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Opinion: Why Companies Should Skip Annual Volunteer Projects

By 3p Contributor

By Toni Irving, Ph.D.

Every year, thousands of employees at companies across the country admirably set aside a day or even a week for community service projects – planting trees, painting murals, distributing food, the list goes on. There is no doubt that employee volunteer programs boost community engagement, morale and loyalty within companies. However, how many of these companies ask community organizations what they really need?

In one instance, a young woman who coordinated volunteers at a local food bank admitted that her staff put in significant effort to find projects. While the flowers volunteers planted and the fresh coats of paint they applied brightened the building, these endeavors made little impact on the day-to-day challenges faced by the people frequenting her food bank.  Many organizations continue hosting service groups in hopes that the efforts will lead to additional investment – whether financial or skill-based – by the companies or their employees.

At Get IN Chicago, we have learned a thing or two about capacity through our work with organizations serving acutely high-risk youth. Get IN Chicago funds and studies violence-prevention programs working with this group of young people, who are at the greatest risk for gun violence based on factors such as school absenteeism rates, mental health issues, justice system involvement, and the presence of a previously or currently incarcerated parent.

In partnership with the Chapin Hall Research Center at the University of Chicago, we conducted an organizational capacity assessment of 125 community-based organizations (CBOs) in seven urban communities around their resources, structures and processes to conduct strategic planning, staff training and fundraising.

This is how we identified their strengths and needs, and by extension the needs of other organizations of similar size and scope likely facing the same challenges.  In our experience, we found there were significant gaps in capacity in the very organizations on the front lines supporting acutely high-risk youth.

However, these same issues can be found at the majority of nonprofit groups or community-based programs today, whether they’re trying to solve hunger, homelessness or inequality.  And yet, the bulk of funding dollars are targeted to program delivery without attention to capacity-building for those implementing the work.

Community organizations cannot afford to defer capacity any longer. Simply put, no matter how proven an intervention is, it is unlikely to have impact if organizations lack the capacity to implement with regularity.

Last July alone, three Fortune 500 companies launched a Global Day of Service with tens of thousands of employees. It is clear there are corporations and employees who are willing to volunteer and want to give back to their communities. These companies could easily have adopted 60 or more community-based organizations and produced stronger outcomes and deeper connections by taking a more skills-based and capacity-focused approach.

Imagine if their corporate employees could choose from a menu of support areas that highlighted the greatest needs of community-based organizations, and employees could sign-up based upon their expertise. Imagine if that option was also available to city residents.

In Chicago, for example, nearly 50 percent of area households volunteer, according to Giving in Chicago, a study by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy for the Chicago Community Trust. Imagine what an unbelievable impact corporations and communities could make if they invested their time and dollars in areas specifically needed or requested by the nonprofit (e.g. managing a budget versus planting trees).

True corporate social responsibility reflects a commitment to the communities where you conduct business with an eye to sustainable impact. It is no secret that communities hardest hit by poverty and violence, for example, often have limited access to the sophisticated resources and strategic insight that could deliver long-term change.

Corporations are uniquely positioned to promote collaboration, align existing investments, and encourage more outcome-driven activities that could potentially energize more investors to get involved.

Rather than blindly signing up for one day of service, let’s start asking how we can make corporate social responsibility efforts more of a strategic collaboration to meet common goals.

As the Point of Light Foundation rightfully identifies, “Effective EVPs (employee volunteer programs) leverage employee skills and corporate assets, enhance corporate operations, and adopt structures and policies that allow them to scale and deepen engagement.”

To put the impact into further perspective, Get IN Chicago estimates there are thousands of acutely high-risk youth in the seven Chicago communities hardest hit by poverty and violence -- and there's not nearly enough capacity to serve them.

Our young people – and any group or risk population that needs help, for that matter – deserve more.

Place-based and capacity-focused approaches to corporate community service projects will enable companies to leverage their investments with a focus on collaboration and sustainability, so that when their annual day of service is over, the investment isn’t.

Image credit: Pixabay

Toni Irving, Ph.D., is a public policy expert. She has been at the helm of Get IN Chicago since 2013 as the Executive Director and leads the organization’s efforts to fund programs that support and empower communities hit hardest by poverty and violence, working closely with staff, private funders, grantees and the acutely high-risk youth that Get IN Chicago serves. Previously, Dr. Irving was the Deputy Chief of Staff to former Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, and was also a faculty member at the University of Notre Dame.

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