Over the years as a volunteer engagement professional in the non-profit sector I
developed a hypersensitivity to some of the actions of well-intended corporate volunteers. These sensitivities only becoming more pronounced with greater exposure. In that position at a non-profit I seen it all; for-profit companies seeking one-time service projects that inadvertently creates more work than good, to conference planners seeking a “team building” exercise for their client. With each inquiry compounding on the next, my attitude towards engaging certain industries became sour. But now I’ve crossed to the other side, and what I’ve learned may surprise you.
It became immediate clear that corporate social responsibility (CSR) practitioners also have their sensitivities when engaging non-profit organizations. Just as there’s a certain wariness when non-profits seek engagement from corporate entities, there’s a similar wariness for the CSR practitioner on the other side. The problem is that the hypersensitivity and ensuing wariness creates barriers that prevent positive engagement efforts.
If you thought this was a post where I outline how we (CSR folk) can change our behavior, you’d be wrong (that’ll be done in a future post). However, don’t go anywhere, because what I’m sharing is certain to help you bridge that divide as a volunteer engagement professional in the non-profit sector when working with your for-profit CSR counterpart.
Below are some dos and don’ts for non-profit professionals seeking volunteer engagement from a for-profit company. I share these with love from an insider’s perspective. Maybe, just maybe it’ll help you remove barriers and gain trust as you’re building these relationships.
Don’t be developments pawn. We’ve all been there, development is pressuring you to create a volunteer opportunity for the sake of getting what they believe is a prospective donor’s exposure to the mission. We all know they fear by not creating a volunteer opportunity, the chance to engage again will disappear, but that fear is founded on false assumptions.
Let me shed some light here. Some companies have very strict giving parameters around monetary donations and volunteers, often with clear separation. Some companies volunteer at non-profit organizations they may never choose to fund. Some companies even have two or three separate lines of authority, each deciding where their resources (time, money and in-kind gifts) go. Yes, there’s some responsibility on the company to tell you that, which is an entirely different argument. Instead, I suggest if it’s a bad fit, tell the company no, then use that as an opportunity to educate them on why. They need to be informed that it’s creating more work, and not supporting the needs of the community you serve. By doing this you will have planted the seed for the next time they engage a non-profit. It won’t happen overnight, but over time behavior will change. By capitulating to development’s desire, you’re only reinforcing that behavior by both development and the company seeking engagement.
Don’t ask for money when your focus is volunteer engagement. Even if you’re role is both development and volunteerism, if the relationship you’re seeking to build is solely for volunteers, don’t ask for money. This is a topic a lot of CSR practitioners are hypersensitive to, as most come from backgrounds unfamiliar with the non-profit sector.
I’ll acknowledge there’s a time and place to solicit donations, but it doesn’t always have a place in a conversation that’s specific to volunteer engagement. Funding is sometimes needed to pay for training, equipping and engaging in some of these actions, I get that. But when you’re working to build a corporate volunteer relationship, trying to solicit funds is the equivalent of having the “finance conversation” with someone you’ve just went on a first or second date with. It really sends the wrong message and compounds on the already existing wariness. Instead, carve out time and work to find places of mutual value for volunteerism. If it feels like that’s going to be a lot of work, it probably will be. Your counterpart from the for-profit company has a tricky enough time engaging volunteers from within a system that was built to generate revenue. So, it’ll take creativity to make it work. But I’m also a firm believer that human capital is the most precious resource, so treat this engagement like that.
CSR practitioners are solicited all the time, receiving gala invites and community event sponsorship asks non-stop. If the non-profit had just done it’s research up front, they may find that the company they’re sending these invites to simply have no desire to engage. The same goes for volunteers. Many companies are seeking opportunities that align their company brand and values with a cause area. By doing research you may find that the company you originally thought was a good fit just doesn’t have a strategic goal that allows for your engagement. This will save you time, money and resources trying to gain buy-in from a company that has no interest from a brand identity or cause area perspective.
Adding to that, many people assume that for-profit companies have unlimited resources. News flash, they don’t, and CSR is often the least staffed and funded. Instead, ask the question, come from a place of authenticity, transparency and curiosity. If you’re unsure of a company’s giving parameters, just ask. By asking the question, at the very least you’ll help the CSR practitioner establish boundaries, and you’ll gain insight to what of theirs you can and can’t have. I would even encourage you to ask them what their biggest challenges are in securing volunteers. You may learn a bit more about the business structure they’re working within and how it’s constricting their effort, or better yet, ways you can assist them.
This leads me to my next point. And a word of caution as it’ll sound like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth.
Don’t assume companies have a giving strategy. Many companies don’t have a strategy, clear guidelines or parameters, so they’re feeling it out as they go. This can create an opportunity to engage, understanding they have virtually no parameters.
Some companies have strict parameters, and others have none. But, some are hybrids in that their parameters provide their employees enormous amount of latitude in who they support from a volunteer perspective. In these instances, it could be left to that individual department on where their employees volunteer, how often and to what extent. You’ll see this with companies that don’t align their giving with their brand identity. Instead of assuming a company has a plan, ask the question to better understand if one exists. By gleaning information from your counterpart in CSR, you may spot a great connection that maybe wasn’t obvious to them. Don’t push them to adopt your agenda, instead invite them to be a part of it and have a voice in helping shape it.
You may be wondering how this is helpful to you. I share these in hopes that equipping you with this knowledge you’re able to better navigate partnerships and relationships. By avoiding some of these areas of sensitivity you’ll allow for mutual trust to build and the conversation to continue.
While these dos and don’ts are specific, the universal do I would add to each of these areas is do continually be on the lookout to bust silos and seek collaborative engagement. What I mean by this is when you’re working with large companies, there can often be overlap of volunteerism that the company isn’t aware of. This will certainly be the case if working with an office that staffs thousands of employees. You may have several levels (i.e. executives, managers and entry-level staff) or groups of volunteers from the same company that are just unaware of one-another’s activities. Companies have their silos, and by knocking them down you’ll enhance the impact. But this starts by having a curiosity and asking questions to know about the “who else” and “what other,” while avoiding landmines that inevitably close off the conversation.
If you’ve had success engaging CSR practitioners, I would love to hear and share what you’ve done. I would also love to hear what your deepest pain points have been, maybe there’s something I can suggest that’ll help you cross that divide. In any case don’t be a stranger, I’d love to hear from you.