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source: gratisography.com

A partnership is defined as: the state or condition of being a partner; participation; association; joint interest. (source: dictionary.com)

A recent article in The Republic points out that companies are beginning to understand employees want flexibility in their volunteering beyond the one-time corporate volunteering day. According to the article, Una Osili, associate dean for research at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy says, “I think for some nonprofits they can leverage those one-time moments to expose employees to long-term opportunities.” Osili further says the key for not-for-profits involved with those one-time volunteer days is to find a way to turn the experience into a long-term relationship with the not-for-profit and the company’s staff.

So, a company approaches you with a request to volunteer and your first thought is “Oh jeez, the amount of work is going to kill me.” Yeah, been there, a bunch of times. But it doesn’t have to be this way if you are prepared up front. Strategizing corporate volunteering begins with asking these two important questions: “Who” and “Why,” because establishing a relationship with a corporate partner hinges on the people who participate and the motivation to volunteer in the first place.

A recent letter writer to Alison Green’s popular “Ask a Manager” site complained that she felt forced to volunteer and her company’s volunteering campaign was mainly for PR. Alison Green answers: ” Some companies do have a strong culture around volunteering — which can sound sort of heart-warming from the outside, but in reality often means “we pressure our employees to work for free on causes that we choose, in order to build good PR for the company.” It’s crap.”

The comments from Ask a Manager readers are enlightening. Many abhor being coerced into volunteering. A few speak positively about their company’s policy that allows them to volunteer at the charity of their choice, no questions asked.

For us, it boils down to creating partnerships with companies in the same way we do with individual volunteers. We look for motivations and the opportunity to build a sustainable relationship. That’s a hugely different mindset than thinking, “just get me through this one day of group volunteering and I can get back to the real work.” Looking for an opportunity to partner changes the mindset. When a company approaches, have a list of questions ready to determine whether their participation will be a good fit. The questions we ask individual prospective volunteers can be modified for this purpose such as:

  • Why did you choose our organization?
  • Has anyone in your company benefited from our services?
  • What do you hope to accomplish here?
  • What volunteering have you done in the past? How was it received? What feedback did you get?
  • Is this mandatory or optional?
  • What benefits do you believe your employees will receive by volunteering with us?

This is not an inquisition, but rather an attempt to help a company determine whether a sustainable partnership is a good fit. But don’t stop there. Go beyond speaking to the group organizer. When employees show up to volunteer, approach them individually and ask what they think of the volunteer experience. Find out if they feel “voluntold” or if they are voluntarily participating. After all, our aim is to encourage the company to come back again, or donate, or advocate or encourage their employees to volunteer individually or help in other ways and if the employees who participate rate their experience poorly, then the chances are the partnership will fail.

Once you determine the company’s Who and Why, then offer the What, When and Where options that work for you. Don’t be afraid to control the corporate volunteering experience. Why? Well, let’s look at it this way. How does it look when a leader of volunteers (LoVols) runs around, hair on fire, trying to accommodate a group? Yeah, it looks like the LoVols is just a hamster on a wheel instead of a professional who is in charge of their program and is offering a great experience. It looks like he/she can’t wait for the day to end. Hmmm, that’s not exactly the start to a great partnership.

Now, how does it look when a LoVols welcomes a group with a choice of well thought out options? It instills confidence in that volunteer manager’s ability to provide a worthwhile experience versus a haphazard day. And that is where a strategic plan works.

Think about this. Let’s say you were planning your son’s birthday party. You call up your local skating rink and say, “um, yeah, my son’s birthday is this Saturday. I’m inviting 30 kids but don’t know how many will actually show. I must have the party from 2-4pm and need special music. Oh, and make sure there’s a clown with balloons.” You would never think to do that, so why do we think it’s ok for a group to call up a LoVols and request time, location, number of participants and activity? Without clear options, chaos ensues. And chaos does not encourage sustainability.

Why would we expect a corporate group to know what volunteering activity provides the most meaningful experience for not only their employees, but for our organizations? Corporate groups are looking to us to mold their day of volunteering into something worthwhile. It’s time we take that responsibility to heart and set the parameters that work for everyone.

If we, leaders of volunteers want to be treated as professionals, then we must stop thinking that running around letting circumstances control us is good management. Instead, we must establish a professionally structured program, one that offers the best experience for volunteers, makes a difference in our clients’ lives and supports our missions in measurable ways.

Formulate your corporate volunteering strategic plan on paper. Next time: What goes into a strategic plan?