Tag Archives: business

Corporate volunteers can be a burden for nonprofits

Back in 2011, I asked if group volunteering was really all its cracked up to be.

The sentiment has gone mainstream: the Boston Globe published this yesterday: Corporate volunteers can be a burden for nonprofits.

Corporate social responsibility folks, managers of employee volunteerism programs: are you listening?

Incorporating virtual volunteering into a corporate employee volunteer program

A new resource on my web site:

Incorporating virtual volunteering into a corporate employee volunteer program 
(a resource for businesses / for-profit companies)

Virtual volunteering – volunteers providing service via a computer, smart phone, tablet or other networked advice – presents a great opportunity for companies to expand their employee philanthropic offerings. Through virtual volunteering, some employees will choose to help organizations online that they are already helping onsite. Other employees who are unable to volunteer onsite at a nonprofit or school will choose to volunteer online because of the convenience. This resource reviews what your company needs to do, step-by-step, to launch or expand virtual volunteering as a part of your employee volunteering program.

Inspired by my recent webinar with Kaye Morgan-Curtis, of Newell Rubbermaid for VolunteerMatch: Virtual Volunteering: An Untapped Resource for Employee Engagement.

Nonprofits *are* job creators!

Recently, I heard a man on the TV ranting about why people without private sector experience are bad to serve in government offices. “They’ve never balanced a budget, created a job or had to struggle to make payroll!” he said.

And my head exploded. KAPOW.

When you are working in government, or a nonprofit, balancing budgets and struggling to make payroll is often MOST of what you do!

In the nonprofit and public sectors, the pressure to balance a budget – one that has often been cut drastically with no input from you, the person expected to balance that budget – is far greater than the for-profit/business world. And the struggle to make payroll is something I’ve seen far too often in nonprofit organizations, often because a corporation has slashed its own budgets and cut funding to the organization or initiative that had been promised for months, or a government agency suddenly had its budget cut and, therefore, had to cut the budget of nonprofits it was supporting.

And nonprofit organizations are job creators. Funding nonprofits, which are focused on improving or preserving communities for EVERYONE, are not only job creators, but also, the people that make communities places where people actually want to live and work – which helps those that start businesses. Nonprofits:

  • help improve education (which creates better workers),
  • help preserve and improve environmental health (which helps organic farmers and fishermen have better products)
  • help improve children’s health (which allows parents to have the time to work instead of caring for sick children – time, perhaps, even to start businesses)
  • help promote bicycle use (which helps create more business for bicycle shops, creates more ways for workers to get to their jobs, contributes to a healthier workforce, and creates more parking spaces for cars)
  • build and promote community gardens (which helps those that sell gardening implements and other supplies)
  • fund and manager arts organizations (which create jobs for actors, production staff and administration staff, as well as enhancing the community and making it more attractive to employers to locate businesses there)
  • build, sustain and grow universities and colleges (which train people in various areas of expertise – and these people become workers, even job creators, themselves)

and on and on.

The amount of misinformation being promoted by so many pundits and even elected officials in the USA regarding the realities of the third sector is startling, disheartening and destructive. I have worked primarily in the nonprofit and government sectors, and in those sectors, I most certainly HAVE had to balance budgets, create jobs and struggle to make payroll. In fact, I have had to be far, far more creative with resources and efficient in the use of time and resources than I have ever had to be in a for-profit setting. By contrast, most people I’ve known who have worked primarily in the corporate sector have little understanding of how to do a lot with a limited amount of resources: they can’t believe most nonprofits don’t have fully staff IT departments or the latest computer technologies, and are stunned that volunteers are, in fact, not free at all.

Nonprofits and government agencies have GOT to do a better job of talking about what they accomplish, what it takes to make those accomplishments possible, and how they make those accomplishments happen. Every nonprofit has an obligation to show their transparency and credibility, and to teach the media and general public about the resources and expertise needed to address critical human and environmental needs. The Internet has made it oh-so-easy to do that!

Also see:

*Another* Afghanistan Handicraft program? Really?

Recently, I got an email from yet another organization that is teaching Afghan women how to make handicrafts and textiles to sell in the West.

And I sighed. Heavily.

