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Richard Branson on the Business Benefits of Volunteering

May 20, 2013
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/226719

In many parts of the world, spring is in bloom and people are getting off the couch and going outside. This is the perfect time for you and your team to start planning which charity sporting events your company is going to be involved in this year. Combining your employees' volunteer work with sport and exercise is great for business and the community, boosting relationships, health and morale all round.

I started thinking about this because I have been on the road a lot lately, visiting Virgin businesses and raising money for our nonprofit foundation, Virgin Unite. The travel can be grueling, and I find that I can keep my energy levels up by exercising as soon as possible after I arrive.

Bike riding in the towns and cities I visit has been one of my favorite ways of getting out, and so, on a trip to South Africa in March, I competed in the Pick n Pay Cape Argus bike race with my son-in-law Freddie Andrewes and some members of the Virgin Group's senior team. It was a stunning 109-kilometer ride from Cape Town to a distant point in a national park and back along a different route. There were a lot of people doing the circuit – it is the world's biggest mass participation ride, with more than 35,000 competitors taking part in 2013, and raises a great deal of money for charity in South Africa.

The race's management model is fascinating. A small team works full time organizing the event, persuading companies to sponsor it and collecting entrants' fees. Once the race is over, organizers give all the proceeds to charity, starting the next year with a zero balance. The companies that sponsor the ride are encouraged to provide financial support, but also to ask their people to volunteer to man the course, which furthers the connection between their brand, their employees and the great causes that the tour supports.

Spending the weekend together and doing that ride got our team talking about how we at Virgin can use the power of sport and business to promote good causes and raise money for charity. It also set my mind whirring about the possibilities for other entrepreneurs to use such events to make an impact on their communities.

First, as our experience showed, it's important that everyone in your business be involved, including the leadership team – no one should be so busy that they can't take part. Everyone needs to be able to take breaks for fun and exercise, and your company needs to have a healthy, engaged and creative workforce if you're going to get ahead of your competition. Make sure that your employees have options to choose from: Some will want to join a corporate team to compete in a race or challenge, others will want to help organize events, and others may simply want to help raise money.

While some of your competitors may dismiss your efforts as a distraction, such cooperation outside the office will be a key builder of your company's culture, creating a real competitive advantage for years to come – we at Virgin have found this to be the case. We sponsor a number of large sporting events in Britain, such as the London Marathon, the Cyclone ride and the London Triathlon. All of these events increase the awareness of the Virgin brand in one form or another, but importantly, they raise money for charity and connect our companies to local markets and communities.

More than that, volunteer work can stimulate enterprising ideas, some of which may be applicable to your business someday. One of our partners in Australia is the mobile and broadband group Optus, and its team, led by the CEO, Kevin Russell, just completed this year's Tour de Cure, riding more than 1,500 kilometers in Australia from Adelaide to Canberra through the Snowy Mountains. The Tour de Cure is a cycling charity that raises money for all types of cancer research, awareness and prevention. The event has raised millions of dollars over the past seven years, which is quite extraordinary considering its beginnings: two guys chatting in a Sydney coffee shop.

What makes this charity ride really special is the grass-roots nature of the community involvement along the ride. The riders didn't just speed through the towns; on the recent tour, the Tour de Cure team visited schools along the route, spreading the message to kids about making healthy choices early in life, as one-third of cancer cases have been found to be preventable. What better way to reach out to the community and learn about its concerns and challenges?

So volunteer! If you are an entrepreneur running a startup or small business, now is the time to get started, when you're forging ties with the community and building a corporate culture that focuses on how your business impacts the planet. Whether you organize your own small event or work on something that's already happening in your community, such efforts will signal to everyone that you are building a company and a commitment for the long term.