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Corporate Social Responsibility: Making it Work for Your Organization's Volunteer Program (Part

This is Part 2 of a blog post originally delivered as a presentation for members of the Northern Virginia Association for Volunteer Administration (NVAVA). In Part 1 I provided my take on what corporate social responsibility (CSR) encompasses and how it’s viewed by companies that engage in CSR programming. I addressed the limitations of CSR programming, the challenges of a single day of service and how a non-profit volunteer engagement professional can make it work for their non-profit. However, what will be outline in this second part include the strategies one can take to find a better long-term strategic fit, beyond the single day volunteer event. In order to do so volunteer engagement professionals will need to analyze a company’s business model, understand how to find mutual benefit and know how to identify red flags or warning signs to what may be a shallow engagement while engaging.

Understanding what a company supports within their CSR strategy.

Many companies engage in some form of CSR initiative. Whether it’s a local grocery store that donates coffee and bagels to the local non-profit hosting a Saturday fun-run, or a Fortune 500 company that’s engaged in a global day of service, CSR initiatives are on the rise. And while many companies are making strides in clearly communicating their charitable focus area, many still don’t. Regardless though, any non-profit organization seeking to engage in corporate volunteerism should do their research to find out what potential future partners support under their CSR programming. Knowing in advance what a company supports philanthropically before you engage about volunteerism will help you determine if it’s even worth your time to pursue. Rather than wasting your time soliciting a company that’ll never support your organization, do your research up front before you reach out.

Understand that CSR practitioners are already critical of organizations that send them sponsorship requests and grant proposals that don’t align with their company’s CSR strategy. Asking a company to support your non-profit’ volunteer program when it falls outside their CSR strategy is a waste of their time, and just as important, it’s a waste of yours. Do yourself a favor and research to see if they support your mission before reaching out. It may save you time, and help you focus your energy if you find out their strategy aligns with yours.

How a company’s business model effects volunteerism.

For-profit companies seeking to volunteer are as unique in business model as the non-profits they seek to serve. Remember though, companies are designed to make a profit, as a result, they often have a business model that’s designed to optimize their revenue for the specific industry they’re in. The nature of how a company’s business model is designed often dictates how their employees can volunteers. So, understanding a company’s business model is crucial to how you seek corporate volunteerism.

Let’s take a look at the leisure and hospitality industry as an example. This is an industry that is heavily populated with hourly employees who often work receive a less-than-living wage. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), nonsupervisory employees in this industry work an average of less than 25 hours a week, and make a median salary of less than $14 dollars an hour. And while only 3% of this industry belong to unions, it’s important to understand that those who belong to a union may have other influences that prevent involvement in volunteerism type activities. In addition to that, this workforce is often customer or guest facing for most of their role, preventing them from accessing digital mediums for a greater part of their working hours. It’s estimated that about half of all workers in this line of work are not provided even a basic company email. Not to mention, the companies they work for may be unique in that they’re heavily franchised, with independently owned and operated locations.

Each of these dynamics impact the type of volunteerism they’re able to engage in and the extent of their involvement in many cases. In instances where a company is designed to function competitively in its industry, you’ll need to figure out how volunteerism is woven into the business in a way that’s friendly to the company’s operations. The business model will also certainly dictate how a CSR program functions.

In an industry that’s so nuanced, It’s not uncommon to see companies take a stance that’s less dictatorial when designing and implementing CSR strategy. Some of this is by design, but in some cases the result of laws that limit how much a corporate office can mandate policy for franchisees and owners. This style of strategy takes the form of the corporate office designing the strategy in which they’d like franchisees and owners to take, and without mandating, it’s through the creation of policy, guiding principles and tools that ultimately shape behaviors.

However, at the end of the day it’s still up to that franchisee or owner to take action. Locations that are franchised are often allowed to make their own decisions on who, how and where to support, even if counter to the strategy designed by corporate. To make things more complex, it’s not uncommon to see segmentation and decentralized authority when it comes to decisions of funding and volunteerism. Meaning, the corporate office may have their own “corporate contributions” bucket of funding that’s different from the independently owned and operated locations (who also choose to make contributions). This could become more complicated if there’s a foundation that’s legally it’s own entity, and only connected to the company by name alone and not decision making. While each entity resides under the same “name” they’re all their own separate entities that can fund at will without influencing the decisions of the other.

These nuances can dictate how volunteerism can exist. But more importantly it’ll change how you engage with a company that operates in an industry of this type. To think that companies are all designed in a cookie cutter format or have no limits on how they provide their resources would be foolish.

