Can corporate good be better?

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Employer Supported Volunteer Programs. Corporate Social Responsibility. Dollars for Doers. Days of Caring. All good programs. But are they as effective as they could be? It's a dangerous question to ask, and I hope no one takes offence. Isn't volunteerism in all its forms inherently good? Here's my side of the story.

Recently, the editor of CharityVillage® sent me a note asking if I would be interested in writing an opinion piece on the benefits of corporate volunteer programs from the perspective of a recipient organization. Immediately, I wrote back and said no. My gut reaction tells me they aren't. Good, maybe. But not great.

For the uninitiated, employer supported volunteer programs look very different depending on how you look at them. They can be as simple as employers allowing their staff to use their work email or the phone (during break times) to conduct volunteer activities. It could also be as involved as organizing a group (sometimes a large group) of employees to go out into the community to volunteer. I'm going to talk about the latter end of the spectrum.

What often happens in these programs is that someone in the corporation organizes a group of staff to do manual labour. At least, that's the common perception. The business will sometimes buy the supplies — paint, lumber, nails, etc. — and get to work fixing a fence or building a playground. I'm over-generalizing to make three points.

First, should the vice-president of finance be building a fence? Inevitably, senior management will participate in the project in order to show leadership in the community and support for the company's employees.

Second, how many times has that wall in the women's shelter been painted? Fifteen? Are nonprofits stretching for projects just for the sake of making the corporation happy? Do we sometimes salivate at the prospect of these guys becoming donors that we'll find any reason to get them to come through the doors?

And, third, are these projects ultimately contributing to the mission of the organization? Sure, sometimes we need fences and playgrounds. And I'm not trying to diminish legitimate projects by making these points. But are nonprofits really maximizing the impact and benefit from the immeasurable skills and abilities the corporations are potentially bringing to the table? Often, I'm worried the answer is no.

So having said all this, and assuming this is a solvable problem, what needs to be done about it? And who needs to do it?

Before I answer those questions, let me describe what I see out my window right now. I look north, right square at a McDonald's. McDonald's has the fourteenth largest workforce of any company in the world, third in the US behind Wal-Mart and the US Postal Service. If I crane my neck and look west, I can see a Shell refinery. If I walk out the front door of our offices, I can see Enbridge, Suncor and Imperial Oil. And through all that heavy industry, I can see the familiar Edmonton skyline overlooking the beautiful North Saskatchewan River valley that winds its way through the heart of the Alberta Capital Region. If I turn around, I can see signage for a TD Bank, a Bank of Montreal, a Canadian Tire, and the largest employer in the world, the aforementioned Wal-Mart. I'm familiar with some of the work these businesses do in the community and they should be applauded for their efforts. You see, they're not the cause of the problem.

So yes, the solutions to this problem (and there is more than one) lie with us — the charities and nonprofits that stand to benefit. The solutions lie in something that we're historically pretty good at — relationship building.

One of the most important things to be established is that, in order to maximize the fullest potential of these opportunities, an executive director needs to buy into the idea. Actually, "buy in" isn't good enough. The executive director must believe in what can be achieved, and must be able to tie the work of all human resources, paid or unpaid, into the outcomes of the organization.

Next comes the board and their understanding of the value of these types of relationships. They need to be active in developing these types of opportunities. And, since board members are volunteers themselves, they bring a different kind of message than paid staff are able to do by sharing the vision of the organization in a way that is meaningful and engaging to corporations.

In all of this, it is important to connect the work being done with the motivations of the business. There are a few things that need to be explored and can't be overlooked. The first is ensuring that the two sides have congruent values. This may not seem important at the outset, but imagine public perception if the ABC Animal Rescue Organization was partnered with XYZ Cosmetics Corporation – a company known to support the testing of their products on animals. Imagine what the message would look like to the public and the damage to the credibility of both organizations.

Also, nonprofits need to better understand the corporate role in this relationship. The corporations are partners in this affiliation. Just as the relationship between a nonprofit and its volunteers isn't a one-way street, neither is an employer-supported volunteer program. Businesses have different motivations for participating in these kinds of activities. While some are looking to maximize or enhance their existing donations, others are trying to build morale in their employees. Many are looking strictly for PR opportunities. Whatever their motivation, it's important for your organization to find out what that motivation is and make sure it can work within your organization's framework.

One of the things that nonprofits need to do is consider these types of opportunities as part of a broader engagement strategy. It's not just about bringing bodies into the organization. It's about tapping into the experience and education that these individuals bring with them. Should a nonprofit have the courage to say "no thanks" to having a fence painted and have a "but" in their back pocket? Absolutely!

"We've got the fence painting project under control..."

"...But would you be interested in allowing us to access your HR department to help us evaluate our current benefits package?"

"...But would you consider allowing us to work with your legal department to do a risk assessment on one of our outreach programs?"

I hope my point of view has given you something to ponder.

In a recent article from The Philanthropist, Martha Parker states:

"Engaging community in the work of any organization requires a culture that believes that talent, from whatever source, is critical to the success of the organization or cause. That means that boards of directors and paid staff have to be intentional and deliberate in enabling and modeling the engagement of others in delivering on the mission of their organization."

We're here to serve our constituents, whoever they are. Regardless of who they are, everyone working on behalf of our organizations must help us meet that mandate.

Scott Lundell is the executive director of the Information and Volunteer Centre for Strathcona County. He is a passionate advocate of volunteerism and lives in Sherwood Park, Alberta.

Photos (from top) via iStock.com. All photos used with permission.

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