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The “No Man’s Land” Between CSR and Non-profits (Part 1 of 3)

Relationships are tricky, and aren’t any less complicated between a for-profit’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) program and the non-profit organizations they serve. This isn’t the typical business relationship, this beast is different, with the corporation awarding donations of time (volunteer service) and money, and the non-profit, ensuring those resources go to the intended population, upholding the public trust. It seems simple, but that notion couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s a vast ocean of misunderstanding and assumptions between leaders in the corporate realm and those in the non-profit industry. This isn’t always the case, as there are companies with magnificent CSR programs who are partnered with non-profit’s that run a tight ship with resources they’re gifted. In a guest post “Creating the Win-Win Scenario for Employee Volunteer Programs,” I provide pointers on bridging that gap and forming a more complete partnership. However, if unsuccessful, what would’ve been a win-win, quickly dissolves into a scene reminiscent of a World War I battlefield wasteland of lost resources with nothing to show for.

The latter scenario doesn’t always materialize, but this is an imperfect world where more can be done. With more than 1.5 million registered non-profit organizations in America, many non-profit’s bear a surplus of passion but continue to be behemoths of inefficiency, lacking know-how in business, project and program management. These same organizations being served by well intentioned companies that don’t understand the non-profit’s unique requirements. To complicate matters, some companies don’t tackle these challenges from a place of authenticity, rather viewing the chance to give back as “team building” or a public relations (PR) opportunity for marketing and brand perception. This is a recipe for disaster when approached solely from that angle. Compounding on the matter, the non-profits served are often unaware of such motives. Unfortunately, these partnerships (if you dare to call it that) form all the time, never reaching their full potential, and rarely lasting beyond a single episodic event.

The scenario commonly experienced happens when a company hosts a conference when it’s suggested that as a form of team building, attendees adopt a volunteer service project. A representative from the company will then abruptly call or email a non-profit inquiring if they “have work” or “need help,” in the form of volunteer service. The stipulation from the company however is that the service project must satisfy a set number of employees for a minimum number of hours, while creating something tangible like a care box, or maybe beautifying a community. And oh by the way, it needs to be done on a specific date and time, usually at the conclusion of the event being hosted, leaving no wiggle room for creativity. Maybe you’ve been the person inquiring about such a service project, or even the non-profit professional receiving the inquiry. This is a backwards approach putting the non-profit receiving this shortsighted inquiry in a tough position.

This type of inquiry is presumptive, with many restrictions on what this group can (or can’t) do for the non-profit, resulting in an offer of assistance that often doesn’t fulfill a need. Not to mention, it’s done on a whim and very short notice, not strategically and with little to no research done. From the onset, it communicates how much of an afterthought this was. In a reactionary fashion, the non-profit is left to either create work, satisfying the well intended desire of this company in a desperate attempt to cultivate a new relationship, or alternatively say “no, we can’t use this type of help,” redirecting that companies energy to an actual need.

For non-profit professionals who have the cajones to say “thanks, but no thanks,” they’re met with resistance as the alternatives explored don’t fit the extremely narrow constraints of the team building activity. However, if the original shortsighted offer is accepted, the non-profit is forced to hastily pull together staff and material for the project, increasing the risk of underperforming against the expectations of the employee volunteer group. In this instance, the subpar performance of the non-profit translates into poor planning, ill-equipped on-site coordinators and the horrific “hurry up and wait” dilemma experienced by many volunteers. Both the non-profit being served, and the company with a desire to “do good” have a hand in this conundrum. They’re both unintentionally ill informed on the desires and needs of the other, and it’s because both parties lack perspective of the other and the understanding to deliver. The result? A bad experience for the volunteers, and few requirements satisfied for the non-profit; a lose-lose scenario.

Why does this scenario play out the way it does time and time again? This doesn’t have to be “the way things are.” If this has been your experience as a non-profit professional, or a volunteer with a company wanting to give back, I’d love to hear from you and get your thoughts!

Stay tuned, this is the first in a three-part series about the disconnect between two industries that have the power to do so much when aligned correctly. Next up, we'll explore the reasons why.

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