Workplace Volunteering in Action - IFM Investors & Volunteer Building Cambodia

I had the pleasure of talking to a charity and a business who together are using Benojo to facilitate a life-changing Company giving initiative, and I wanted to share the conversation we had.

It’s one of many similar stories we hear where humans within an organisation get together to invest their time and resources to help other humans in need. This is part one, in a couple of weeks I'll be following up to hear about the adventure from IFM Investors' volunteers.

The Charity -  Volunteer Building Cambodia

Volunteer Building Cambodia are a small locally run charitable organisation who build houses for Cambodian families in extreme poverty. Volunteers typically spend a week helping to construct a dwelling that changes lives through better sanitation, increased security, better sleeping arrangements and healthier living - children in secure homes are less likely to get sick and more likely to attend school.  Many Cambodians survive on less than US$1 a day and as 80 percent live in rural areas the majority of people do not have access to adequate sanitation.

As well as supplying quality housing, VBC also install wells and toilets which provide immediate health benefits to the local population, and in July 2017, they opened the doors to their Community Centre, which provides English classes to rural children, increasing their study and employment opportunities and helping further-reduce their vulnerability, become self-sufficient and break the circle of poverty. 

I spoke to Kieran Dignam - originally a VBC building volunteer 8 or 9 years ago (and he still helps out) until the charity's predecessor discovered he was an accountant. Since then he’s been coming out to Siem Reap regularly, having helped set up an accounting system and is training locals in the importance of being accountable for how funds are used.

Being based in Australia and seeing that many volunteers wanted to continue helping VBC after they had left Cambodia, Kieran and some other former volunteers set-up an Australian based charity Volunteer Building Cambodian Limited (VBCA) to promote the good work VBC does and make it easier for Australians to continue to support VBC financially. In March 2018 VBCA secured DGR status. 

Kieran explains that nearly 200 houses have been built to date, with 50-60 constructed per year.  They rely on the support from companies such as Salesforce (who’ve been with them from the beginning) and IFM Investors, plus schools and individual public volunteers - many of whom come over solo to build a house, then enjoy the experience so much that they return with a group of friends. As a small charity, VBC don’t have a marketing budget so rely on word of mouth and Facebook to spread the word. 

Follow their Facebook page and you can see exactly where your donations go - funds go on tangible things, instead of administrative fees.

As one child said after moving into their new home after their old one blew away in a storm:

“It means I can go to school tomorrow, and I know where I’m sleeping tonight.”

Post-implementation reviews by VBC show that the families they’ve helped have been given the inspiration to progress their lives, getting back to health, finding work and at last becoming self sufficient. This results in a profoundly positive effect on both the families and their community.

The Business - IFM Investors

IFM Investors is a 20-year old institutional fund manager with offices in eight global locations – Melbourne, New York, London, Sydney, Berlin, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Seoul.

Hiroka McGregor is a member of the Responsible Investment team at IFM Investors and took over planning of the VBC opportunity in the last four months, getting the team ready to fly out on Sunday 17th June.

The nine volunteer employees, including Hiroka, are excitedly preparing to get on the plane and roll their sleeves up to build a house together. There’s been plenty of excitement on the volunteer chat group as the date nears, but aside from some anxiety about the heat, humidity and mosquitoes, the primary focus is the positive impact on the family and also the community nearby. They’re also keen to see first-hand the work that VBC are doing in the community centre at Siem Reap - work IFM Investors employees have already been supporting via their Benojo fundraising campaign.

Although the majority of IFM volunteers are based in Melbourne, they represent a cross-section of business units. Those unable to volunteer have been supportive of their colleagues and friends by donating to the campaign, which has currently exceeded their target by over 30%.

What a volunteer's week looks like

Volunteers are picked up at 7am from their hotel each day and taken to the building site. As afternoons are too hot or rainy for work, they also have some time to explore the area.

Here’s what a typical week looks like for the volunteers:

Volunteers hard at work for VBC in Siem Reap

Volunteers hard at work for VBC in Siem Reap

  • Sunday - Arrive at their hotels in Siem Reap for a briefing and group dinner.

  • Monday - Old house is demolished to make way for the new one. Main support beams chiseled and cut.

  • Tuesday - Structure is raised with the help of local neighbours. Roof is put on (by local staff) and scaffolding erected.

  • Wednesday - Stairs are made and installed. Wooden walls fitted.

  • Thursday - Community centre visit. Concrete base, windows and doors fitted.

  • Friday - Family cannot move into the house until it’s been blessed. Volunteers are invited to give a small present and take part in the ceremony before a local meal, then there's the handover of the front door key to the family.

VBC are flexible, and can tailor a program to suit the number of days volunteers have to give. There are no special skills required, Khmer builders are on-site to train volunteers but volunteers don’t have to do any tasks they’re not comfortable with. A volunteer coordinator is on hand to interpret, answer questions and act as a liaison with the family for whom they’re building.

How Benojo helped

Benojo was a key enabler of collaboration between the two organisations by providing the fundraising and volunteering platform. In preparation for the trip, Benojo also helped to create a 24-page information document, including some key FAQs about VBC, the opportunity and Cambodia, which VBC is able to use for future Corporate groups. It covers everything from vaccinations, visas, insurance, cultural sensitivities and child protection, to sightseeing and suggested hotels.

Hiroka is excited by the upcoming trip and how the preparations have progressed:

“Benojo, and especially our Success Manager, Dawn, has been extremely supportive and helpful. IFM are still evolving our approach to corporate responsibility which includes all of our activities such as volunteering and fundraising. It’s been a smooth and easy process to get the fundraising campaign up and running so friends, family and colleagues can donate to VBC.”

It’s exciting to see partnerships like this develop that have such a visibly positive effect on people’s lives. Hiroka is looking forward to seeing where this relationship will go in the future:

“We hope to work with VBC to identify which projects and resources can be contributed towards to amplify what we do. Having Benojo behind us providing the platform has been really helpful. Benojo have gone over and above to make the program possible, such as creating detailed info packs for our volunteers.”

At Benojo, we believe every business should be telling stories like this. 


What does it cost?

US$2,900 per house build. Individuals - or their companies - pay their travel and accommodation costs which from Australia, are around A$1,600 pp.

How are families who receive a house chosen?

Families gifted each house are selected by local social workers in conjunction with heads of community, vetted for suitability, and followed-up for 2 years with post-build impact assessments at between 3-6, 12 and 24-month intervals. Feedback on the family’s welfare will be provided to build volunteers and their employers.

Can you imagine doing this with your workmates?

Then get in touch and let’s make it happen!