This argument actually holds more water than the first, but focusing on it too much can lead to those days when you’re ready to pull your best Pete Townshend (see how I kept with the UK theme, there?), but the trends don’t lie. According to the CECP, corporate leaders say that a PTO policy is the most effective socially motivated tactic to increasing employee satisfaction. In fact, 80% of the world’s largest companies offer it, representing the fastest growing engagement program.

Like so many things in the corporate world, a policy does not necessarily lead to participation, and even less so to engagement. The best programs in the world see volunteering participation rates hover around 30%, and most are well below 20%. Participation and engagement happen when a group of passionate individuals (what we call “Stage Three Volunteers“) are given the space to get their peers to fall in love with volunteering. Strong policies are key, but the cynics may be right on this one. The government’s utopian vision of a world of millions of new volunteers will not magically appear. Unfortunately, we’re not all Kevin Costner in the cornfield on this one. Which begs the question …


If it benefits employees, companies, and society, then why does the government need to be involved at all?

This is where psychology matters more than the stats. We live in a world of the all consuming Nudge. More often than not, we are unknowingly nudged to change our behavior. Companies around the world have legions of data scientists conceiving the perfect price point for our products, moving us up the consumer chain to evermore blissful purchases. And they do this regardless of the benefits of the product. Why do they do it? Because we as human beings typically ignore the benefits of things, and tend to choose the path of least resistance. It is quite simply just easier to not do it. While we inherently know about how great volunteering is – to the beneficiary of the cause, to ourselves – that next episode of your favourite show will win out every time. The nudge from governments, companies, or from your closest friend will always help.

Should the government be in the Nudge business as well? By extension, should they be nudging us to do things that we know are good anyway? And if they do, will they be successful? With the Conservative election win in the UK, we’re about to find out.

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Corey Diamond
Partner, Business Operations
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