A recent article in the Irish Times (‘Volunteers who restored Kilmainham Gaol to get their moment in the sun’) showcased the work completed by hundreds of people, including Veterans of the 1916 rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War. They had given their time, without any payment, to restore a building which had not been in use since 1924. The group of volunteers who restored Kilmainham Gaol essentially became a tribe – bonded around the shared vision of preserving a key element of Irelands’ history. 2 weeks ago I walked the boards of the jail alongside my brother who was home from Canada. It’s a fantastic place to visit. Sad. Incredibly interesting. Hugely memorable.
Energy Release: The intriguing part of the Kilmainham story is the amount of time that was given voluntarily to this 6-year long project. We often decry the black economy where people labour but don’t pay tax. This initiative is a perfect example of the white economy, where people volunteer their time freely in the service of a worthy cause, something that captures their imagination. Academically, the volunteer movement makes a fascinating group to study. Managerially, the concept of volunteering represents an enormous potential opportunity for you to engage with your staff. All of the research evidence suggests that when staff become committed to an external cause, the bond with the organization that created the opportunity for them to participate is strengthened. In essence, they move from being members of your team, to becoming part of your tribe.
What is a tribe? Buckle in now for the theory. Tribes provide links between people by providing them with a social and ideological basis for solidarity, similar to the bonds in a large family unit. In other words, they provide a tight-knit group with a shared set of values, which is relatively stable over time (ok, maybe not all families). By soliciting staff support for a voluntary project, you develop a common goal that staff are committed to and which contributes to their wellbeing, alongside the positive impact on the targeted organization. What’s not to like here?
Ability Awards: Danuta Gray and the staff in 02 share a common and arguably very noble goal – a commitment to tackling disability. By embracing disability in a positive and very practical way, the company has managed to release a huge amount of positive energy internally. Such initiatives can be complex (the 02 model has a number of separate strands which have been developed over time). Initiatives can also be very simple. When I worked in Asia, as an experiment one year we decided to by-pass the annual Christmas party. Instead, all of the staff in a large manufacturing plant in Thailand (we clocked up about 85% participation) used the money normally spent on the shindig to upgrade a local orphanage that had been in brutal condition. Apart from some dodgy paintwork by myself (you can’t be great at everything!) it was a terrific success. We couldn’t have bought the Tsunami of goodwill which followed this simple gesture. It was as if we’d discovered two extra gears in the organization which turbo-charged the workforce. For months afterwards people talked about almost nothing else (a major change from the usual grapevine).
Executive Education: In addition to the potential energy release, participating in social projects (sometimes labeled ‘corporate social responsibility’) has another benefit. It provides a learning opportunity for managers and staff, which may not be available in-house. How? Encouraging managers to run projects for community groups or using in-house staff resources allows junior people (who may not get an opportunity to do this type of work for many years) to acquire real world experience. It’s a brilliant (and, almost free) management development opportunity right on your doorstep. Can you think of a better example of a win-win arrangement?
Haiti Initiative: In 2008 the businessman Leslie Buckley and his wife Carmel set up an initiative called Haven. The Buckley’s, moving well away from armchair socialism, were appaled by the level of poverty and deprivation in Haiti where Digicel had commenced operations. Loosely based on the Niall Mellon model, which had proven successful in South Africa, Haven set about building homes in Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world (the unemployment rate is circa 80%). That all happened pre-earthquake. On January 12th, 2010 a devastating earthquake killed swathes of people and left 3 million in need of emergency aid. The Haven initiative, always powerful, became enormously important in providing sanitation and water treatment, saving countless lives in the immediate aftermath.
On 23rd October, 2010 the next planeload of 300 Irish people (they need building and some ancillary skills) will fly to Haiti for a week. That group return on 30th October when a second batch of volunteers will continue the mission – returning on 6th November. The goal is to construct 200 houses over a 2-week period. The houses are simple in design and construction, but a giant step forward for the people who will live there – with a target to have them ready for occupation about 7 weeks from now. The mission is tough. Anyone addicted to air-conditioning and five star accommodation probably shouldn’t go. The only upside is the cooking. I know that Maurice Healy will be there cheffing (and ‘effing’) and can attest to the good food which he can produce. While it isn’t exactly a sun holiday, the upside is that it might be one of the most important decisions you will ever make. I’ve spoken with many volunteers, some of whom could not be described as soft in any normal usage of that word. The feedback is universally positive; a couple of people described it as life changing. Not something normally achieved in your week long trip to Arenal in Majorca (perhaps I was staying in the wrong hotel!).
Investment Cost: It costs €4500 for each volunteer to make the trip. This money is sometimes raised through a personal donation, more often through a series of fundraising events. One possibility is that your company could sponsor someone internally to go – even have a competition to select the best candidate! If the immediate dates don’t suit, why not sign up for the next trip? The need is not going away any time soon.
On a personal level, taking part in this initiative is good for the soul. On an organization level, the challenge is to locate that hidden lever, the one which releases huge extra energy. The Haven initiative offers you an opportunity to discover this.
Do it now? To some extent the timing is lousy. We’ve all lost 50% of our pension fund, enjoy discussing how much our houses were worth at the peak and moan about our new net worth – well South of where it was in the heady days of 2006. At this stage we’ve cancelled the new 5 Series Model and have to be content with driving the existing bus, at least for the time being. Most of us have had to pare back spending across a range of headings. But our current poverty is relative, usually not life-threatening. The leadership challenge is to make a profound difference to a family’s life chances. Because that family live thousands of miles from us does not lessen the need. There are several million homeless people in Haiti hoping that you will can find a way to answer Yes to the question: Can you be a part of making this happen?
PS You might even enjoy the craic – with George Hook and an eclectic cast of volunteers already scheduled to go. More information on Haven is available on http://www.havenpartnership.com. If you want to contact someone directly, send a note to Sarah.firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. They’d love to hear from you.