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Corporate volunteering can be key to fundraising — and much more

Originally Published: August 2017

Established in 1860, homelessness charity Providence Row is far from ready to close its doors: the number of those sleeping rough in England has more than doubled since 2010.

The east London charity, which helps around 1,400 homeless and vulnerable people each year with advice and crisis support, facilities such as showers and computers, and trainee schemes, has an annual income of £1.2 million. Funding comes from a mix of sources including trusts, National Lottery funding, local government grants and income from owned property and other assets.

But in recent years they have pushed hard to increase corporate income, partly through volunteering. Located just on the edge of the City, the capital’s financial center, Providence Row is accessible to firms large and small. Few can have failed to notice the need around them, with homelessness as visible among the historic buildings and busy commuters as it is across London (the government says over 50,000 households were in temporary accommodation as of 2016).

Small team, big impact

Providence Row’s efforts have paid off, with the charity doubling its corporate income each year, from £50,000 during financial year 2014/15, to £109,000 in 2015/16, and then again to £229,700 in 2016/17.

And they did this not with more hands on deck, but fewer: the fundraising team actually downsized from four people to three in 2013 (when the organization shifted part of its communications work to targeting potential beneficiaries). By the end of financial year 2017 the charity reached its highest fundraising income to date of £390,000.

Head of fundraising Stephanie Harvey, who oversees a marketing manager (with one day per week devoted to fundraising) and a corporate relationships officer, says that’s because the charity’s profile has grown.

“We’re not having to work for every bit of money any more,” she says: word of mouth means firms sometimes approach them. Their largest partnership, with property developers Berkeley Homes, came about when an employee proposed Providence Row as a charity partner.

But even without lots of cold-calling, the team needs to be proactive and ensure opportunities are clearly communicated, Harvey says. “We still need to make sure we have a strong local presence, a clear website, that our social media is good, that we’re at the right events and we're talking to people.”

Her team have also fought hard to connect the charity’s beneficiaries more closely with fundraising efforts — for example using more case studies to share their personal stories, and choosing real photos over stock images. Colleagues were initially wary, but have become more trusting that those stories will be used sensitively. “Not everyone wants to talk about their experience, but for a lot of people it’s quite an empowering thing to do,” Harvey says.

Providence Row’s fundraising team has a relatively small spend (£20,000) outside salary costs, which in 2016 included the costs of a small campaign appealing for firms to volunteer with and fundraise for the charity. This led to several initial leads and a donation of £5,000. Identifying and contacting potential partners was also useful in the medium-term: the team now knows which companies will be looking for new charity partnerships in one or two years’ time and can invest in growing these relationships.

The appeal of volunteering

In the past few years corporate volunteering has become a key part of the organization’s day-to-day work — not least because it allows beneficiaries to meet a wide mix of people and build confidence to return to work. Around 400 corporate volunteers visited Providence Row during 2016/17, helping prepare and serve lunch, joining music classes or teaching English, IT or employability skills.

While the offer doesn’t suit all companies — the center can’t accommodate large groups for a full day on a one-off basis — it does have a wide appeal. Opportunities are offered regularly (many available every week), are quite short (just a few hours long), are available to small groups, and involve working directly with people accessing the charity's services. Providence Row is also able to put in the time to ensure it all runs smoothly thanks to a full-time corporate relationships officer, and a planned new hire in the role of volunteer coordinator.

The 150-year-old nonprofit also prides itself on being a little different in its volunteering offer. Rather than a traditional helper-beneficiary relationship, activities on site prioritize a “two-way equal partnership” with volunteers working alongside clients, says Harvey. For example, art sessions are led by a peer mentor (someone who has experienced homelessness) with volunteers taking part as students. This gives the mentor experience of teaching a wide variety of people, while helping volunteers to understand why something like art is just as vital as advice and support services.

Knock-on benefits

Volunteering activities bring in a small, but predictable, stream of income thanks to the £50 fee per person, per activity. This covers organizational costs and ensures that people are committed to attending.

But having a firm’s employees on site can also leverage much, much more.

“Volunteering acts as a pipeline,” says Harvey. “It’s an opportunity to talk to people about supporting us further — through payroll giving, individual donations, or further support. For example a lot of companies have a staff vote to decide on their charity partner of the year.” Individuals have also gone on to do sponsored bike rides for the charity, bringing in cash while raising awareness of homelessness.

Meanwhile personal contact with employees allows the charity to deepen a relationship with a company, sometimes enabling them to tap into other resources or offers of support — from office furniture donations to pro bono assistance.

Ultimately, Harvey and her team are thinking long term. “You do the work in year one to secure that relationship and maintain that over the next few years, but then you have more capacity to start looking for the next relationship,” she says.

In 2017, Providence Row was shortlisted in the National Fundraising Awards as "Small Fundraising Charity of the Year" (the top prize was taken by autism research charity Autistica), and won Best Charity Partnership at the Corporate Engagement Awards for their partnership with Berkeley Homes.



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Writer/editor focusing on all things nonprofit and social enterprise. Youth media trainer. Storyteller through words and pictures.