In a time where workplace culture and company conscience are a deciding factor for employees choosing to stay in their role and candidates choosing the best next step in their career – pro bono volunteering has powerful business benefits as well as its social impacts.
Ed Mayo has had a long career in charities before becoming CEO of Pilotlight 3 years ago. Starting out as a computer programmer in the private sector, he was driven by wanting to do good and he’s volunteered throughout his life, so he understands first hand how beneficial working out can be to develop your career while also making a difference. An expert in organizational structure and efficiency, he has fascinating insights to share ranging from what volunteering can do for you as an individual to how it can benefit your workplace culture.
I’m Ed Mayo and I’m Chief Executive at Pilotlight. It’s a charity that works with business to bring people into support frontline charities. It was founded by an amazing woman called Jane Tewson.
We provide support for around 160 charities a year, work with around a thousand people coming from business to lend their skills.
That makes a really fast moving and dynamic workplace where we are constantly on the go. A lot more on screen than it was before, but at other times, traveling out to see charities in Bootle or in Crew or in Cardiff that we work with.
The charities that we work with make this job so easy because they are absolutely inspiring.
When people are motivated by a need to help others, there’s such a richness to that motivation and genuinely seeing the charities we work with just fills me with such hope and we have a bit of a hope deficit in the world right now. So I’m lucky that I’m able to have that through my work and to share that with others.
How did your past experience in the not for profit sector lead you to joining Pilotlight 3 years ago?
I’ve always been interested in things that I know nothing about. I see that characteristic of myself, which could be laziness and inability to stick with one thing or it could be curiosity and creativity, I am still not sure which it is.
I first became a chief exec of a national charity, and the trustees were just about to close down the charity because they didn’t have the funds to do what it wanted to do, like many charities. One trustee was able to bring funding in, I think he helped to sell his stamp collection to make that happen, for somebody to come in for three years to help move it on and that somebody was me.
It was such a lucky opportunity and I worked there for 11 years. The charity still written on my heart.
In the process, I built an organization from myself, to bringing in colleagues. We had an office tie for at least for the male members of the team. So, if we’re going to see somebody important, you could grab the tie and put it on. Keeping things cheap, keeping things real.
We grew from those numbers over 11 years to 55 staff working right across a wide field of operations in terms of projects and partnerships and initiatives. We were engaging in projects like the Fair Trademark for example.
Over that time I learned so much and I went from making decisions with colleagues in the pub. I remember very clearly the point at which I realized we had to take decisions in a structured way. We needed a leadership team. It couldn’t simply be informal. I’ve made some bad mistakes in management terms over time, but hopefully learned each time from it. I then went on to run other non-profits over time, also written on my heart.
So when I came to Pilotlight, I felt like coming home because Pilotlight’s mission is to support the organization development of charities that are doing such amazing work with vulnerable people right across the UK, tackling poverty meeting needs, and in many ways with the cost of living crisis and everything around us, never more needed.
How do your volunteers – Pilotlighters – benefit from taking part?
It’s a rather wonderful thing that you can learn by doing good.
I think we used to the idea of charity that we can put money into a tin, and that will do some good. We could sponsor a donkey or a child, and that will do some good. But here’s a new way of making a difference of doing more for your world, which is to use your workplace skills and experience to support charities who couldn’t most likely afford those skills.
Using your time and using your skills can make a huge difference. Now, that makes a huge difference to the charity, but the wonderful thing about volunteering in this way is that it’s also extraordinarily enriching for those that do it.
Engaging in this kind of pro bono volunteering is a learning process.
You are coming into a new field of society that you will learn from, meeting people with very different lived experience having access to a more diverse world, in many senses of diversity, and building your own skills, you’re using your workplace skills but flexing them so you are developing those skills, but, but also doing something more. You are learning how to collaborate and how to plug and play with a wider set of stakeholders. That’s actually a key quality that people need as they move up career ladders and they move into more leadership roles.
In many ways the world of work in the private sector can be quite siloed.
