While a recent unnamed Boston Globe article may have suggested that corporate volunteerism isn’t always easy or effective for nonprofits, one could also argue that it’s often the NGO that won’t be ready to host corporate volunteers.
But hey, can’t we both be at fault?
Because often we are; expectations are high while logistics are merely inferred. The day’s goal is identified, while the tasks associated are never fully disclosed. Vision is highlighted, while mission is sidelined. So as the old saying goes: when one doesn’t know how to act, one must rely on good graces and manners to take the lead.
By Ben Bisbee
What if we examined corporate volunteerism like someone would a dinner party? Everyone knows a good dinner party should have a talented host, but for the sake of argument, let’s look at how one can be the very best guest. Just in case. Just for good measure. We know the meal will be stellar … it’s often everything else that needs a little attention.
1. Why a dinner party?
This question is all about the tone and intention. It’s not “Ugh, why a dinner party?” But anyone invited to such an event will typically ask something like “Ooh, what’s the occasion?” Anyone who doesn’t ask is either family or isn’t coming anyway. My point? What is this event about? Who is it for? A retirement? A birthday? To build a house? To build a home for a deserving family? To provide a home for the Johnson family of five who recently lost their home to fire? (See how I transitioned there, reader? Get used to that.) A good host should take the time to make the invite clear, informative, and above all, engaging and meaningful. If you’re taking a day off from work to volunteer — no matter how exciting that might seem all on its own — your employees should know what their involvement will provide and who it will impact and how. If they’re not already, the NGO should always be prompted to provide any tools or information to that point. And then, like at any good dinner party, the host should begin the evening by thanking everyone for coming, followed by a compelling story to remind everyone why this party, of all parties, is the party.
A good host excels in telling you why their efforts to invite you are critical and invaluable; a better guest will often ask for more information than needed to enjoy the party as thoroughly as possible.
2. What time is dinner?
Of course you want to know when to arrive, but you also want to know when the main event is taking place: when is dinner? Or in this case, when will we start volunteering? Just like allowing time for guests to arrive and to put out a few cocktails and hors d’oeuvres ahead of the meal, most volunteer events have some form of organizational welcome, orientation, and potential training. A person who just walks into a dinner party and begins to eat is either early enough to help the cook prep or fairly late to the party. So, just as you understand you won’t hit the door and be eating right at the top of the hour, you shouldn’t assume your employees will immediately walk off the bus and begin painting that mural. A good host will always provide a bit of an evening’s outline; a better guest will anticipate a few pre-dinner rituals.
3. What is the attire?
Formal? Casual? Is there a theme, like a luau or garden party? Everyone knows you can almost always trust your best J. Crew khakis for most events, unless you were the only one that didn’t get the message to wear tux and tails. That’s just Party Foul 101. When volunteering, knowing whether you should wear steel-toed boots or if flip-flops will do just fine is often the difference between getting to hammer nails and passing out said hammers. A good host will tell you what to wear for the evening; a better guest will double check so they can be best dressed for the party.
4. Do you need to know about my food allergies?
A good host will always inquire with potential guests about food allergies and dietary restrictions before throwing a dinner party. Why? Because a good host never wants to offend or inadvertently kill a guest. In the same manner, do volunteers need to bring their own water bottle? Will there be long bouts of standing outdoors in the sun? Will volunteer be placed in groups? Essentially, is there anything that people might have a literal or social allergy to within the day’s events? Good hosts will let you know; better guests get confirmation so they can enjoy themselves to the fullest or prepare for the inevitable.
5. Can I bring a guest? Who else will be at dinner?
Of course, there is likely to be other people at the event (program staff, NGO volunteers, logistics specialists) but is there anyone you won’t know? Will the media be there? Will the mayor be on site? Were you planning on bringing your CEO for a photo shoot? Do you have anyone coming with any accommodations necessary? And don’t ask just for the sake of getting a head count, ask because this often has implications with topics such as liability waivers, media release forms and logistics. Can you add more people to a dinner party? Sure, if you can make the portions smaller and no one minds sitting at the “kids’ table” because your dining room was only expected to hold 8. A good host will walk you through the guest list; a better guest will know to ask who’s in attendance and about plus-one potential.
6. Can I bring anything?
Wine. Always wine. Unless your host doesn’t drink alcohol and then ice. Usually ice. But you’re the guest! Why should you offer to bring anything at all? Because a wise guest is a thoughtful guest, and asking what one can bring reminds the host to again relay the logistics aloud, that there will be water on site, work gloves available, and bathrooms within a hundred feet. Or it’s a great time to inquire about that presentation check for the photo-op again. Or it’s a reminder that weather looks crummy on Friday, so don’t forget that people need to bring umbrellas. “Can I bring anything?” is the logistical equivalent to “What else do we need to cover before we show up?” It should be asked. Every party needs ice.
Now look, while this analogy might leave you a little tired by the time we get to dessert, I honestly feel that talking about corporate volunteerism like you might approach a dinner party is the best way to be not only a better guest, but help your host be the best host possible. The comparison allows those involved to hopefully leave no stone in the stone soup unturned. When you can think like an expert dinner guest on behalf of your employee volunteerism, you’re on the path to contributing to the success of the party, not just attending the party. Good volunteers, like good dinner guests, never just arrive—they know why they’re invited, how to arrive, when to engage, where to indulge, and who the party is for. And if the party is as good as everyone had planned, everyone in attendance will hope for a future invitation to the next event.
Guest blogger, CSR nonprofit professional
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