Volunteer time off (VTO) definition and meaning
Volunteer time off (VTO) is a type of paid time off that employers offer to encourage employees to support charitable causes, and this voluntary benefit is usually aligned with the employer’s larger goal of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Job seekers and employees increasingly prefer to work for socially responsible employers, and providing volunteer time off is one way to meet this preference.
More about volunteer time off and its purpose
As stated, VTO is a paid, employer-sponsored benefit that allows employees to take time off to volunteer with charitable nonprofits and other socially responsible causes. It is separate from the employee’s regular paid time off (such as vacation and sick days) and has no effect on their PTO accrual.
With the rising implementation of CSR initiatives, the adoption of volunteer time off has also increased. According to one report, “47 percent of U.S. companies offered community volunteer programs in 2022, up from 40 percent in 2014.”
Note that CSR is a management concept where companies strive to play a positive role in communities by incorporating environmental and social issues into their business activities.
Volunteer time off is often tied to CSR concerns, including:
- Community relations
- Social equity
- Gender balance
- Equal pay
- Working conditions
- Health and safety
- Employee relations
- Effective governance
- Labor standards
When employees take time off to volunteer, their activities are usually related to one or more of the topics listed above. For example, they may participate in community service projects like neighborhood cleanups, food banks, and homeless shelters, or volunteer with organizations that champion equal pay and healthy working conditions.
Are volunteer time off and voluntary time off the same?
Although volunteer time off and voluntary time off are distinct concepts with very different meanings, they are both commonly abbreviated as VTO.
Volunteer time off is paid leave provided for employees to volunteer with non-profit organizations or community groups, typically limited to one or two days annually. Companies committed to corporate social responsibility offer volunteer time off to encourage employees to give back to their communities.
In contrast, voluntary time off refers to unpaid leave granted to employees, often as a means to promote work-life balance and reduce staffing costs. For further details on this, we have an in-depth guide to voluntary time off and what its used for.
Some potential benefits of offering volunteer time off
- Increased attraction and retention by appealing to employees’ passion for environmental and social causes.
- Higher employee engagement, as it gives employees a greater sense of purpose and motivation.
- Greater employee group interactions, such as through volunteering events that bring both onsite and remote employees in the same city together.
- Positioning the employer as an advocate of environmental and social change, benefiting both communities and the company’s reputation.
Some potential drawbacks of providing VTO
- Employers must ensure that the volunteer program is voluntary, so employees do not feel pressured to participate.
- Employees may abuse the VTO policy, such as by volunteering for unapproved organizations, if clear guidelines and rules aren’t established.
- Managing the VTO program can be complex, from determining eligible VTO usage to addressing potential conflicts of interest to tracking VTO hours, and more.
- Employers may experience a drop in productivity due to employees taking time off to volunteer, but this can be mitigated with proper scheduling.
Creating a volunteer time off policy
The effectiveness of a VTO program is typically dependent on the policy’s design as well as how well it is implemented and maintained.
Considerations for developing an effective policy include
- The reason you are offering the VTO program. There needs to be a clear purpose that employees can understand.
- The amount of VTO hours allotted per year and the method of distribution. Will you grant all the hours at the start of the year, or will they accrue throughout the year?
- Eligibility for VTO. Will it apply to both full-time and part-time employees, or just the former?
- Criteria making an employee ineligible for VTO. For example, you may disqualify employees who are not in good standing with the company.
- The US Department of Labor’s guidance on volunteering and its relevance to your VTO program.
- A list of appropriate and inappropriate uses of VTO hours.
- The approval process steps, including how to complete VTO requests, where to submit the form, the approval timeframe, and who to contact with concerns about denial.
Additionally, state the types of organizations that VTO hours cannot be used for, such as those that discriminate based on race, gender, marital status, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, or disability.
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