You may be between organizations that still have got narrow confines in terms of how you work. Stepping out of that, working out if you like, and we talk about give your culture a workout as a way of thinking about the benefits of pro bono, working out and entering a safe space, where you can engage and play turns out to be one of the best ways in which you can learn because you’re learning from experience.
This isn’t a classroom. This isn’t an academic qualification. This is an experience.
If you’re working with Pilotlight for example, you might be working on something for three months, six months, 10 months. It varies. Four hours a week or something like that. You’re engaging with charities, making a real difference, but learning as you go as well. And that’s where the real benefits come to those who take part. We call them Pilotlighters.
How does pro bono volunteering help businesses engage a hybrid or remote workforce?
I think this is almost the number one issue for those who are workplace or People managers which is: how do you take people with you in a context where they’re so highly dispersed?
With modern hybrid working, working from home, or working in the office, the traditional ways in which you could bring people together, those water cooler moments, they’re mostly physical. When people are not round the water cooler – how do you build that culture?
Culture is so important and, and you see more and more the Harvard Business Review or the kind of the MBAs that stressing culture as a source of competitive advantage. But actually your culture is stretched where you get people working in the modern way and those ways are not going anywhere.
So there is a new exam question here about how do you build that right culture?
The skills based volunteering, or pro bono volunteering, which is what working with Pilotlight or with others in the field is about, offers you is a way to inject a dose of community and a purpose in those fragmented settings.
Can you share an example of how your partners and Pilotlighters benefit from pro bono volunteering?
I think for example of a Pilotlighter called Travis, who’s very senior now within Morgan Stanley.
We’ve had a long standing partnership with Morgan Stanley because they have a very strong commitment to their culture and their values. Pro bono giving is something that Morgan Stanley encourages people to develop through their career, and that’s such a lovely idea.
We all are used to LinkedIn and talking about your profile… If you are ever looking for a job, then you have to polish up your CV in terms of your work credentials. But what about your pro bono track record? Have you been able to add pro bono to your CV?
Morgan Stanley encourages that. We now work with the firm right through from projects for new graduates to be able to support charities around very practical challenges that they face, through to the more senior exercises.
Morgan Stanley run an annual strategy challenge in UK and in the United States where the best of the talent in Morgan Stanley, drawn from different teams, competes to support around half a dozen charities around specific areas of benefit. It’s true to their culture – that competition.
The charities are not competing. They each get a real gain and set of benefits from what we are working with.
So, for example, this year was the Duke of Edinburgh Award, to see how they could serve a more diverse and wider set of young people in part by creating a more commercial offer to link the Duke of Edinburgh principles to apprenticeships, learning and models there. So, a really interesting opportunity for a charitable and commercial interface.
Travis came out of one of our longer programs supporting charity leaders saying that this felt like the most enriching experience of his career and through that he meant not just rewarding in a sense of being able to see benefit to society for what he’s able to do, bringing skills that he’d invested in, but also the bank had invested in him developing, but enriching as well because he was feeling that it changed the way that he went about the work that he did.
A lot of what we see through engagement through our programs or those learning experiences are focused around soft skills. We track empathy, we track understanding of different perspectives, that sort of culture of diversity and, and inclination that you need underneath it. So, it’s supporting people to come through with those skills that they really get out of this.
People typically engage with Pilotlight because they have a genuine desire to give back, but it’s reinforced for their business by this beautiful combination of giving back and also getting back in terms of the learning and development that people get through from it. It’s a real innovation.
How does pro bono volunteering help build empathy in employees?
I describe Pilotlight as an empathy accelerator. I think empathy breaks down to a number of qualities, but first and foremost is an ability to listen deeply.
Listen deeply enough to be able to take yourself out of your own privilege, your own circumstance, your own conceits at times, your own assumptions, to really stand in the shoes of the person that you are talking to.
When you are dealing with charity leaders like Lorraine, for example chief Executive of the Venus Centre in Bootle a women’s charity that she helped to found over 20 years ago that provides support for women and children in a very disadvantaged area.
Lorraine is making things work on a shoestring. The decimal point is in a different place to the budget that most of our business experts are used to working on, and she is deeply rooted in the needs of the people that she and the charity are serving within the area. She’s an inspiring person in her own right.