I’m not saying that these are bad programs. In fact, I have supported many of them, as a consumer: My husband and I each have a lovely Shalwar Kameez from a shop run by Afghans for Civil Society in Kandahar (here’s him in his; I’m in the burqa), I have a custom-made jacket from AWWSOM Boutique in Kabul that I wore at my wedding reception, I have a custom-made purse from Gundara, and I have lots of items from Ganjini Showroom and various other stores in Kabul. These items are beautiful, they are well-made, and I love showing them off (for more info, see my guide to shopping in Kabul).

HOWEVER, teaching more and more Afghan women how to make purses, shawls, table cloths and other lovely items is not going to lift women out of poverty, nor move them into their proper place in society, because there is not enough of a market for all those products.

Capacity-building programs have to be focused on what is actually needed in a particular community, that are more guaranteed to provide income regularly, long-term. That means programs that teach Afghan women how to:

These are things that local people need, and/or that they want – they are not just that are nice to have.

If you know of a program – local or international, government-run or foreign run or civil society run, whatever – that is teaching Afghan women to engage in income-generation activities that are practical and sustainable, feel free to post names and links in the comments section of this blog.

Best volunteer thank you gift ever!

Jayne & her thank you gift from BPEACE Jayne & her thank you gift from BPEACE

I’m an online volunteer with BPEACE, and out of the blue, they sent me this soccer ball, hand-stitched by Afghan women. Afghan women have been renowned for centuries for deft needlework. Now the women of DOSTI, meaning “friendship” in Dari, have harnessed that heritage to handcraft club-quality soccer balls – with the help of BPEACE. Read the DOSTI soccer ball story for yourself (and learn how to get one for yourself!).


On a related note, see this page on how to thank online volunteers (also covers how to use the Internet to thank ALL volunteers)

Corporations: here’s what nonprofits really need

It turns out I’m not the only one who mocks the business community when they decide to “save” the nonprofit community: Kelly Kleiman does too! She goes after some of Silicon Valley’s business elite (the latest is the the “Palindrome Advisors group”) who are planning “to disrupt the nonprofit space”  with their business genius. And she could not be funnier – or more accurate – in her blog! As she states so well, the breathless accounts of these business efforts “ignore the fact that what nonprofits need isn’t more advice, it’s more money. When business people are ready to provide that—when they’re ready to serve on boards, not as agents of disruption but as securers of resources, and when they’re ready to advocate for a tax system that will underwrite the necessary work done by the voluntary sector—well, that will be news.”

Over the last 20 years, I have seen so many of these business movements come and go. I’ve sat in audiences of nonprofit conferences while the featured speakers – business leaders, often paid to give us their wisdom while the nonprofit trainers are expected to volunteer their training time – tell nonprofits, with great contempt, all that they are doing wrong and how they need to act more like businesses. Nevermind that, a year or two later, their businesses have gone under with the bursting of the latest tech bubbles, while all the nonprofits they scorned are still around.

Yes, we need businesses to partner with nonprofits. But how about this:

  • Businesses sit down with nonprofits and LISTEN to what they need.
  • Volunteer not just on an advisory board but on the front lines, for several weeks: go through the volunteer orientation and get some time with the clients served by the nonprofit.
  • Sit in on some staff and volunteer meetings, and listen, don’t talk, a few times.

Learn about nonprofits first. Then talk.

I still dream of nonprofits waking up and marching into the corporate world and saying, “You need to do things differently. Let us help. Let us disrupt your for-profit space. Let us show you what it’s like to be driven by a mission rather than your profit. Let us show you how to do so much with so little resources. Let us show you what it’s like to use old computers to try to access your fancy tech tools, because you refuse to fund our ‘administrative costs.’ Let us show you how to balance the whims of donors with the very real needs of our clients. You could learn so much from us!”

Also see:

(note: most of these URLs no longer work, as my former blog host is now defunct and archive.org got rid of their archives for some reason)


Is group volunteering all its cracked up to be?

Do most nonprofits really need groups of volunteers from corporations or other organizations showing up for one-day volunteering activities?

I’ve been thinking about this for a few months lately, and now the British-based company nfpSynergy has scooped me with its own thoughts on whether or not corporate volunteering really all its cracked up to be. An excerpt from its blog:

There is nothing more difficult to deal with than an employer who rings up a charity offering 30/300/3000 employees who want to do a bit of volunteering as part of their team-building on Thursday afternoon in three weeks time. Charities quietly (for fear of upsetting their corporate partners) dislike employee volunteering while companies are much more enthusiast.

