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When waders and bankers combine the results can be wonderful

Employee Action Day at Newlands Salford (TCV)
Employee Action Day at Newlands Salford (TCV)

It’s not every day you find yourself in the middle of a lake, in a fetching pair of green rubber waders with a high-flying city banker on one side and a resident from an inner city council housing estate on the other, jointly planting a new reed bed. However, that was exactly where I found myself as the manager of a local environmental group a few years ago in the middle of Burgess Park, just off the Old Kent Road in London. It was one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling days of my working life and it was all made possible by the talented trainers from The Conservation Volunteers (then known as BTCV.) With decades of experience in training environmental volunteers they were able to manage a large group of city bankers, more accustomed to PowerPoint presentations than pond life, working together with a local community group to restore and revitalise a much neglected local lake and create some environmentally sensitive woodland paths through the trees.

As the UK’s leading practical conservation charity, TCV has 55 years of experience in working with people from all sectors of society, getting them to roll up their sleeves to improve their local environment. Over the last four years, TCV have organised 54,000 hours

of corporate volunteering across 598 different projects. They are particularly adept in the more challenging aspects of managing groups of employees from businesses keen to bolster their corporate social responsibility and green credentials by planting some trees.

Tree planting is invariably one of the more popular activities sought by those escaping from their office environment. Unfortunately, business volunteering groups tend to emerge during the summer months when hard, dry ground makes tree planting far from practical and unlikely to lead to a thriving new healthy forest being established. Fortunately, there are plenty of other activities that can make good use of keen corporate volunteers. These alternative activities range from developing allotments for local community groups to growing fresh produce, creating nature areas in schools,  and regenerating urban wasteland.

The projects and places that TCV support benefit hugely from the Employee Action Days. This type of support for a local project often acts as a catalyst for further initiatives, and helps to form lasting relationships between businesses and the local community. Businesses not only gain from the tangible improvements made to the local environment but will often report improved team-working and a lasting morale boost.

Working at Children’s Wood in Glasgow (TCV)
Working at Children’s Wood in Glasgow (TCV)

The nature of the tasks often means that traditional work hierarchies are completely broken down for the day, in a good way. Individuals who might never communicate face-to-face in a typical working week will find themselves bonding over cups of tea made from the famous TCV storm kettles.

There is always a spot of expectation management to be done when organising Employee Action Days. Making sure that volunteers know what is in store for them, what to expect and what to wear is important. Each day requires planning and regular contact with the corporate team to ensure the day is safe and well prepared for before the volunteers arrive. Regular contact also ensures expectations about the day are met. For example, if the team are keen to be able to boast of a finished project or activity by the end of their action day, then a project such as building veg box planters can be ideal. This kind of activity provides a very tangible end product for the team to see. These types of projects can also work well in those all-important ‘before and after’ photographs.

It is also important to have an open conversation with the corporate team organisers about the economics of environmental conservation. Very occasionally, businesses looking for a cheap day out find it difficult to understand that organising volunteers, many of whom may not have picked up a shovel or a wheeled a wheelbarrow ever before in their lives, requires expertise and resources. The skill and experience of organisations like TCV doesn’t come free. Employee action days come with a cost attached - but when compared to the alternative corporate hospitality activities often found in the world of business, a day spent with TCV is always extremely good value and you gain much more for it.

Helping to build the Gallywell Nature Reserve Southwark Habitat Wall (TCV)
Helping to build the Gallywell Nature Reserve Southwark Habitat Wall (TCV)

For TCV, promoting and organising Employee Action Days is an important part of its charitable mission. Helping people to develop their skills and talents whilst volunteering outdoors has huge additional benefits for people’s health and employment prospects. By getting more sedentary corporate types out and active gives their cardiovascular systems a gentle work out and can contribute to reducing sick days and stress levels. The boost to morale and working relationships can also improve staff retention rates and have lasting benefits for the economy.

I know from my own personal experience of getting into a natty pair of waders in Burgess Park, , that the benefits of corporate volunteering days are immense. The impact on the local community groups of seeing business people roll up their sleeves and help out was immediate and obvious. It helped to energise the community into making further improvements to their local park as a direct result. The satisfied smiles at the end of the day on the faces of the people who took part were priceless. Perhaps more importantly, in years to come, I will be able to show my grandchildren the vibrant, healthy reed-beds that we planted that day in waders with the city bankers and local council estate residents. We will no doubt spend some very happy hours observing and enjoying the wildlife that will be there in the pond and perhaps enjoy wandering along some of the woodland paths we built that day.

Case study – Gallywall Nature Reserve – Southwark 25 June 2013

The Galleywall Nature Reserve has been maintained by a group of local volunteers, known as the Friends of Galleywall Nature Reserve, since 2004 and they have been working with The Conservation Volunteers local project officers to transform this small nature area in a deprived urban area to a place that the local community could use, be proud of, as well as recapturing the space for native wildlife to thrive in.

The project is an ambitious one that includes landscaping the park, creating a new pond, building a permaculture garden and to feature a beautiful 50 m long habitat wall.

Clearing out the pond at Gallywell (TCV)
Clearing out the pond at Gallywell (TCV)

Gallywall Nature Reserve has been a popular choice with corporate teams this year, and following on from a 30 strong RBS team that took part in their Employee Action Day in June 2013, the Chair of Gallywall Nature Reserve had this to say, ‘I visited Galleywall Nature Reserve when your team was working on the western leg of the Habitat Wall. Here many years growth of ivy had been cleared to make way for the new construction.  Large timbers were cut for joints and erected to make an array of spaces for inserting a range of material for habitats for insects and other invertebrates.

The team were working well and enjoying the opportunity to be creative. They particularly valued doing this in such an inner city environment.

This work is such an encouragement to schoolchildren and their teachers who use this reserve for their studies and to the small team who take care of the Reserve. We could not attempt such works on our own. The cumulative effect of the work of the corporate teams is amazing! People are so pleasantly surprised when they come in, to see such a change over the last few years. 

Thank you for arranging all this work.'

Alan Chadborn, Chair, Friends of Galleywall Nature Reserve.

To contact for more information: Natalie Kitch, Business Development Executive: Employee Action Days T: 01233 666519 M: 07801 686052 E: n.kitch@tcv.org.uk

First published in CJS Focus on Volunteering in association with The Conservation Volunteers on 15 September 2014