She described the process of engaging with the Pilotlight 360 program that’s over kind of around a year of organizational support to be the most educational experience of her life.
But of course, it was also eye-opening to the Pilotlighter, because really they were dealing with somebody that was inspiring in their own right. But for them to support her through strategic coaching they needed to understand the context for Lorraine, for the charity, for Bootle. We went on a site visit to the charity. It’s always the best fun of the whole program. People love it. It was the first time in Bootle for three out of the four Pilotlighters. But what they’re left with, having talked to people who use the services of the charity as well as Lorraine the chair, Barbara and some of the other staff team there as well.
That’s what stays with them, is a colourful, visible, memorable sense of people living very different lives to them, but people with whom they could make a connection.
How can charities harness and maintain that passion for the cause that they feel with the structures that a business has to maintain?
It’s easy to imagine that if you want to do good, then anything you do is going to be effective in that regard. But motivation is not enough.
In the charity sector, our focus is to support charities to be more effective. Often people who found charities, charity leaders are coming in with a set of skills and face huge demands. particularly smaller charities. You have to be able to talk to young people and take a knife away, in some cases. You have to be able to manage volunteers. You have to be able to manage budget. You have to do planning work with the board, and line managing. All of these skills are very demanding on charity leaders. It’s not surprising that actually they need some extra support.
That’s really where Pilotlight comes in. One of the things we will focus on is whether the charities organized in the most effective way to achieve what it’s setting out to do.
This is an art, not a science. Context matters, but it’s certainly something I have found to be hugely important: finding the right structure to be able to work.
I’ve said one thing which I think is wise in in my life, which is that people organizing to do something and quickly become people doing something for an organization.
So how do you get back to the garage spirit? I sometimes call it a northbound trainer. Everybody is working in the same direction.
Charities at their best have that sense of alignment because you have people that are not bound by contract in the same way they may be within a private sector setting. There’s a lot of volunteerism. They may not be paid, there may be no contract, but that sense of alignment, when everybody is going in the same direction, is key.
One example of a non-profit coalition that I chaired was one that took on a limited life that actually we were running the 1990s, going up to the year 2000.
It was called Jubilee 2000. And the organizational structure we took was to say, look, we are going to solve the problem that we are addressing, by the millennium, by the year 2000, and then we are going to stop.
It was there in the name of the organization. It was there in all of the structures. That organizational structure helped the organization have that momentum, that unwillingness to tolerate things that would see delay or settle into things that were bureaucratic.
Now as it turned out at the end of the year 2000, we hadn’t achieved all of our objectives. We had achieved a significant number and it was an extraordinary time, one that I’m proud of, but there was more to do.
So, what happened was that those who were tired, who wanted to step away, were given permission to do so. And those who had energy and new ideas to reform to take the work forward, which then went forward for a further five years or so, chasing the goals of the campaign and the organization.
This an unusual example, and it won’t always be appropriate. Many charities have been around sometimes for a hundred years in disadvantaged areas. It shows you how little things sadly have changed in terms of poverty and exclusion. They’re there for the long term but finding the right way to organize and then being able to call on support in order to understand how to organize most effectively is a rich theme. One of learning both for charities and for business.
Business is talking about purpose more nowadays. Well, charities are the original purpose-built organizations. So, ask how to put values and purpose at the heart of how you organize and what people do. And to stick with that over time. So, there’s a lot of learning both ways, but organizing effectively is, is our passion.
How do the businesses that work with Pilotlight or invest in pro bono volunteering elsewhere benefit?
First in terms of the employer brand.
So, this is this is a form of intrinsic motivation. Very close alignment to the building blocks of employee engagement, so allowing people to take pleasure and to situate themselves their identity in line with.
That’s a real driver for employee retention and is linked to that wider benefit of employee wellbeing. A happy company and that ability to find renewal within it.
A second range of benefits around skills and learning development.
We work, for example, with the Insurance Mutual Wesleyan, where they build a leadership development program and engagement with charities and volunteering. Pilotlight is part of the leadership development because it’s part of what leaders need to be able to move forward.