It’s so true!

I started thinking about blogging about this myself when I saw that a certain corporation had won a certain state’s group volunteering award for its participation in a range of one-time events. IMO, this corporation was being honored for “volunteering” in events that had been created more to accommodate the corporation and others looking for a one-time, feel-good experience (and photo ops) than to actually make a difference in the community.

As any person who has worked with nonprofits knows, one-time volunteering events – walks, runs, dances, auctions, benefit performances, beach clean-up days, house painting, etc. – are very expensive and time-consuming. They are worthwhile for most organizations only if they result in one or more of the following:

  • measurable results regarding community awareness of a particular issue or organization
  • candidates for longer-term volunteering in more substantive activities regarding service delivery
  • funds raised to cover all costs, including staff time to organize and supervise the event, insurance, etc.

A school once asked me if it had to accept a corporation’s request for a group of their employees to hold a pizza party for two of their classes of fourth graders just before the students went home on an upcoming Friday. The corporation considered this as somehow a great thing for the kids, and as a volunteering experience for their employees. The teachers balked at losing even an hour of teaching time, and saw nothing beneficial about such an event for the kids whatsoever. They were reluctant to tell the corporation no, however, for fear of losing the chance of a grant down the road. The school representatives were at first stunned, and then relieved, when I told them they had every right to refuse any such offer, that they could say, “Thanks so much. Because every hour of teaching time is vitally important, we can’t do anything that takes away such time. But here’s information about our lunch-time mentoring program; we would love any of your employees attend our next orientation about this program. Or we could do a presentation at your corporation about the program and how your employees could get involved. We have some other volunteering activities we would welcome your help with as well.”

(In case you are wondering, the corporation declined. Lunch time one-on-one mentoring wasn’t the kind of experience their employees were looking for, and they didn’t have time for employees to sit through a presentation by the school. Sigh.)

The nfpSynergy blog continues, with an experience very similar to my own:

For nearly five years now nfpSynergy has had a company policy of giving each employee 5 days of paid volunteering time. Doesn’t that make us wonderful? Well no not really because it didn’t work: very few staff used their volunteering days. And this is despite the fact that almost everybody who works for us is very committed to the charities and non-profits.

So why didn’t people use their volunteering days? The answer is simple. Five days is ‘diddly squat’ in the world of volunteering. It was like telling people they could go and buy a free lunch on the company but only giving them 10p with which to do.

My experience exactly: once upon a time, I ran the philanthropy activities for what was then a Fortune 500 company with hundreds of employees at headquarters and at another location in the USA, and thousands abroad. We also gave USA employees five days of paid time off to volunteer. In the two years I oversaw the program, less than a dozen individual employees took the days. Only two groups of employees did, in events organized by me: people from our facilities department painted a room at a nearby family homeless shelter, and three employees from our IT department networked the new computers of a nearby nonprofit over two days. It took me twice as many hours to organize these two group volunteering events as it took the volunteers to actually do them! 

Right now, I’m trying to find group volunteering activities for Girl Scouts in my area. And the reality is that, not only are most organizations not prepared, in terms of insurance, supervision and program, to host groups of girls under 16 (most under 13, in fact) as volunteers, most organizations do not want a group of young girls as volunteers; the staff have critical activities that must be taken care of, that cannot be delayed in order to give a group of young girls a feel-good experience.

Attention corporations and governments: if you want to see more group volunteering activities by corporate employees, youth groups, professional associations, etc., prepare to pay for it. Money is needed to fund the staff, material, training and other resources to not only make the activity happen, but to make the activity a meaningful part of the organization’s mission or outreach efforts.

Also see:

Creating One-Time, Short-Term Group Volunteering Activities

One(-ish) Day “Tech” Activities for Volunteers

Finding Community Service and Volunteering for Groups

Pro Bono / In-Kind / Donated Services for Mission-Based Organizations: When, Why & How?



Are You a Member of the Cyber Sweatshop?

One of the most contentious discussions ever on OzVPM, an online discussion group for volunteer managers in Australia and New Zealand, was whether or not it was appropriate for people to volunteer for for-profit companies. The discussion started with a question on April 7, 2010, and it exploded with 221 messages for the month, on a group that averages about 35 messages in a month. Boundaries were pushed. Tempers flared. Teeth were gnashed. No conclusion was every reached.