Adapting your volunteer program to a company’s business model.

I imagine knowing those details of the leisure and hospitality industry likely change your strategy on how you engage. Let’s think through some of the details learned and how your volunteer program can adapt to a company that operates in an industry with such dynamics. Depending on the type of services you provide as an organization and how volunteers contribute to that, there could be both positives and negatives involved.

First and foremost it could be a positive that franchisees and owners can support who they’d like, regardless of what a corporate office’s CSR strategy is. In this instance you might be able to get buy-in at the local level with the franchisee or owner. This is good news to know individual locations are charged with addressing the critical issues unique to that community, rather than taking guidance from an out of touch corporate entity in another state or country. With a decentralized scheme like this, your local chapter can hold the relationships in their community with the local company representation. On the flip-side though, it can also be advantageous to know that the corporate office designs the strategy; through a relationship created and held with the corporate office, a non-profit could work with the corporate CSR team to influence the strategy in a way that’ll have a longer-term sustainable impact on your local community.

But like any coin, there are two sides. There are certainly some negatives that come along with the way a company like this may be designed. For example, if the majority of employees with a company are hourly, working two or three jobs to make ends meet, instead of viewing volunteerism as giving back to the community, employees engaged may have a concern about whether or not they’ll be paid. As a result, getting hourly employees to volunteer may add a level of difficulty because of a risk to compensation, ultimately impacting their livelihood. Adding to the complex nature of this, some of these employees could belong to unions which may frown on volunteerism if it’s not in the “best interest of the employee” who’s volunteering.

There may also be a negative impact to volunteer opportunities that are found or directly communicated through virtual means. Because these same hourly employees don’t work in a traditional office or in front of a computer terminal they often have limited access to the internet. So when you’re seeking online or virtual volunteers (micro-volunteerism), these same employees won’t have the means to support in this manner from work. And because of their limited access to the internet, they may also miss your electronic newsletters, social media posts or volunteer opportunities that are broadcasted (or require registration) online. In instances like this it becomes increasingly important to create relationships with the employees, especially with leadership who will have greater access to communicating with employees through the workday. It’s through this human connection that volunteer opportunities or a call-to-action can be disseminated.

If you’re seeking skills-based volunteers from a company with hourly employees, be sensitive to the fact that some populations of employees may undervalue their own skills and what they have to offer. It’s natural for people to undervalue or underplay their skills, so it may not be overtly known by those employees that they have skills you need. If that’s the case it’ll be harder to sell them on the idea that you’re seeking skills-based volunteers altogether. If you encounter this, you’ll need to first educate these employees that they have incredibly valuable skills, and then connect the dots between their skills, sharing those skills with you, and how they’ll positively impact the mission.

Lastly, understand that a company’s CSR goals drive who they support. So in addition to the unique nature of how a company is designed, know that more often than not, if a company doesn’t support your focus area or mission, they’re not inclined to provide volunteers. For you this means doing your research up front while not make assumptions. Doing your homework in advance will increase your ability to find a better opportunity for that mutual benefit. Knowing these details about a specific industry or company may even dictate whether you engage in volunteerism at all.

And while it’s great to do research, sometimes this information isn’t available, and in those cases that it’s not, you’ll need to ask the question.

Finding mutual benefit for maximum impact.

When thinking about mutual benefit, this means understanding how you can best use what a company is offering to satisfy your mission, while also using volunteerism to problem solve for one of their business challenges. Ask yourself, what do we have to offer through volunteerism that helps this company meet their business goals? By answering that simple question, you’ll be able to position volunteering with your organization as a solution to their business challenge.

Let’s take the leisure and hospitality industry as an example. Right now with unemployment hovering around 4%, there is a strain being felt by hiring managers when recruiting entry-level staff. Not only is this an industry that experiences high turnover, but it’s forcing industry leaders to rethink their hiring strategy. As a result, many companies are now positioning themselves to work closer with non-profit organizations that are missioned to develop the employability of the diverse communities they serve. The long term strategy in the case of supporting youth based initiatives is two-part; developing the employability of those who are job-seeking age, while introducing them to a career path and profession they may not have originally considered. This type of partnership with a non-profit creates opportunity for partnering companies to share their skills through skills-based volunteerism to develop these youth. These types of activities could range from shorter episodic events where volunteers train youth in interview and workplace etiquette, to more formalized curriculum that’s of a long-term nature like a 12-week trainee program.

