Feature: Voluntary services - Taking time out for sabbaticals or voluntary work could soon be the order of the day for PROs. Holly Williams reports on this growing trend

Public relations consultants don't make a habit of giving away free advice. But right now, not-for-profit work is all the rage. Press officers are doing it, corporate communication heads are doing it and even board directors are doing it. Voluntary work is a concept which is catching on fast throughout the industry.

Public relations consultants don't make a habit of giving away free advice. But right now, not-for-profit work is all the rage. Press officers are doing it, corporate communication heads are doing it and even board directors are doing it. Voluntary work is a concept which is catching on fast throughout the industry.

In the past, the idea of taking time out mid-career has been largely unrealistic, especially in the fast-paced world of PR. But now both PROs and their employers are beginning to realise the benefits of volunteering and sabbaticals.

For the employer, it's an incentive they can offer staff to aid recruitment and retention, both of which are becoming increasingly difficult. And for the PRO, it's a chance to work abroad, gain life skills and help a good cause without the risk of losing their job.

One organisation that has been leading the way for 'professional volunteering' is Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO). Since it was formed 43 years ago, VSO has placed over 30,000 people in the field. Traditionally, the charity sent those with teaching, healthcare, engineering and building skills to help in developing countries. These days, however, PR is more in demand than ever before.

'It's only been in the last two to three years that we have had requests for people with PR and communications skills,' says VSO UK head of media Selina Fox. 'Now we are getting requests for PR in South Africa, the Balkans, Europe and across the world.'

'It's often issues-led,' she adds. 'For instance in South Africa, the battle against Aids is all about educating people and getting the 'safe sex' messages across through the media - so PR is a much-needed skill out there.'

VSO has PR professionals helping a range of causes, from developing a juvenile justice system with the Gambian government to launching charities from scratch in Bosnia.

PRO Alison Sopps is currently at the end of her two-year voluntary stint spent working for a charity in Budapest, Hungary. Formerly an external relations officer for Exeter City Council, Sopps decided to put her PR skills to good use.

'I wanted a change, but I didn't just want to go travelling. I wanted the opportunity to do something useful,' she explains. Her placement, during which she was paid a minimal but adequate wage, as programme manager for NIOK - a non-profit information and training centre for other Hungarian charities - includes fundraising, media relations and preparing annual reports.

According to Sopps, the experience has been invaluable: 'I've learnt about how the charity sector works in this country, about the culture, the daily problems people face in Eastern Europe and I've proved to myself that I can cope in a foreign country.'

Many PROs opt for shorter placements and the opportunity to return to their jobs. VSO's Business Partnerships were set up with just this in mind, and Andersen Consulting, Shell and HP Foods are among those companies which have signed up.

The scheme aims to tackle the need for UK businesses to build a workforce with the experience to achieve success in emerging markets, at the same time as dealing with the critical shortage of technical business skills in developing countries.

Employers signing up to the scheme agree to release skilled staff for short-term assignments between three and 12 months overseas - co-ordinated by VSO. In cases where lengthy sabbaticals are impractical both for employees and employers, The Media Trust organises charity volunteering to run alongside day-to-day work. The charity, which was set up by the media industry six years ago to help voluntary organisations, allows PROs to donate as little or as much time as they want.

'The voluntary sector as a whole is under resourced, particularly in the area of communications,' says Dyrol Lumbard, The Media Trust deputy chief executive. 'Many small charities are living hand to mouth and have not got time to sit back and think about PR, branding and how to target stakeholders and sponsors.

'But in a world where media is prevalent, it becomes very important to be able to get messages across through the right channels, and we can provide access to the media,' he adds.

Charities can apply to the trust for communications help. With 500 media professionals on its books, the trust then matches the volunteers to the cause. 'If they've got just one hour free to give strategic advice or an hour a day, it doesn't matter, the key is just to be honest so the charities know what to expect,' says Lumbard.

Grayling Group is one of a growing number of PR firms which have registered with the trust. The agency has now been running the programme for a one-and-a-half years, helping charities such as the Land Mine Trust and The National Playing Fields Association (NPFA).

Amanda Riddle, CEO for Grayling's UK PR operations, says it brings a different dimension to what the agency can offer staff: 'Through the trust, we can give employees something interesting to do from which they can gain both professionally and personally - you always gain different expertise with different clients and the charity sector is no exception.

'Time was the initial concern because we were worried about when to say 'no', as we're used to going an extra mile for clients. But the trust is very good at managing the charities' expectations and it hasn't been a problem.'

Grayling account director Pippa Maltby worked as part of a four-strong team to develop a consumer and public affairs PR strategy for the NPFA.

She says the project, which was spread over three months, broadened her skill set and provided the charity with a detailed PR campaign to follow.

'Working with our public affairs division, Westminster Strategy, really gave me an insight into lobbying - an area I knew little about before - and now I can use that knowledge with other clients,' she says. 'There's also a real feel good factor associated with being able to put something back into the community.'

Aside from charity-based voluntary work, many PR agencies are also developing special loyalty-based sabbatical schemes. Those who missed out on the pre or post-college year spent bumming around the world usually find the opportunity gone once in full-time work, but sabbaticals provide a second chance to travel.

PR agency Manning Selvage and Lee launched its sabbatical programme earlier this year. Based on loyalty to the company, employees become eligible for a six-week break after five years and a ten-week break after ten years.

How staff use their time is left up to them, says Claire Spencer, MS&L director of planning.

'We believe that staff need a complete break to recharge their batteries, whether it's trekking across Australia or working for a charity,' she says. 'The idea is that they come back refreshed with increased motivation and energy for the job, which benefits both parties.'

One obvious drawback for employers is keeping staff levels up and ensuring continuation of service for clients. But Spencer says it is all in the planning.

MS&L annually restricts the number of people who can take sabbaticals to limit disruption. 'There also has to be a sharing attitude for the programme to work, as people may need to take on responsibilities from other areas while colleagues are away,' admits Spencer, who is herself currently embarking on a year-long sailing sabbatical.

Lewis PR has also jumped on the sabbatical bandwagon with its Month Out of the Office (MOO) scheme, which allows employees to take a month's unpaid leave to fulfill those travelling urges or even to carry out research into business propositions and ideas for the agency. 'If they feel involved in the business then they get more out of it,' says Lewis human resources director Toni Castle.

Clearly, sabbaticals and volunteering schemes are no longer reserved for teenagers with time on their hands or for the purely altruistic.

In fact, voluntary work is one sure-fire way to get ahead in PR. It's an immediate employability enhancer, skills developer and motivation booster. Far from being an initiative for the work-shy, these days sabbaticals are more for the highly ambitious.

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