Corporate Volunteering: Top 7 Requests & the Bad, Better and Best Responses (3 of 7)

Chris Jarvis

The following blog entry is a cross-post from my blog Realizing Your Worth.

Companies want to engage their communities through employee volunteering programs. For most, this means calling a non-profit and scheduling an activity. But how should non-profits respond? Is there a “best” answer for everyone? (Part 3 of 7)

If men are from Mars, and women are from Venus, then non-profits and businesses must be from opposite corners of the universe. Their shoes, memos and boardrooms may look the same, but let me tell you – they do not speak the same language.

Take, for example, the following: When a business says, “We want to help out for a day” the non-profits hears, “We want to give you a migraine.” Conversely, when a non-profit says, “We’d like a long-term relationship” the business hears, “We’d like to drain your wallets dry.”

Unfortunately, this debilitating language barrier exists between two groups who have the potential to significantly benefit one another. All that’s needed is a little translating….

And that’s what this blog series is all about. Thanks to Fabia Bates for initiating an interesting discussion on the newly launched which effectively brings to light the communication issues to which I’ve referred. One writer from the Volunteer Center of South Derbyshire says she’d like to see longer-term, skills-based volunteering, but finds this concept difficult to sell to “CSR people with fixed ideas about why they are volunteering.” And so, we invite CSR people and Volunteer Centers alike to join us in this mutual effort to engage and understand each other….despite our differences.

The 7 typical requests by businesses of non-profits:

The “Ideal” Volunteer Experience….

  1. …can be undertaken in a day
  2. …can be done together as a team
  3. …has intrinsic value
  4. …does not clash with other objectives
  5. …enhances the skills of their employees
  6. …coincides with the company’s chosen cause
  7. …coincides with what their employees want to do

(These 7 requests have been adapted from material provided by and can be found here as part of a very helpful slide presentation).

3. “We want an activity that has intrinsic value”

First of all, um….what does that even mean?

Well, its something all companies want (whether or not you’ve heard them specifically use the term “intrinsic value.”) Basically, what they’re asking for is a way for people (both their employees and the community) to see an obvious value come from the investment of volunteering. An easy example of intrinsic value shows up with a group like Habitat for Humanity. When your group volunteers with them, the value is loud and clear at the end of the day in the form of a brand new house. Intrinsic value is built-in, visible, unquestionable.

Projects that offer this type (and it is not the only type) of intrinsic value are important for companies for 3 reasons: 1) recruiting volunteers is easy 2) showing what the company achieved for the community is easy 3) feeling a sense of satisfaction from the finished project is….well, easy.

When a company asks, in one form or another, for a volunteering project that has intrinsic value, there are a couple ways to respond. Let’s start with what not to do….

Bad, Better, and Best Responses:

BAD: Tell them: “You can make a difference.”
“You can make a difference.” You’ve heard it before. It’s a common refrain of the non-profit and community organization. Everyone wants to make a difference, right? Do good, feel important, leave a legacy? It’s a tempting carrot to dangle…..even if it’s a bit misleading.

And herein lies the problem with the idea of intrinsic value. Homelessness is a relatively visible problem and building a house is an obvious step toward a solution. When it’s finished, a volunteer feels that he or she has “made a difference.” An actual understanding of homelessness or the obstacles poverty places in the way of home ownership is not required. Volunteers will keep building houses because the value is intrinsic.

Let’s pause right here. Chances are, anyone reading this who represents an non-profit is already weighing the value of the work they do, against the value of building a home. Your non-profit may need volunteers to scrub a floor that’s going to be dirty again tomorrow, or spend time with an elderly person who won’t acknowledge their presence. The value of your work is hard to see, and people don’t always feel that they’ve made a difference. You run into this challenge over and over: How do we convince volunteers that this work is important?

Well, you don’t. Don’t try and convince them. Sometimes the value of the work will be immediately clear, sometimes it will take time. But whatever you do, don’t merely “tell” people why a project or cause is important. You will risk stealing from them the opportunity to understand and thus internalize its true value.