For the non-profit that’s connected with this company, they’re able to develop the community they serve by empowering youth. But this is now a win-win scenario because a potential pipeline for employment has now been created which has an ability to solve the hiring challenges for the company’s talent acquisition and human resources. In this particular scenario, volunteerism is a solution to what could be a hiring crisis.

Understand mutual fit is incredibly important to a sustainable partnership with a company’s corporate volunteer program, but there’s one elephant in the room that must be discussed. In every instance where you’re seeking a win-win scenario, it may require that you’re not blinded by the motives of others, more importantly those at your organization who are seeking donations and grants. This is especially the case when the volunteerism you’re pressured to pursue is a bad fit.

Don’t be developments pawn.

This sounds harsh, and if you’re a development officer or associate you may even take offense. But before you lose your shirt, first recognize that volunteer engagement professionals are sometimes forced into bad volunteerism obligations with companies because of influences placed on them by well meaning (but ill informed) development professionals. That’s a fact. All that to say, don’t pursue or say “yes” to volunteer service projects that don’t make sense, even if your development department is pressuring you to do so.

Let’s go back to the CSR strategy discussed earlier. Most major companies have a CSR strategy and won’t even fund organizations or programs that don’t align with that strategy. Be warned though, sometimes a company’s volunteerism efforts go astray from strategy and they’ll seek opportunities that don’t fit. In those instances a company might feel that it’s more important to achieve a goal primarily focused on employee engagement, and secondarily the social impact. In this instance they may deviate from the CSR strategy in a shorter-term fashion to meet other business related goals. When this happens, a company may propose their employees engage in a volunteer experience that doesn’t necessarily support your mission or services, but satisfies their employee engagement need. Understand that there’s a slim (and I’m talking razor thin here) chance that the company (while volunteering with your organization) may ever provide funding for your programs. To a development officer or associate, this may look like a prime opportunity to make an emotional connection with a company’s employees. But this is a carrot, a short sighted illusion. Don’t be pressured by that development professional who’s lost objectivity.

CSR practitioners often have their motivations on why they’re seeking volunteerism. Most are very genuine and authentic in pursuing volunteerism to support an organization or members of a community. However, the goals they’re seeking and the lens they’re looking through may differ greatly. So, don’t be pressured by the development department or the illusion of being able to make a connection that leads to the eventual grant or donation. While this can sometimes be the case, especially if the CSR strategy aligns with your organization, this will usually not be the case when the strategy doesn’t align.

I also want to address the irrational fear that by saying “no” to a corporate volunteer group that the company will make the decision to never pursue anything again. This is an irrational fear. Let me tell you clear as day, if a company has a true interest in serving your organization they’ll come back around and try again. They’ll probably try several times in hopes to make it work.

Be mindful of that, don’t be the pawn in a game of chess that’s being mismanaged by the development associate. Beyond internal pressures to engage in volunteerism that may be a bad fit, there are other red flags to spot along the way.

Spot warning signs and saying “no” when it’s not a good fit.

I’m a believer in the human connection, and companies visiting and being present in the community they’re seeking to serve. While many CSR practitioners are well intentioned, it’s hard to get a deep connection or thorough understanding of the non-profit they’re seeking to support without actually visiting and connecting face to face. So perhaps it’s a warning sign when and if a CSR practitioner never has the time to connect face to face when seeking volunteerism.

If a company only has time for emails and phone calls, they’re likely not interested in serving for your reasons, or to have a true impact. Or maybe they believe they’ll have a true impact (connecting only through a digital medium) resulting from their own ignorance. To me, solely communicating via email and phone is an indication that they’re looking for something easy for their own employee engagement reasons, and are not positioned as an equal to help solve critical issues. Additionally, If a company’s pattern is to seek short notice engagement (in a reactionary fashion), this too can be an indication of their culture of service or a motive that might be harmful for your organization’s operations. So beware of this behavior. While it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker, you should take notice and act appropriately.

Wrapping a tight bow on things.

Understand for-profit companies have limitations based on their business model. But it’s through identifying the CSR focus areas while better understanding how a business model can dictate volunteerism that you’ll be able to find the mutual benefit. Once you find that true mutual benefit you can position your volunteer opportunities as a solution to their business challenges. While the pressure from your development department is probably high enough to make diamonds, don’t be a pawn to their sometimes short-sighted and ill informed decisions.

When all is said and done, volunteerism should be very deliberate. While there’s partial responsibility for those seeking to volunteer, there’s equal responsibility on those engaging volunteers. This includes the research, planning and initiating programming that allows corporate volunteers to engage.

Until next time, don’t hesitate to reach out, I’m always available to provide greater context or guidance.

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