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27 (122) 2016
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Real Estate & Construction

Skills-based volunteering – a win-win

By Caroline Hartline, Habitat for Humanity Poland
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Habitat for Humanity Poland recently needed complex legal advice for a new and innovative project that would offer a non-profit housing solution for families with a poor credit rating.

Habitat for Humanity Poland recently needed complex legal advice for a new and innovative project that would offer a non-profit housing solution for families with a poor credit rating. But it didn’t have the financial resources to acquire this expertise.

Meanwhile Clifford Chance – a global law firm with over 80 lawyers in its Warsaw office – was looking for an opportunity to contribute to an effective social organisation where its services would have positive social impact and its staff would gain new skills and could give back to the community.

Together we’re now working on a new self-build housing cooperative model whereby families with a poor credit rating will be able to work with each other to build their own multi-family housing.

This is one of several skills-based volunteering partnerships at Habitat for Humanity Poland – an office of just 13 full time staff but with a broad and ambitious mission: to alleviate housing poverty across Poland.

Volunteering is still not part of mainstream corporate culture in Poland. In 2012, research of the top 500 firms revealed that only 5-7% had corporate volunteering programmes. This is an increase from just 2% in 2008. Poland also ranks quite low on the World Giving Index 2015 (100 from 145 countries) which measures ‘giving’ in terms of both volunteer time and money.

By contrast, research in the UK reveals 11 million employees are offered time off annually to volunteer, constituting an extraordinary £1 billion for charities. However, only 17% of this time is used, leaving the overall potential of corporate volunteering in the UK largely untapped.

And the numbers in Poland are even lower for skills-based volunteering. Often called pro-bono work, skills-based volunteering is when an individual or company offers specialist services to a social organisation free of charge.  Only 23% of corporate volunteers in Poland apply their professional skills in their volunteering work.

The potential for impact is greater in skills-based volunteering, with significant benefits for the individual volunteer and the business, as well as the social organisation they’re supporting. According to a Deloitte report in 2012 which looked at the company’s own pro-bono services, the benefits in terms of business value actually outweighed those associated with social impact.2 And according to the OECD, volunteers generally report numeracy, literacy, problem solving skills, higher wages, better health and life satisfaction compared to non-volunteers.3

For Habitat for Humanity Poland, both types of volunteers – skilled and general – are valuable to its operations. Many are aware that the organisation runs volunteer programmes to help with housing construction work. Corporates often use this as a team-building opportunity for their staff. And the volunteers often work in conjunction with the beneficiaries of the project – often a powerful experience in itself. However, the NGO also relies on skilled volunteers in areas such as architecture, project consulting, translations, grant writing, help with international volunteer groups, technical consultations, tax and legal advice. In 2016 Habitat Poland worked with 20 skilled professionals who between them volunteered 732 hours of work. These individuals have helped put the NGO in a better position to grow and to maximise their impact.

“Our network of skilled volunteers allows us to benefit from the highest quality services which we normally wouldn’t be able to afford on the open market,” says Magdalena Ruszkowska-Cieślak, national director at Habitat Poland.  “Our volunteer programmes also help us to achieve our strategic goal in promoting volunteering among different social groups.”

The services that Clifford Chance is currently providing to Habitat Poland for the Self-Build Housing Cooperative project are critical. The project is one of the many ways in which Habitat Poland is piloting innovative models to reduce housing poverty across Poland and is complex in nature due to agreements with banks and members of the cooperative.

And Clifford Chance’s employees are reaping their own benefits.  “As lawyers, volunteering with Habitat Poland is a way for us to get out of our comfort zone. It offers us a new challenge to prepare something for an NGO which has different needs to clients such as banks and big corporates and that allows us to develop and explore new areas which we normally wouldn’t venture into,” says Sylwia Gregorczyk-Abram, an advocate at Clifford Chance.

“Our lawyers want to work pro bono – it teaches us empathy and makes us feel good as human beings. At the same time, we appreciate the innovative form of the cooperative agreement we’re working on. And thanks to such innovation, eight families will be able to live in decent housing conditions.”

Clifford Chance has a well-structured system of pro-bono work with a pro-bono director in their London HQ and pro-bono coordinators in the regions. Teams are formed with people who have the best competences to complete the project successfully, and include at least one partner.

For the Self-Build Housing Cooperative project, Clifford Chance provided two legal teams – real estate and banking, each consisting of two lawyers. “In the finance team the managing partner is involved. He wanted to work on the Habitat Poland agreement and participate in negotiations with the bank,” says Ms Gregorczyk-Abram.

The firm treats Habitat Poland as a regular paying client. “We never simply assign pro-- bono projects to junior advocates as if they were less important. In the Habitat Poland project, the lawyers are very highly qualified,” says Ms Gregorczyk-Abram.

On the NGO side, Habitat Poland’s experience in managing volunteers allows for a smoother volunteer process that’s more likely to deliver good results. Not all NGOs have the internal capacity to manage and absorb pro-bono services.

“To ensure smooth cooperation with companies that provide us with pro-bono services, we always start from a clear definition of tasks which we wish to assign to skilled volunteers,” says Ms Ruszkowska-Cieślak. “Once the scope of tasks is accepted by the company, we sign a pro-bono services agreement in which we appoint two coordinators: one from the volunteer company and one from Habitat Poland.”

Habitat Poland also formed a high-level legal partnership in 2014. Law firm Andrzej Lulka Kancelaria Radcy Prawnego provided 250 hours of free legal advice over 15 months covering tax advice, sales agreements and negotiation of foreign partnership agreements for Habitat Poland’s signature Supported Housing project, which is a model intervention bridging the housing gap for young people leaving foster care institutions.

In 2016 Andrzej Lulka’s work with Habitat Poland came to public attention when he received an honourable mention for the Pro Bono Lawyer award, a prestigious award from the Pro Bono Centre.

If you’d like to discuss skills-based or general volunteering with Habitat for Humanity Poland, please contact the organisation’s Fundraising Manager Justyna Kalita (jkalita@habitat.pl).

The author of this article is one of Habitat for Humanity Poland’s regular skills-based volunteers, and has an international development and communications background.

1. BENEFACTO: Employee Volunteering Statistics in the UK 2015 http://benefacto.org/employee-volunteering-statistics-uk/
2. 2012 Deloitte: Community – it’s our business. Insights and reflections on doing pro bono work.
3. OECD (2015), How’s Life? 2015: Measuring well-being, OECD Publishing Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/how_life-2015-en

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