In fact, telling volunteers why the work is important to other people tends to keep them from considering how the issues and solutions effect (or should effect) them personally. When we do this, we run a high risk of objectifying the people we hope to help by creating two groups: the “haves” and the “have nots.” The “haves” are the group that are able to fix the problem of the “have not’s.” This artificial dichotomy enables volunteers to look down on the communities being served. It’s not intentional, but telling volunteers how they are making a difference (without any further guidance) leads to this objectification.

(For further discussion please read: Want Good Volunteers? Dump The Altruistic, Find The Self-Interested.)

There is a way to guide volunteers to an understanding of the value of their work – and we’re getting to that. But first, let’s look at some additional reasons why just telling them its valuable, is bad for everyone involved.

Let’s start with this is bad for the non-profit. Ever wonder why so many companies feel they have the answers to make your non-profit organization better? It has a lot to do with the attitudes that result from the message, “you can make a difference.” Everything is externalized, objectified and simplified. The volunteers immediately see themselves as experts who possess the means to make a difference. Therefore, when they see something they don’t understand about your organization, the same mental schema is applied and they determine to….uh, make a difference. (Or offer you solutions for problems they don’t yet understand.) Doing things to others lacks the mutual reciprocity necessary for respect and transformation. In an effort to sell a project’s intrinsic value, we only create external objectification and relational distance.

It’s bad for the company too. Trying to convince employee-volunteers that there is value in the volunteer experience tends to inoculate them against discovering what it holds for them personally. This, in turn, keeps companies from understanding what motivates their employees to volunteer in the first place, and they miss the potential of corporate volunteering to transform their company. This will inevitably result in low participation rates, and little to no effect in morale or employee satisfaction.

I hope it goes without saying that the objectification which results from misleading volunteers is bad for the community. When volunteers leave community organizations believing that people who are unlike them are a problem to be solved, the systemic issues are being perpetuated, rather than addressed. Which brings us to a better way to provide a valuable volunteer experience….

BETTER & BEST (It’s just that good): Guide them: “Become different.”

When a company calls your non-profit asking for a project with intrinsic value, you can simply explain to them that they’re asking the wrong question. (Try and be polite.) What they should be asking is for an

non-profit who guides volunteers to discover the intrinsic value of each project for themselves; one which, instead of changing others, believes in the potential of change for ourselves.

It sounds selfish…and it is.

It’s like relationships. Do you want to be close to someone who just wants to “make a difference” in your life? Who meets with you to “help” you and answers your phone calls because they’re trying to “do good”? And if this relationship is a romantic one, and your partner is working hard to “change” you, well….let’s hope you’re gonna get out of that one soon.

Instead, we want to be with someone who loves us for very personal and selfish reasons. We do not want to be held by an altruistic love. The reason for this of course, is that nobody wants to be a project. You can’t really trust someone who doesn’t have a vested interest in the relationship.

And that’s they key. Mutual Reciprocity.

Don’t just tell volunteers why their contributions are important to others. Instead, help your volunteers discover the personal reasons they have for being there. As each volunteer discovers his/her own intrinsic value, their work becomes a way to express that value. Essentially, the work has intrinsic value because the volunteer understands the importance of their place in it. The goal is to guide volunteers to find their value; to become different. As such, they will naturally and without effort, make a difference.

It’s not tough to do. Mostly, it’s just a change in mindset. Here are a few tips to get you moving in the right direction:

“We want an activity that has intrinsic value”

Let’s be clear:

The desire to “make a difference” is not a bad thing. It’s great that this idea motivates people to volunteer and usually the work they do does, in fact, make a difference.

Companies looking for projects with intrinsic or obvious value is not a bad thing either. Its great that these projects usually help with participation rates and other goals of the employee volunteer program.

But in the end, we have an opportunity to go one step further by allowing become personally engaged with the work we are doing, and those we are serving. A great volunteer is one who wants to become different, and incidentally makes a difference.

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