Of course I was in the middle of it all. I said that, indeed, volunteers already DO contribute to for-profit organizations. I talked about volunteers in for-profit hospitals and for-profit hospices. I talked about volunteers at a recent Triumph motorcycle event I had attended. I talked about how these companies didn’t involve volunteers to save money; they involved volunteers because volunteers were the best people for the jobs. I also brought up that at least 90% of the content on Facebook was generated for free by users, meaning that we were all volunteering online for a for-profit company.

A year after I was bringing this up in workshops and online, The New York Times has thought of it as well, publishing a commentary, At Media Companies, a Nation of Serfs, which laments:

the growing perception that content is a commodity, and one that can be had for the price of zero… Old-line media companies that are not only forced to compete with the currency and sexiness of social media, but also burdened by a cost structure for professionally produced content, are left at a profound disadvantage.

Journalists aren’t happy. “The technology of a lot of these sites is very seductive, and it lulls you into contributing,” said Anthony De Rosa, a product manager at Reuters, in the article. “We are being played for suckers to feed the beast, to create content that ends up creating value for others.”

This isn’t the first time this concern has been vented, and that a backlash has been built against an online media company by users providing its content — remember America Online? Several of its users sued over ownership of the content they had created for AOL, content they weren’t paid for. Note this from the Wired.com article Disgruntled users called it a Cyber Sweat Shop from a few years ago:

Call them volunteers, remote staff, or community leaders – they are the human face of AOL. They host chats, clean scatological posts off the message boards, and bust jerks for terms-of-service violations. Fourteen thousand volunteer CLs not only play hall monitor to AOL’s vaunted “community,” they are that community. Their hours? Flexible: Some work as few as four per week, others put in as many as 60… Six months ago seven former AOL community leaders asked the Department of Labor to investigate whether AOL owes them back wages.

A disgruntled AOL community leader started making noise about his unfair treatment as far back as 1995. Here we are, 16 years later, having a very similar conversation about the Internet. Is there another backlash coming?

Volunteers don’t necessarily save money, even online volunteers: Wikimedia’s content is created and managed primarily by volunteers, yet Wikimedia still needs to fundraise every year to cover the many costs that come with involving several thousand online volunteers. And look at the quality of Wikimedia content – if I can’t find a fact in an academic article or newspaper article, I won’t quote it in something I’m working on, and many people feel similarly; without professional editors, the information there cannot be fully trusted.

I certainly have my own limits regarding when I think it’s appropriate to ask someone to work for free, and when I think such goes too far. I am on numerous online discussion groups, and I freely share a lot of resources – and it takes several hours of my time to do so. I admit I’m not doing it just to be nice; I’m also hoping that it could lead to paid work. I’m happy to share my time for free only up to a point, however: at least once a week, I have to turn down at least one request asking me to review a business plan, offer advice on a web site, etc. – for free. Unfortunately, the utilities company, DirectTV, my car insurance company, grocery stores, gas stations, my Internet Service Provider, and others that charge me for products and services do not accept volunteer time helping nonprofit organizations or aspiring entrepreneurs as payment.

I used to freely provide answers on the community service section of YahooAnswers, where the same questions about volunteering, community service and fund raising events get asked over and over again. At first it was to learn more about teen perceptions about volunteering, but it dawned on me finally that I was adding tremendous value to this Yahoo service, without being paid for it. So I created a series of web pages on my own site to answer these frequently-asked questions, and started pointing questioners to these pages; if visitors click on the GoogleAds on the page, I get a few pennies. In less than a year, I’ve raised enough money to pay for my web site hosting and my domain name ownership. Without this financial incentive, I’m not sure I would continue answering questions on YahooAnswers.

I also have seen a different trend emerging: more and more sites that pay people for their time to contribute to projects, instead of asking them to volunteer it: CrowdSpring, Yahoo’s Associated Content service, Freelancer.com, Elance.com, Guru.com and similar sites pay people for the content they create. If the companies using these services could get the quality content they need for free, they would NOT be paying for it. Will other sites now getting their content for free, like YahooAnswers, eventually have to follow suit in order to get the quality content more and more users are demanding?

I’ll end with this: the hilarious Should I Work For Free chart that was brought to my attention during my presentation in Hungary last month.