The Pitfalls of Corporatism

During my decade spent working in the non-profit world, I have encountered a common phenomenon I’ve coined “corporatism.” This is the notion that your status as an employee of a “for-profit” automatically makes you smarter, savvier, more knowledgeable and in general more dominant than someone working in a non-profit.

Now, I’m not saying non-profits have it all figured out. (I may or my not be working on a memoir called “The Devil Wears Payless.”) But the assumption on the part of so many corporate folks that there is nothing to learn from the employees or constituents of a non-profit is extremely limiting and damaging to the future of corporate social responsibility.

Corporatism manifests itself when someone hears that you work for a non-profit and responds with, “Aw, how nice!” Corporatism is when a company calls a non-profit to bring their employees in for a “day of service” without first thinking about whether their employees’ skills would be a good match for the non-profit’s constituents. And perhaps one of my favorite instances of corporatism is when a leading global financial institution offers to cover the cost of the pizza for their volunteer day, with no recognition of the staff resources and overhead required to execute such an event.

The underlying idea of corporatism is that non-profits should be grateful; non-profits should feel graced by our presence, and whatever we give you on top of our presence is just icing on the cake.

I believe that usually the intentions are rooted in generosity and the effects of this elitism are unintentional; I also believe that non-profits generally are grateful for both your presence and your financial gifts. But sticking to these roles isn’t going to get us where we need to go as a country. It isn’t going to empower the most vulnerable among us and change social services as we know it.

Which is why I started a consultancy to help the companies who do want to partner with non-profits in strategic and impact-driven ways — using the real skills their employees have and contributing financially to ensure that the partnership does not deplete the non-profit, but enriches it.

Corporations and their employees cannot change unless someone shows them what they are missing by staying the same.

Innumerable studies show that investing in a comprehensive and strategic CSR program is the only employee initiative that simultaneously improves talent acquisition, builds stronger teams, increases employee retention, develops your brand, manages your reputation and deepens client/customer relationships.

But if your company isn’t quite willing to accept that there is value in investing in a meaningful CSR program, at the very least, please remember these three simple tips for avoiding corporatism:

Just say no to branded t-shirts

I understand the desire for a photo op. But forcing your employees to wear matching t-shirts while speed networking, mock interviewing, college prepping or ESL tutoring sets up a corporatist hierarchy of us versus you — those that help, and those that need help. In many instances, modeling professional dress can also be an added benefit to the constituents of the non-profit. And remember, if your company is interested in becoming holistically socially responsible, adding to the 10.5 million tons of clothing sent to landfills every year isn’t helping.

Calculate the money you would have spent on shirts and give it to the non-profit, on top of the grant you are already giving to cover the true cost of running the day.

Orient your employees

If I had a dime for every time a corporate volunteer walked into an event with no idea where they were, what the mission of our non-profit was, or who they would be working with, I would have at least five dollars. While the non-profit hosting the volunteers often liaise with a “captain” or group of leaders from the company to plan the volunteering event, the majority of people walking into the volunteer experience have just been told when and where to show up (and what t-shirt to wear).

This is corporatism at it’s finest — I don’t need to prepare because anything I could be asked to do at this non-profit will be easy for me; I’m too busy to spend much time on this because it is superfluous to my job, not directly connected to it; all non-profits are the same so I don’t need to know the details of this one.

If you are interested in making real impact, and reaping the other benefits of a well-executed employee engagement program, involve your employees earlier in the process. Ideally, by helping to determine a volunteer focus area and non-profit partner at the outset. But if you’re past that point, share why you chose this non-profit, what skills they as volunteers are expected to display, and the demographic of the person they will be working with.

Communication is key

There are two elements to this one:

1) Language matters. Saying “giving back” means this relationship only flows one way — from you, in all of your abundance, to them, in all of their need. Other more equitable alternatives are a community partnership, a community collaboration, a day of action or a “day of doing.”

Think of other ways in which your choice of words is setting up an “us versus them” mentality amongst your employees, and begin to make these subtle shifts.

2) Actually talk to the non-profit. Don’t just tell them you have X number of volunteers who want to do something for X number of hours on X date and ask what they can arrange for you. What are their needs, both in terms of human capital and financial resources? What would an ideal day or longer-term partnership look like to them? Where are they hoping to grow in the next year, five years? What are the biggest challenges facing their constituents? What has worked with other corporate partnerships, and what has fallen flat?

And then go back. Go back to your team, go back to your office, and think. Don’t just assume that you have an answer for any challenge they have. Try to figure out where your team’s skills and resources are best matched to their needs.

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I believe that in the coming years we will see collaboration between for-profits and non-profits that could revolutionize social services and strengthen the fabric of our democracy. I believe that in order for capitalism to continue working, and in order for non-profits to continue operating, this kind of respectful and equitable collaboration must happen.

But before we can get there, we have to dismantle the notion of one side having the answers and the other side needing them. And my hunch is that by addressing corporatism, we may gain new insights into other –isms we’re carrying around with us as well.