Daily Archives: 19 January 2011

Going too far

A national nonprofit organization asked me to participate in a one-hour conference call this week to help them brainstorm something they want to do. I said sure, because I can make time available to do this, the topic is interesting to me, and I would like to contribute.

That same nonprofit then asked me to participate in a series of calls between now and the summer, contributing more than 20-30 hours of my time to a planning process. I said no. They wanted 20-30 hours free consulting from me, and from about a dozen other people as well, and seemed stunned that I (and at least one other person involved) found this request exploitative.

If I were running a store, would you walk in and say, “Hi, can you give me several hundred dollars of stuff for free?”? If I ran a restaurant, would you say, “Could I eat hear for six months every night for free? After all, we’re friends!”?

When does a request for donated time go from being appropriate, even welcomed, to being exploitive? When the organization forgets what they are asking for — for volunteering. Pro bono consulting is volunteering.

Time is a precious commodity. In today’s economy, asking for a person’s time can be the same as asking for money. If you are going to ask me to part with that much of my time, you had better have a highly-motivating reason for me to do so, because you are asking me to give you something that I normally charge for – and I have bills to pay, a household to support, and many things to pay for, just like you do.

This organization forgot what goes into recruiting volunteers. Which is shocking, since it’s an organization that is supposed to be focused on volunteering. Recruiting volunteers is never, “Here’s a bunch of work we need done. Please come do it. Because we’re a nonprofit.”

I volunteer a lot, with various organizations. How did these organizations recruit me to give so much of my precious time to them? Their recruitment messages focused on:

    • what their organization does, in terms of results for their target audience, and it inspired me or motivated me to get involved.
    • why volunteers are essential to what that organization does, but never in terms like, “We could never have enough money to pay staff to do this, so we involve volunteers” or “volunteers contribute $xxxx in services,” which implies money saved in having to pay people; instead, the messages focus on why volunteers are more appropriate to do the tasks than paid staff, for reasons that have NOTHING to do with money.
    • what the benefits will be for me in volunteering; Will I get to work with a target audience or regarding an issue I care deeply about? Will it be fun? Will I get opportunities that might help me in my professional work? Will I get some kind of incredible discount on something I would love to have?

I don’t wait for some free time to give these organizations; I MAKE time to help them. And these organizations also let me know that they appreciate my work:

  • They send me personalized emails when I finish an assignment, commenting on the work to show me that they actually read it.
  • They send me stuff: a pen, a t-shirt, a trophy.
  • Sometimes, someone writes me just to say “hi.”

In short, they treat me like a precious investor!

I cannot possibly say yes to every organization that wants my donated time. In fact, I say “no” more often than I say “yes,” even to organizations that have a great volunteer recruitment message, because, as I’ve said, I have bills to pay. In fact, even if I win the lottery and can afford to give away all my time for free, I will still have to say “no” often, because there are only 24 hours a day, and I’ll still need time for eating, sleeping, spending time with my family, etc.

Time is precious. Sometimes, if you really want it, you are going to have to pay for it – even if you are a nonprofit.