SINGAPORE: Last July, Ms Jeanette James travelled to Sonagachi, India’s largest red light district in the city of Kolkata, on a volunteer expedition led by US-based non-profit Effect.org.
There, she met representatives of local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working to combat human trafficking, and the victims – some of whom have been rescued while others remain trapped in the district’s hundreds of brothels.
After learning about the problems faced by the NGOs, the Singaporean, together with 40 other volunteers from Google and her company, Salesforce, flew to Nepal for a 54-hour hackathon during which tech-based solutions to help the NGOs were pitched and created.
It was the first time Ms James volunteered with Effect.org and the experience was a “very humbling one”.
Despite it being an eight-day expedition, the sales executive did not have to worry about saving up her annual leave as she was able to tap on the volunteer leave that her company provides.
San Francisco-based Salesforce offers seven days of paid volunteer leave every year for its staff worldwide.
While the cloud giant has its own non-profit organisation called Salesforce.org, employees are not restricted to charities sponsored or supported by the company. They also do not need to submit evidence of their volunteer work.
This policy, according to Ms James, has helped her to dedicate more time for volunteer work.
Apart from the overseas expedition, the avid volunteer spent time at Willing Hearts – a local non-profit organisation that serves lunch daily to the needy – and mentored youths via a partnership that Salesforce has with another homegrown non-profit group, Halogen Foundation.
In 2016, Ms James clocked nearly 200 hours of volunteer time. “Last year was a very stressful year for sales (but) being able to do all these gave me a sense of perspective that life is much bigger and we can do so much more beyond our day jobs,” said the 35-year-old.
FIRMS OFFERING VOLUNTEER LEAVE IN SINGAPORE STILL A MINORITY
In Singapore, such flexible volunteer leave schemes seem to remain an anomaly.
According to the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC), just 16 per cent of the 1,370 employees surveyed last December said their companies offered such leave.
Recruitment firms told Channel NewsAsia that while more companies are introducing volunteer leave, they remain a minority.
Those that offer such leave tend to be bigger firms in the banking and technology fields though start-ups are starting to jump on the bandwagon, observed Michael Page Singapore’s regional director Nilay Khandelwal.
A couple of Singapore firms, such as CapitaLand and DBS Bank, also give their employees the option of paid volunteer leave.
But the take-up rate of this special leave varies, depending largely on whether employees have the freedom to choose their preferred charity organisation and volunteer activity.
Most local and smaller businesses, for example, prefer to organise company-wide volunteering activities for a chosen cause or charity on the weekends, said Ms Linda Teo, country manager of ManpowerGroup Singapore.
NVPC’s deputy director of corporate giving Quek Shiyun noted that such arrangements may limit the utilisation of volunteer leave schemes.
The centre’s survey showed that among the companies that have volunteer leave, 30 per cent offer four or more days. While 59 per cent of employees applied for such leave, nearly two-thirds used only one or two days.
“Employees may prefer to contribute their time in activities and causes that are different from their employers’. Some employees may also prefer volunteer opportunities that involve short periods of time per visit,” she explained.
As such, flexibility in how the leave can be used will be key in nudging staff volunteerism, said Ms Quek.
“Allowing employees to utilise their volunteer leave in blocks of hours, instead of full days, could help. Support from company, both from their bosses and colleagues, as well as more promotion and information about volunteer leave could also help to encourage higher utilisation.”
100% TAKE-UP RATE OF VOLUNTEER LEAVE: SALESFORCE SINGAPORE
Mr Chris Yio, who is the regional vice president of the small and medium business division at Salesforce, said he was “a little surprised” to find out about the paid volunteer leave when he joined the company five years ago.
Describing himself as an inconsistent volunteer prior to joining the company, Mr Yio said: “Because everyone gets seven days of paid leave to volunteer, we all band together to make full use of our volunteering time off. We can get quite creative, and this really encourages us to volunteer and give back to our community.”
Earlier this year, Mr Yio and his team chose to volunteer at local non-profit AWWA’s dementia day care centre. Describing the day he had with the elderly dementia patients as “very fulfilling”, the 50-year-old plans to use the remainder of his volunteer leave for more activities at AWWA.
“We picked AWWA because all of us share a common joy in spending time with the elderly… When we saw the smiles on their faces, I think that was the best return we got.”
And this flexibility of Salesforce’s volunteer leave system has enabled its employees in Singapore to clock 11,000 hours of volunteer time last year. Eight of them, including Ms James, chalked up more than 100 hours each.
“I am very proud to say everyone made use of their volunteering time off to give back to the community. Not everyone used up the seven days but everyone gave back in their own little way,” said Ms Cecily Ng, the vice president of enterprise sales in Asia.
While the company declined to reveal its local staff size, a ranking by global research firm Great Place To Work, which picked Salesforce as the best company to work for in Singapore in 2016, put the number at about 300.
For the first eight months of this year, Salesforce Singapore has clocked nearly 7,000 hours of volunteer time, with two employees already chalking up more than 200 hours each.
The US tech firm attributes the high take-up rate of volunteer leave to its company culture, which has a huge emphasis on volunteerism, as well as how the company trusts its employees to not abuse the system and use the leave for other purposes.
“We create an environment that lets our employees do what they like. We encourage them to use their job expertise to create an impact in the community and we support them by ways such as matching grants,” said Ms Ng, referring to Salesforce’s "1-1-1" corporate philanthropy model where it pledges to donate 1 per cent of its product, 1 per cent of employee time and 1 per cent of company equity to charity.
She added: “Our employees don’t see the seven days as an expectation or burden, but more of a freedom to volunteer. We think this is not only the right thing to do but it helps us to attract, retain and engage the right type of employee.”