Simon Brown: Corporate volunteering in China – a massive opportunity

By Simon Brown, Asia Pacific Corporate Partnerships Manager, VSO

Corporate volunteering in China – a massive opportunity

Photo credit: Arup

The role of the private sector in development is evolving rapidly, nowhere more so than in China where the role of the private sector per se has changed so dramatically in the last decade. With this in mind, VSO China began research into corporate volunteering in China earlier this year. The results, published last month (17 December) show that the appetite for volunteering is quite phenomenal. More than 99% of the nearly one thousand staff surveyed said that under the right conditions, of company support and meaningful opportunity, they would want to volunteer. In a country with close to one billion people of working age, it’s not difficult to see the potential of corporate volunteering to help combat poverty.

The potential of volunteering and the social sector has also been recognized by the Chinese Government. In 2011 it published its 12th Five Year Plan, which targeted a 10 per cent volunteer level by 2015, a three-fold increase from current levels equivalent to over 100 million volunteers.

Understanding why companies are (or are not) starting or scaling up community engagement programmes was one of the key aims of the research, led by VSO in partnership with Beijing Normal University. It also examined what motivates staff to volunteer and to continue volunteering and how community groups and social organizations are responding to the opportunities and the challenges of an increased interest in employee volunteering.

We interviewed close to one hundred senior managers and decision makers across a broad range of domestic and foreign companies, as well as social organizations. We also surveyed close to one thousand company staff. Some of those companies have volunteering programmes, other not; some of those staff have volunteered, other not. Our aim was to get a rounded picture of what is and is not working, and what the challenges are in scaling up volunteering in the private and corporate sectors in China.

The report is released on the eve of the third Beijing Volunteering Expo, itself an innovation in bringing government, corporate, social, academic and media sectors together each year to celebrate and inspire volunteering in China. The full report can be downloaded from

China is not alone in Asia in the private and corporate sectors’ increased interest in community engagement through volunteering. But the current scale of that interest in corporate volunteering is quite a phenomenon in China. Encouraged by government, volunteering and community contribution is at the centre of the growth that we are seeing across the whole of Chinese society. Both foreign and domestic companies are very much part of that growth and are looking for models of corporate volunteering in China to inform their own programmes.

As the research report shows, the potential is enormous. Staff are looking to share their own skills and acquire new ones. They are seeking opportunities where they can make a real difference to the lives of marginalized people and to the environment.

There are challenges as well as opportunities and the research brings those to the surface. Social organizations in China, outside of the government system, tend to be local and relatively small, unregistered and often in more remote Western regions that are beyond the reach of company volunteering programmes centred in urban, Eastern cities. Accessibility and scalability are challenges to which we must find solutions, perhaps through networks and cooperative partnerships that provide sufficient scale and legitimacy for corporate programmes.

There’s also a balance to be struck between what works for the volunteers and what works for the organizations with which they’re volunteering. Opportunities need to be found within reasonable distance of company premises, but corporate programmes also need to reach out along value chains and into rural communities. Overarching this, volunteering programmes must focus on meeting the needs of the poor and marginalized and be demand-driven.

But in a country of innovation, we surely will find those solutions. While there may not be an immediate opportunity for a billion people to volunteer, there is certainly opportunity to realize a significant part of the potential. To do this we need to build the capacity of companies to develop meaningful volunteering programmes; and the capacity of social organizations to engage with the corporate sector, provide opportunities and demonstrate impact.

The results of the research are hugely encouraging. As the private sector continues to evolve in China and corporate volunteering evolves alongside it, perhaps that target of 100 million volunteers is not looking so hard to reach.

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