The Malta Council for the Voluntary Sector, the national coordinating body for the European Year of Volunteering 2011, has just held a conference bringing together people from the government, the business sector and NGOs to discuss the better understanding and encouragement of employee-supported volunteering.

The focal aims behind the conference were corporate social responsibility and corporate volunteering. The first concept implies the continuing commitment by business to behave ethically and contribute to economic development while improving the quality of life of the workforce and their families as well as of the local community and society at large. The second aim is about employee community engagement, meaning the mobilisation by businesses of the time, talent, energies and resources of their people to contribute to the community.

We are living at a time and in a way of life where it is not always easy for people to involve themselves in voluntary work as much as they would like to. Therefore, knocking on the doors of companies to persuade them to participate better in such employer-employee fruitful partnerships is forward looking and deserves full support.

One cannot say that, generally speaking, awareness of the value of volunteering is not healthy. However, the volunteer sector is facing increasing challenges, mainly because more and more people are simply not having enough time for voluntary work. For instance, young people are very often too occupied with their studies and/or efforts to raise enough money to make their financial ends meet, especially if their expenditure includes a car, as very often is the case.

On their part, married people too have their difficulties to find time for volunteering. Indeed, their main concern often is how to strike the right balance between work and family, not only because of the rising cost of living but, more so, to give more quality time to children. This reality also effects retired people because, in many cases, the trend is that they have to take care of their grandchildren while their parents are at work.

Therefore, seeking the right tools and approach towards the long-term strategic involvement of companies in community partnerships addressing social issues and in corporate volunteering could lead to new much-needed benefits. The information presented to the conference shows that the involvement of the business community can surely be enhanced.

According to an SOS Malta study among a sample of 100 companies, 61per cent of those interviewed were familiar with the concept of corporate social responsibility, of which 67 per cent (41) have been involved in CSR initiatives and 21 per cent (13) have a CSR policy. But, then, the research also revealed that the types of CSR initiatives that the 41 companies are engaged in relate mainly to donations (85 per cent), financial sponsorships (78 per cent) and grants in kind (54 per cent).

Moreover, although 45 per cent of the companies interviewed have heard of corporate volunteering programmes, only five of them have such a programme in place. The good news in this context is that 81 per cent of the 100 companies interviewed would be interested in taking part in a free training programme on how to set up corporate volunteering programmes.

The way ahead requires a lot of dialogue and persuasion, especially among top level company executives with the power to get things moving. Indeed, the biggest challenge is networking to also build a database aimed at facilitating the matching of businesses with NGOs for the setting up of corporate volunteering programmes.