Companies want to engage their communities through employee volunteering programs. For most, this means calling a non-profit and scheduling an activity. But how should non-profits respond? Is there a “best” answer for everyone? (Part 4 of 7)

New Realities Necessitate New Thinking

As employee volunteering leaps into popularity, the larger picture – Corporate Social Responsibility – presents the world of business with new realities. It is these realities that motivate corporations to find their way onto the band wagon.
There are two, in particular, that find their way into the spotlight this January 2010:

  1. Transparency. Reciprocity and transparency are the new currencies of value. If you are a corporation working in the community, it’s time to be open about your objectives while you contribute to the well being of those living there.
  2. Competition. There are distinct competitive advantages to be found in corporate social responsibility. This approach is not charity or enlightened philanthropy. CSR is a strategy; it is something sustainable and new. For companies savvy enough to take advantage, this growing trend presents a competitive upper hand.

(For an in-depth look at these concepts, check out the article ‘Employee Volunteering and Social Capital: Contributions to Corporate Social Responsibility ‘ by Judy N. Muthuri, Jeremy Moon, Dirk Matten).

Across the board, the fact that employee volunteering is on the rise remains unquestioned. Quinn Bingham, a friend of mine and the Director of Corporate and Community Engagement at the Toronto United Way, remarked that he has seen interest in corporate volunteering grow throughout 2009 and does not expect it to show signs of stopping.

That’s both good news and bad news (Corporate Volunteering Becomes Popular: There’s Good News & There’s Bad News). Many non-profits are beginning to feel a bit overwhelmed. Companies who are so motivated to find their way in the world of CSR, tend to show up with some severe presuppositions. The requests they make, however, can fit into a simple, 7-category list. We’ve listed these seven typical requests and the 3 types of responses that can go along with them: Bad, Better, and Best. With this blog series, we plan to make it easy for you to be constantly armed with the “best” response.

The 7 typical requests by businesses of non-profits:

The “Ideal” Volunteer Experience:

  1. …can be undertaken in a day
  2. …can be done together as a team
  3. …has intrinsic value
  4. …does not clash with other objectives
  5. …enhances the skills of their employees
  6. …coincides with the company’s chosen cause
  7. …coincides with what their employees want to do

(These 7 requests have been adapted from material provided by and can be found ).And here we are on #4….

4. “We want an activity that does not clash with other objectives”

Admittedly, companies are wont to throw out some ridiculous requests. But this one? Well….this one is perfectly reasonable. If a company has any sort of corporate social responsibility strategy in place, it is essential that the work they do in the community does not undermine the overall objectives of their employee volunteering program. This is simply good thinking.

Of course, I’m assuming here that the objectives of the company are, in fact, good. But what if they’re not? What if the company wants your activity to fit with objectives that are uninformed, unrealistic, or just plain dumb?

Well, let’s take a look at a real life example:

Imagine a company who is excited about their new commitment to being active in the local community. They have been working together for several weeks to determine the best area for their employees to volunteer and finally, because of strong connections to the food manufacturing industry, they decide to focus on food banks.

Now, a number of these employees happen to lead extreme-health lifestyles. They are committed to fitness (including yoga and clean eating) and thus have some strong opinions about food banks. They wanted to do some research before diving into the food banks project. As they studied, they learned that families affected by poverty have diets that are high in sugar and carbohydrates because those types of foods are cheaper and usually easier to store. Armed with this shocking information, they steered the project toward a focused goal: Improving the nutrition of people reliant on food banks.

It was a simple shift. The decision was made to regularly collect and donate large amounts of canned soy beans, chick peas, and lentils. They reasoned that these products were easy to store, long-lasting, and carry a high level of nutrients for effectively improving the quality of the consumer’s diet.

It’s a great story, and I applaud this company for their commitment to approaching CSR with the respect it deserves.

Unfortunately, there was a major flaw in their nutrition-focused plan. The research did not tell them about the lives of the people who would be receiving the food. Not only do people affected by poverty eat unhealthy foods because they’re cheap and long-lasting, but because they’re familiar. High-protein legumes are a luxury of the middle class. This is, of course, a generalization, but in the case of the “Nutrition-focused Food Banks Project” can after can of soy beans, lentils, and chick peas were tossed into the bushes on the way out of the food bank. Volunteers went out afterwards to pick them up, perplexed. Finally, a forthright community member explained: “What the hell are we supposed to do with those?” The project was soon re-evaluated.

Bad, Better, and Best Responses:

BAD: Enable bad objectives

Ultimately, the food banks project was well-intentioned, but uninformed. Facilitating a company’s naive goal may not appear harmful in some cases, but enabling bad objectives is always bad for the community. When the champions of communities do not make a marked effort to inform simplistic or uninformed ideas or assumptions, they end up catering to self-indulgence. Making volunteers ‘feel good’ without actually doing any good for the community is simply a waste of potential. Your community deserves better.

This kind of enabling is bad for the NPO, too. When companies don’t take the time to understand the context, goals, and priorities of non-profits, they demonstrate a type of entitled ignorance. The thing is, they may actually not know any better. In may cases, they’re just anxious to do something, get active, see a change. Right now! It’s not a bad thing to be excited to help, but indulgence without guidance limits the potential of the relationship. Help the company gain the knowledge that will make their “help” more effective, and you’ll end up with a long-term, lucrative connection.

Don’t forget – the company doesn’t want to be enabled either. Not really. The project may not clash with other objectives, but it may not fit either. Accommodating easy volunteer activities that do not actually fit the company’s goals is just lazy. It will leave the company without measurable accomplishments – not to mention an unsuccessful employee volunteer program. I hope it goes without saying, this is a bad for the company.

BETTER: Determine a good fit

An acceptable option is to find an activity that fits with the other objectives of the company’s CSR agenda. This may require some effort by the NPO to learn those objectives. Here are some ideas for how to do that:

  • Ask for a copy or link to the company’s “CSR Report.” Read through and try to gauge their priorities – both stated and then acted upon.
  • Meet with the employee’s responsible for the company’s CSR strategy. Have a conversation. In the process, find out what types of volunteer efforts they have enjoyed most in the past, and why.
  • Invite key stakeholders of the program to visit your non-profit and take a quick tour. Make sure they understand what your organization is about, including the issues facing your community.
  • Offer a pilot project. Instead of looking for a long-term relationship up front, take your time. Join together in a short-term project to determine the compatibility of each group’s objectives.

BEST: Develop joint objectives

The best scenario is when a company and non-profit form a partnership around shared objectives. In order for this to happen, both the business and the non-profit must be committed to the mutual benefit of each other. These peer partnerships are growing in popularity, but are still not entirely common. Here are some of the best practices in partnerships between corporations and non-profits:

  • The partnership fits the brand of both organizations
  • The values and attitudes of both organizations are aligned
  • The resources and skills of the company add value to the non-profit
  • Both organizations take time to ‘vet’ prospects before making a commitment
  • Both organizations create teams to advocate for the partnership and meet together
  • The teams are able to institutionalize the partnership so that it is not dependent on personalities from either organization
  • Planning and execution are done in conjunction with each other

This option takes a little extra work initially, but promises the best of all worlds for non-profit, business, and community. Their combined knowledge, expertise and resources hold the promise of real solutions to mitigating and prevailing issues facing our neighborhoods. And after that initial effort is completed, partnerships are (relatively) smooth-sailing. Check out site or a little additional guidance. They’re jammed packed with great resources and information for non-profits and companies alike.

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