Conserving the Coast: True partnership the key to community-business conservation success

Businesses working with Conservation Volunteers Australia benefit from a carefully managed partnerships program which has developed over a number of years. The conservation group has learnt to turn down unsuitable business requests, but provides plenty of opportunities for companies willing to make a genuine commitment.

THE largest coastal conservation program in Australia is a community-business partnership: Shell Coastal Volunteers.

The program, formed in 2001 from a partnership between Conservation Volunteers Australia (CVA) and Shell, combines the financial support and staff volunteer labour contributed by Shell with CVA's conservation expertise, coordination and access to thousands of additional days worth of community volunteer labour.

Shell donates $1 million every three years to the Shell Coastal Volunteers project, along with about 100 volunteer days a year, which is bolstered by thousands of hours contributed by community volunteers (amounting to 3087 days in 2006, for example).

Shell social investment manager Jenny Odgers said employees were given one paid volunteer day a year, and could choose to spend it working for one of a number of organisations with which Shell partnered, including CVA.

Staff could take part in any CVA activity, with up to 25 staff each year offered a Coastal Volunteers Fellowship, entitling them to paid leave to attend a five-day project, plus airfares and other travel expenses.

Ms Odgers said staff were very enthusiastic about the Coastal Volunteers project.

"All of the staff who go prepare a presentation or a report when they come back; that's part of the requirements," Ms Odgers said.

"It tends to be things around moving out of the comfort zone, developing relationships with other organisations … meeting other Shell colleagues," she said.

"We would often have two employees on a project, but they would come from different locations, so actually building networks across the Shell organisation."

The Shell project is just one aspect of the extensive corporate partnerships program operated by CVA, a not-for-profit organisation that is this year celebrating its 25th anniversary.

CVA's partnerships with the likes of Vodafone, BHP Billiton, Commonwealth Bank, Boral and Toyota, take a variety of forms.

Volunteer projects can involve tree planting, weed control, seed collection for propagation, fencing, wildlife surveys and heritage restoration, but contribution of volunteer labour is not the only way companies can contribute.

BHP supports a program called Revive our Wetlands, and has also provided CVA with contract management expertise. Toyota hosts graduations for volunteers completing their training, and helped create the online facility, Conservation Connect, for booking volunteer days on CVA's website.

CVA strategic programs manager Karen Dimmock said about a third of CVA's income, or around $4 million per annum, was derived from corporate support.

She said business people had been volunteering informally on weekends for a long time, but more formal relationships had been established over the past seven or eight years.

"Businesses have started to really recognise the importance of volunteering per se, and what it contributes to the Australian economy and to the Australian community," Ms Dimmock said.

"Some are doing it informally, giving staff one or two days additional (volunteering) leave a year," she said.

Ms Dimmock said while some staff used those days for activities close to home like reading at children's schools or volunteering in school canteens, others benefited from opportunities with organisations like CVA.

"Businesses I think are trying to facilitate ways for people to just have a go and to try it and do something a bit different, and whether that's opportunities for individuals to come and assist, or whether it's teams of staff, we then get a lot of phone calls from people wanting to organise opportunities like that for their employees."

As the popularity of employee volunteering programs has grown to about 50 companies participating over a 12-month period, CVA has had to develop a strategy to manage this involvement.

"We have partnerships that are valued at half a million dollars a year … so we do put resources into managing corporate involvement," Ms Dimmock said.

"You have to be prepared to say no," she said.

"You need to know what's … going to work for you, and if that doesn't work with what they're suggesting or proposing, be prepared to say 'Look, this doesn't quite work, perhaps you should call [another organisation]'."

For example, CVA could not just lay off a team of regular community volunteers because a business provided only a week's notice that it wanted to send 10 staff volunteers out for a day.

"We're not an events company," Ms Dimmock said.

"We in fact now ask them to become what we call Partners in Conservation, and to become supporters of our organisation more broadly, and then we can work together on creating staff volunteering opportunities," she said.

"Because we've got extra volunteers, we can do additional conservation projects; but that costs us money, because we need to have staff and things like that, and so we ask them to make a contribution to that."

Shell's Jenny Odgers said the key to a long and effective partnership was being clear about expectations and continuing to talk about how the partnership could be improved.

"It's not just 'set it up in year one and it's going to run like that for the next three years'," she said.

"Be prepared to adapt as you go along."

Further information:

  • Conservation Volunteers Australia

    This article first appeared in Business Community Intelligence, May 2007