Beth Kanter knows a thing or two about nonprofits. With over 30 years working in the nonprofit sector, Kanter has penned several award-winning books and is the writer of one of the longest running and most popular blogs for nonprofits. She’s trained thousands of nonprofits around the world and in the process has increased capacity building at organizations whose missions are so critical to our collective well-being. Kanter was named by Fast Company as one of the most influential women in technology and one of BusinessWeek’s “Voices of Innovation for Social Media.” She was the Visiting Scholar for Social Media and Nonprofits for the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and was a Society of New Communications Research Fellow.
Truly, Kanter’s list of accolades would take more space than I had planned for this blog. Her most recent book is The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact Without Burnout, which she describes as a manifesto for a culture shift in the nonprofit sector, starting conversations about the importance of individual self-care and WE-care in the workplace.
Suffice it to say, Kanter is an ideal person to ask this question: How can corporate volunteer programs better support nonprofits?
As Kanter sees it, we’re living in an era of stressed-out workplaces, and even nonprofit cultures have become dehumanized. While nonprofits typically offer employees a sense of fulfillment and higher purpose, they’re often lacking in the efficiency of functionality, which creates a whole other set of stress. Nonprofit employees are passionate about what they do, but the prevalent nonprofit culture of scarcity and overwork can and does lead to burnout.
On the other side of the equation, you have corporate volunteer programs designed to help nonprofits achieve their missions. But too often, well-intentioned program leaders steer their efforts towards what works best for companies, not the nonprofit. Volunteer opportunities are frequently considered from every angle except the lens of true need and measurable impact. Instead, nonprofits are tasked with manufacturing opportunities specifically for corporate volunteers, and sometimes these well-meaning activities barely make a dent in a nonprofit’s capacity to accomplish its goals.
Sure, companies often pay for this privilege of volunteering in large groups, knowing that nonprofits have to actually do extra work to accommodate corporate volunteering agendas. Those funds are certainly helpful. But isn’t there a lost opportunity here? Nonprofits are filled with overwhelmed employees; when companies sign up to volunteer, there is so much that could be done to truly help. Real work is what would be most valuable to nonprofits, not make-work.
Kanter agrees that often there’s a missed connection between companies that want to help and nonprofits that need their help. “Sometimes the nonprofit knows exactly what they need,” says Kanter. “But other times they need help just defining the problem.”
Kanter observes that so many nonprofit employees are activists with big ideas who underestimate their collective capacity and don’t necessarily have the resources and planning experience to see these ideas to fruition. Along these lines, sometimes nonprofit leaders designate impractical and unfeasible tasks as volunteer activities. An effective relationship between nonprofits and volunteers comes from making sure that both parties have set aside time on the front end to determine what nonprofits need and then plan how the company can best maximize its support towards this end.
Project planning skills are lacking but critical to nonprofits, and businesses would be providing a huge gift if a volunteer(s) with expertise assisted nonprofits in this area. Doing so would support nonprofits not just with assistance around their overall business planning, but also with setting up volunteer efforts for success.
While skills-based volunteering in particular is extremely valuable, it’s not enough to just check a box and pair up skilled volunteers with nonprofits. “There needs to be a whole conversation upfront about what nonprofits need, and then a whole plan around what can be done,” notes Kanter. “What is a doable project? What are the specific pieces of the strategy? What are the expectations in terms of deliverables?”
We don’t often think of volunteering as something that requires as much planning as doing to be effective. But nonprofits would experience far more impact if company leaders made sure that before they deployed volunteers to help, they worked closely with organizations to map out the true needs of nonprofits.
Kanter recommends that every volunteer project has a clear agenda, with an assessment of the organization and its priorities, an understanding of how volunteers will spend their time, and a plan for follow up afterwards. Companies that can come in and reduce the workload for nonprofits rather than add to their obligations will go a long way towards helping organizations achieve the happy and healthy state that Kanter writes about and which is an essential ingredient for actual impact.
And ultimately, true impact is the measure of success for everyone involved in volunteering, which can feed enthusiasm from nonprofits and employees in continued collaboration for years to come.
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