Employers are increasingly encouraging employees to volunteer for nonprofit and community groups, and in many cases giving them increased scope to do so on company time, according to Wendy Mitchell, fund development manager at Volunteer Canada.

Those who work in IT can find plenty of opportunities to use their professional skills.

For many nonprofit organisations, finding IT skills to help them get online and use technology is one of the most difficult and costly challenges, says Mitchell, whose role with the Ottawa-based national charitable organisation includes liaison with corporations.

“There are still many organizations that are not connected,” Mitchell says. “There are lots of nonprofits that could benefit from somebody just looking at what they're doing with computers,” agrees Deborah Gardner, executive director of Volunteer Toronto, which helps match volunteers with nonprofit groups that need their help.

Some volunteer groups want help with more than keeping a few office computers running.

The Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa, for instance, has computer labs for kids in all its facilities. Its paid staff are experienced in working with children, but not necessarily with technology, says Kim Seguin, director of programs, so there is an ongoing need for volunteers who can teach and help. The club has access to materials to run a digital arts program, but currently isn’t offering it because of a lack of volunteers to run it.

“We would love to do it, but again it's finding the right person,” Seguin says. The club does have a digital film-making programme, she adds, thanks to two volunteers with professional experience in the field who approached the club with a proposal, lined up grants for equipment and put the programme together.

Now Telus and some of its employees are helping with a project that will film participants on the club’s African drumming program and create multimedia materials. Telus is providing some technology as well as volunteer time from employees, says Seguin. At Pauline Public School in Toronto, volunteers from software firm SAP Canada helped set up a computer lab and revamp other technology facilities, says Emile Lee, an SAP spokesman.

Not all the volunteer time that SAP Canada employees put in is IT-related, Lee says. At Pauline Public School they have also helped plant trees and a garden, and some employees are helping out at the Toronto Ronald McDonald house, a "home away from home" for families of seriously ill children.

SAP encourages employees to volunteer both on their own time and on company time, says Lee. There are no firm rules about how much work time employees can spend on volunteer activities – employees are asked to discuss plans with their managers.

Lee says 275 employees participated in SAP Canada’s “Month of Volunteering” last October, out of what was then a total payroll of about 700 people. The company has just joined Volunteer Canada's Corporate Council on Volunteering, a group that also includes Microsoft Canada and IBM Canada. One of IBM’s programmes allows employees to request grants of up to $2,000 from the company for organisations with which they volunteer, Mitchell says.

Volunteer Toronto’s Gardner says about 1,200 greater Toronto area employees of KPMG participated in volunteer work over a recent 10-day period. The consulting firm has even developed a computer program to manage its employee volunteering activities and offered to share the software with other organisations, she says. Corporate interest in formal programs to encourage employees to volunteer has grown so much that Volunteer Toronto has created a full-time position in the past year to work with employers, says Gardner. She says companies want to give back to their communities and they also realise that they and their employees can benefit.

Company volunteering programs improve employees’ feelings about their workplaces and help them acquire new skills, Gardner says – and they can act as team-building exercises with the added benefit of helping others.

Employers or individuals looking for volunteer opportunities can turn to Volunteer Canada’s website to find local volunteer centres that can match them with community groups and projects in need of help.