There is nothing inherently new about volunteers donating professional expertise. During the past year a variety of summits and action campaigns have examined the potential of intentionally and strategically applying business talents to “strengthen the management capacity” of nonprofits.
Perhaps the most developed initiative is A Billion + Change, run through the Corporation for National and Community Service, which has issued the challenge to leverage $1 billion in skilled volunteering and pro bono services from the corporate community.
Of course it can be enormously helpful for a nonprofit to have access to the donated time of experts in everything from the law to marketing to purchasing. It’s also fine for a company with reduced cash flow to consider employee volunteering a way to stretch less-available philanthropic dollars, particularly if the idea is to permit employees to do the community service during the regular, paid work day.
On the surface, this all seems ideal and simple. In practice, however, it takes some work to assure success.
To veterans of the nonprofit world, the obvious premise of the push to facilitate pro bono volunteering is the age-old assumption that agencies are best managed when “operating like a business.” This attitude comes along with the assumption that the do-gooder types in nonprofits obviously lack business skills and so anyone from a corporation — by definition — can put an agency on the right track.
Leaving aside the reasonable observation that the current economic woes came largely from poorly-led big business, this debate continues.
Accepting that the corporate volunteers seeking to donate their time and talent do indeed have skills valuable to a nonprofit, there remain a number of other assumptions to confront:
Volunteers from a corporation generally expect resources to be accessible for any planned activity, with those responsible for carrying it out having the authority to approve expenses up to a certain amount. But in a nonprofit, a proposed change might need to go before the board of directors, which might mean a delay before gaining approval. The volunteer then discovers that planning usually precedes fundraising — and the time lag between setting a goal and implementing action to attain it can be months or longer. So the business volunteer can get frustrated while the nonprofit staffer sees the volunteer as impatient. In the same vein, business volunteers need to understand that the intransigent community issues most agencies tackle do not lend themselves to quick fixes. Even with money and effort, it is likely that positive change will be incremental and slow, and affected by external factors such as legislation or neighborhood development.
The measure of success in business is profit but, in a nonprofit, it’s accomplishing a service mission (in small steps). Businesses compete for customers’ money; nonprofits compete to impress third-party funders while needing to serve clients/members. These differences can collide in unexpected ways. For example, take a simple pro bono assignment such as having a volunteer with marketing and advertising skills design a brochure for a nonprofit agency. What might be the most trendy font or color to promote sales of a product might not give the right tone to something aimed at pregnant teens or families dealing with Alzheimer’s disease. Choices about vocabulary also require an understanding of what the reader expects, understands, etc. Some pro bono volunteers will “get” this immediately, others will appreciate being trained, but a few will assume they know best.
The nonprofit perspective
There are assumptions at play on the nonprofit side of the equation, too. For example:
Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, a Philadelphia-based training, publishing and consulting firm specializing in volunteerism. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her Web site is www.energizeinc.com
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