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Businesses and Non-Profits: Dream Teams or Shallow Schemes?

RP Siegel | Tuesday June 19th, 2012 | 0 Comments

This is the final installment in a six part series on building better employee volunteer programs, presented by MicroEdge, the leading provider of software and services to the giving community worldwide. Follow the rest of the series here.

Against a backdrop of falling revenues and rising concerns about corporate responsibility, companies have begun discovering non-profits. It’s a bit like the high school star quarterback suddenly noticing the quiet, simply dressed girl at the back of the classroom, who, as it turns out, knows the answers to the homework. The girl appreciates the attention, but wonders if he is really interested in her, or does she just have something he wants?

So what do businesses want from non-profits? If I dare stretch my analogy a little farther, it used to be that all the coach wanted from the quarterback was lots of touchdowns and no interceptions. Now, he wants good grades, too. The quarterback represents the managers of companies we buy from and the coach is us, the consumers, who ultimately decide if the quarterback will play or sit on the bench. And good grades, these days, means more than just giving money. It means truly getting involved in the community, locally or otherwise.

For a variety of reasons, consumers want to know more about the companies they are buying from, and given the ubiquity of the internet, it’s much easier to find out, good or bad, than ever before.

Non-profit management consultant, Tobi Johnson, says in her blog on the subject, “It’s a cold world for business when the public shuns you, so some companies are taking proactive steps to prevent it, including stepping up their volunteering.”

Full of high aspirations, big smiles and handshakes, they head down to their local non-profit, in a tidal wave of good intention, that might just feel a little bit like, “we’re from the government and we’re here to help.”

That moment of panic will hopefully soon pass as the non-profits realize that they are being offered the services of highly skilled people, willing to plug in where they can and make a difference. But that’s not what always happens.

Johnson says that companies are looking to get three things out of the exchange.

  1. Impact focus – meaning that they want to see concrete outcomes, both in terms of personal growth among employees and in measurable contribution to the cause.
  2. Strategic alignment – the activity should correlate with the product offerings. If it’s children’s clothing or toys, do something to help kids. If it’s beverages being sold, help clean up the water.
  3. Efficiency – since companies watch the bottom line with every breath they take, they want to be sure they are getting the most bang for the buck here.

If, says Johnson, volunteer programs are aware of these expectations, “a fruitful, mutually beneficial collaboration can be forged.”

But what about the non-profits? What do they want out of the deal? After all, they weren’t just sitting around waiting for these companies to show up.

Jayne Cravens writes in her Coyote Communications blog from the perspective of the non-profits. What do they want from businesses?

It turns out her list has three items in it, too, and she doesn’t mince words, either.

  1. Respect the expertise within the non-profit. In other words don’t be arrogant. “Teachers are not teaching because they couldn’t make it in the corporate world, and just because you are a marketing director at a Fortune 500 company does NOT mean you can do their job for a day… People working at non-profits and other mission-based organizations have experience, training and certifications you do not have. Respect their professional training and experience. Don’t [think] that you could step into their roles for an hour or two – just as you know they couldn’t step into your role at your company.”
  2. Volunteering is not free. There is a cost burden associated with designing a volunteer experience and incorporating new volunteers into an existing program. “Are you ready to pay for the time of staff at these non-profits, schools and other organizations to develop these volunteering opportunities for you, not to mention the time they’ll need to supervise and support your employees? Are you ready to say to non-profits or schools, ‘Tell me how much staff time will be required to create these opportunities, including staff time for meeting with us and supporting us as we do these activities, and we will pay for that time?’”
  3. The needs of non-profits are greater than the needs of corporation volunteer programs. Understand that the non-profit program has a very specific and carefully crafted mission, which may or not fit with the size and shape of your good intentions.

The key, says Cravens, is to listen, truly listen to what the non-profit is trying to accomplish with an open heart and mind and the understanding that your larger budget does not mean that you get to drive the agenda.

[Image credit: ESPNHS: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He spent 25 years working with the non-profit sector, as a corporate volunteer and later as Executive Director of Cool Rochester. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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