And third, the benefits of giving back are many for companies.
Environmental social governance (ESG) targets show that businesses desire to do some good and to be able to know that at a board level, at a stakeholder level is also something of value to the businesses we work with.
How can businesses get involved with Pilotlight and start benefitting from volunteering this year?
So we are calling on all businesses to get engaged in using the skills of their staff team for wider public good.
It’s an urgent time with the cost of living crisis, economic pressures and poverty on the rise. People visiting food banks are on the rise. Domestic violence charities are concerned about rates of violence increasing again to lockdown levels. Animal shelters all parts of the charity sector are mobilizing.
But without the wave of support from the community that came during the lockdown and without the donations to make that happen (because money is scarce and when the economy turns down, so donations to charity also tend to turn down) charities are caught in a squeeze of rising needs and declining resources.
So in that context, actually using people’s skills through programs to support charities in very effective proven ways is a real way to make a difference. I think it’s a beautiful fit for lean times in business and in the charity sector as well.
We’re calling for businesses to have a look at skills-based volunteering. Come and talk to us at Pilotlight and see what can be done, open a new chapter in what you are doing to engage your staff.
Is there any career advice that you wish you’d heard at the beginning of your working life?
I have given talks to sixth forms at schools, and I always come back to something, which is not a surprise, but it would’ve been a surprise to me when I started work for whatever reason. I must have come from a hard working protestant ethic family and I thought about work in the sense of duty, I guess.
That advice is to follow your interests.
It’s such simple and obvious advice, but actually was following my interests that allowed me to shift completely from starting as a computer programmer in the private sector to move over to the non-profit sector because I was volunteering outside of work.
As I say, it’s probably not surprising advice, but it would’ve been surprising to me at the time, which is this isn’t about professional qualifications and career ladders. This is about doing what fascinates you and what you love.
What’s a favourite learning moment in your career?
Well, I was on the streets of Birmingham and it was the day that I fell in love with the city of Birmingham. Early summer in the late 1990s and the sun was shining and I was on the street with 70,000 people who had come to Birmingham to form a giant circle around the world leaders, the G-7 at the time, who were coming to the UK for their annual meeting.
I was at the heart of the efforts to bring people to Birmingham, and I think in my wildest dreams, I didn’t imagine that we would get the response that we did. It kept growing and growing in the days up to it, and more coaches being booked as people came in to make their mark and to make a stand for overseas development for the needs of countries in Africa and for a cancellation of the debts that those countries are paying.
We’d asked for a meeting with the decision makers and we’d been turned down but half an hour later we got a call to that we were being invited in to go and see the Prime Minister. So I had to go and rush to a shop in Birmingham, find a tie, buy a tie. You don’t wear a tie on a demonstration, but you do, if you’re meeting the Prime Minister with African leaders alongside yourself,
The learning there for me was how unconstrained, how open, how bounteous, the potential for people to come together to do good is.
I’d been used to working with organizations that spoke on behalf of, and talked for, people in poverty. Their role is valuable and vital but they’re often on the margins of public life and society.
In this case what I was seeing was that the constituency for fairness and for social justice was far, far greater than the membership of those organizations, and that it was bringing people in of all ages from right across the country.
I think that left me with a sense of profound belief in people’s ability to come together to do good with the exam question being a simple one of how do you tap into that? How do you make it possible?
But you’re not fighting against people’s best desires, their best hopes for themselves, if you’re asking them to stand up and do good.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was growing up, I wanted to be a diplomat, and I wanted to be a diplomat because the travel!
I understood that it meant that I would be in a different country every five years. I wanted to do the traveling and see different cultures and to be doing that for my country. I guess not quite being James Bond, but it’s somewhere towards that!
I did hold that very strongly until it was pointed out to me, I think by my parents, that I needed very good table manners to be a diplomat and so I think at that point I started to look for something else to do. But I have had the privilege of traveling within my working life and meeting different cultures and maybe some quiet diplomacy.
And as for the table manners, you know, that is genuinely a lifelong learning! It’s a work in progress.