Atlassian opts for ‘charity mixer’ to channel corporate volunteering efforts

Published on August 20, 2016 by Misa Han

Atlassian is giving employees five days of paid time off and organising face-to-face meet-ups over pizza and beer to match charities with employee volunteers.

Every four months for the past two years, the tech company has hosted so-called “charity mixers” where a dozen charities pitch their problems to a group of Atlassian employees, who in turn volunteer their tech skills such as building a website or a log-on function.

But skill-based volunteering – where employees use their specific skills to solve charities’ problems – could soak up a lot of companies’ time in coordination alone, in contrast to traditional volunteering based on manual work, says Chris Jarvis of Realized Worth, a US-based employee volunteering consultant who has advised companies such as Microsoft and Deloitte.

“The difficulty with skill-based volunteering is it takes a lot of work on the part of the employer. For every four hours an employee invests in skill-based volunteering, an employer will have to pay another staff for an hour’s work in organising skill-based volunteering,” he said.

“You have to find the right partner, you have to scope the project, you have to send emails back and forth, you have to find the employee who is right for the role at the same time there is a role available, and those things never happen.”

Instead Mr Jarvis advocates the traditional, hands-on approach to volunteering, such as getting employees to work at a food bank during company time three or four times a year. His position is a controversial one, given the popularity of global movements such as A Billion Plus Change, which supports skill-based volunteering and has pledges from high-profile companies such as Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase, PIMCO and BlackRock.

Mr Jarvis will be speaking at a corporate seminar on employee volunteering hosted by Atlassian and the Centre for Volunteering on Monday.

Heavy lifting and packing boxes

The manager of the Atlassian Foundation, the tech company’s charity arm, said the company uses a mix of low-skilled volunteering and skill-based volunteering. For employees new to volunteering, the company organises a monthly outing where employees pack and lift boxes for Good360, a charity which delivers unwanted products to people in need.

“The aim of the project is to ease them into volunteering and building the culture of volunteering. Low-skilled volunteering is massive and it’s more structured. Whereas skilled volunteering involves a lot of project management and it involves a lot of thinking behind it,” Atlassian Foundation manager Jonathan Srikanthan said.

While the company still does skill-based volunteering, Mr Srikanthan said the company has stopped “throwing technology platforms” to charities and it is now doing more consulting work. For example, when the Little Blue Dinosaur Foundation wanted a technology product to raise child pedestrian issues, Atlassian prepared a brief for developers rather than developing an app themselves, which could have taken the company three to six months.

Using their heads

“Our guys are using their heads a lot more now. We have moved from doing hands-on stuff to actually advising, mentoring and scoping projects,” he said.

Mr Jarvis said instead of focusing purely on measuring the output of employee volunteers in a transactional fashion, corporates should focus on the “transformative” impact volunteering has on the employees and the company culture.

He said corporate fundraising, such as getting employees to give a donation for running marathons, was less effective in achieving the “transformative” effect because most employees will not understand what the money is used for.

“If you’re raising $100 for say, leukemia, but you actually don’t know what the money is used for, you will be unaffected by the experience,” he said.

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