In previous articles I’ve shared some insight on how corporate social responsibility (CSR) practitioners can create that ever elusive win-win scenario when engaging in community service. I’ve also provided reasons one should engage in corporate volunteerism as a first step to becoming more sustainable as a company. However, in this post I’m doing neither. Instead I’ll share some insight from my experience working at a non-profit in hopes that what’s shared equips you to be more successful. You may have felt that it’s sometimes like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole when building relationships with non-profit organizations. Am I correct? If you’ve answered no, then you’re either the best CSR practitioner in the world bar none, or you’re in denial.
Call it a “best practice” or whatever label you want, I just call it common sense. However, I know common sense isn’t common knowledge. 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 I’m here to help you navigate some of these sensitivities.
Just as there’s a wariness for the CSR practitioners seeking to engage the communities they want to support, there’s a similar wariness experienced by the non-profit professional being engaged on the other side. The problem is that the hypersensitivity and ensuing wariness creates barriers that prevent positive engagement. So, below are some dos and don’ts for CSR practitioners seeking volunteer opportunities with a non-profit partner. I share these with love as I carry a different perspective. Maybe it’ll help you remove barriers and gain trust as you’re building these relationships.
Don’t seek engagement as an afterthought. I see this all too often, usually in the form of a team building activity, or an “add on” to a conference or social engagement. I’ll always advise companies to never “add” community service to an event that wasn’t intentionally designed to serve a non-profit organization.
Think about it like this; if it’s strategized and planned as an afterthought, the execution will be handled as an afterthought, and the quality and result of the service project will be that of an afterthought. So, when that idea creeps into your head and you think “maybe we can also add a volunteer project to this social event,” stop the idea right there, because it’s a bad idea. If you’re seeking to perform community service, it’ll often be best executed when deliberately planned as a service project from the get-go. By seeking intentional community service you’ll have a greater chance at creating a positive impact in the community served. The byproduct of this will be more positive media coverage, a greater volunteer experience and gained trust with those you’re serving. If you simply look to add community service to an event not designed for volunteerism the outcome may leave the non-profit organization underserved, stretched beyond capacity and volunteers feeling underwhelmed.
Don’t limit engagement based on narrow parameters. You’ll limit creativity and effectiveness by setting a specific date, time and number of employees you’re seeking to engage from the start. This is backwards, and when approached in this fashion you make more work for the non-profit organization you’re seeking to support.
I’ll acknowledge there’s a time and place to seek very narrowly focused engagement. However, keep in mind that an overwhelming number of non-profit organizations aren’t best served through these narrow parameters. More times than not, when a non-profit organization is approached this way, that non-profit ends up creating a volunteer opportunity to satisfy the request. This inadvertently creates a time and financial burden incurred by that non-profit organization and their staff. Instead, first inquire about the volunteer opportunities they’re already seeking support for. These are the true needs that exist based on the actual requirements of that non-profit organization and how they support their mission. This prevents pushing the non-profit beyond their capacity, while showing respect for their resources. It’ll also demonstrate a genuine interest in knowing how best to support their mission which will strengthen the relationship.
Don’t be tight lipped about what your objectives are. Non-profit professionals are sometimes wary about why you’re seeking engagement. Don't keep them in the dark, forcing them to guess. By hesitating to be open and honest about your CSR goals, you’ll just widen the divide of cooperation and understanding.
Transparency is arguably one of the most important practices in CSR. It’s through transparency that a company engaging in more responsible business can create self-accountability measures and increased public trust. However, one aspect of transparency not often discussed is the value this adds when working together with a non-profit partner. By sharing your goals you’ll help eliminate wariness by building trust, but also gain an ally who can help you achieve your CSR goals (even if this is a byproduct of the community service you’re engaged in). The more transparency that exists, the more you’ll get in return when inquiring about their impact organizationally. This will most certainly be the case when you’re seeking information they may not have otherwise shared out of fear of judgement or feelings of distrust. Transparency leads to trust, and trust leads to the non-profit seeing you as less of an outsider.
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 if you’re working at a large company, there are often overlaps 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 and focus those assets. But this starts by having a curiosity and asking questions to know about the “who else” and “what other.”
If you’ve had success engaging non-profit professionals, 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.