Corporate Social Responsibility: Making it Work for Your Organization’s Volunteer Program (Part 1 of 2)

There are things I know now, if known when cutting my teeth in the non-profit volunteer management years ago, would’ve helped me avoid pitfalls when engaging corporate volunteers. I originally delivered this as a presentation for members of the Northern Virginia Association for Volunteer Administration (NVAVA). However, I received so much feedback regarding its helpfulness that I’ve chosen to modify it into a two-part blog post to share with a greater audience. For those of you working as volunteer engagement professionals at non-profits, I hope this provide insights and perspective that aid in your success with building partnerships with your corporate counterparts.

Volunteerism is often just a small sliver of a company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy.

CSR programming includes the principles, policies and strategy that guides a company’s self-regulation of business operations in a progressively more responsible way while conducting business in the community. But understand CSR includes much more than just corporate volunteerism. It often includes programming around sustainability, diversity and inclusion, supplier diversity, employee engagement and governance and ethics to name a few. To be successful, it’s paramount the CSR programming includes the likes of employees at the operational level in their respective business disciplines. It’s those operational level employees who carry out the programming in their respective departments, including the volunteering in the community on behalf of the company.

Many CSR practitioners engaging employees in volunteerism aren’t in a “you shall” line of work. In fact, the actions of many CSR practitioners driving corporate volunteerism closely mirrors the work of volunteer engagement professionals at non-profits who engage community volunteers. The difference you ask? CSR practitioners engage volunteers from within their company, whereas, non-profit engagement professionals focus recruitment on those outside the their organization. As a result, CSR practitioners often rely heavily on a combination of program strategy and the rapport that’s established with operational employees who take on the actions of volunteering with the non-profit.

Needless to say, buy-in from operational employees is vital to supporting any non-profit seeking corporate volunteers. Remember this when reaching out to a company to support an event or program, as it could change your planning timeline from the get go. First, allow enough time to gain interest from the CSR practitioner, and secondly, allow enough time for that CSR practitioner to gain buy-in from those who will carry out the act of volunteerism. It’s also important to understand that many CSR programs and the practitioners responsible for these initiatives are considered “overhead” expenses, similar to volunteer program staff at non-profits.

Limitations of CSR programming and the impact on volunteerism.

For-profit companies engaging in CSR still have limited resources despite the optics. For-profit companies are not cash cows that can dish out large sums of money without risk to their business operations. When thinking about how companies volunteer in their community, remember the volunteerism initiated has to exist within the boundaries of a business that’s designed to make money. If not financially healthy, this same company wouldn’t be able to engage in volunteerism at all. Taking that into consideration, whenever possible, make corporate volunteer opportunities as “turnkey” and “operations friendly” as possible. Depending on the type of company you’re engaging, the business strategy may limit how their volunteers serve your non-profit.

All that to say, If the volunteer opportunities proposed aren’t friendly to a company’s business strategy or operations, it could very well be dead on arrival. However, before long term initiatives are considered, we must first address the single day of service.

The dreaded single day of volunteer service.

The single day of volunteer service can be a double edged sword. On one hand it’s an opportunity to gain exposure with new volunteers, and on the other it can inadvertently be a burden to a non-profit. The single day of volunteerism is well intended but in many cases driven by sheer optics and output (number of volunteers engaged and hours served) with the end goal of increasing employee engagement. Compounding on this, those seeking to engage in a single day of volunteerism often misunderstand the true needs of those they’re seeking to serve. This could be a volunteer engagement professionals dream come true, or a complete nightmare with unintended consequences.

If you’ve worked at a non-profit then you know what I’m referring to. You’re approached by a company that wants to volunteer. But there’s a catch, they’re seeking to engage more employees then you have the capacity to host, want to do so on a very specific day and for a subscribed (and inflexible) number of hours. To add insult to injury, they want to create a tangible item and oh by the way you have two weeks to plan this. With over 1.5 million non-profit organizations in the United States it’s unrealistic to think that most of these same organizations are setup to receive the service described above.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of a proposed single day of service there are strategies you can take before you engage in this service. First and foremost you’ll want to determine whose needs are being met by this single day of service. The goal of many companies are output driven and designed to engage the greatest number in order to satisfy their employee engagement objectives. While well intended, these goals sometimes have conflicting priorities that don’t satisfy the requirements of the hosting non-profit. So, identify whose needs are being met for this service project. Is it the company’s? Or is it the mission of the non-profit? Answering this will help you get clarity on if the service offered can be modified to better serve the non-profit, or if what’s offered isn’t a good fit at all, resulting in your respectfully declining the offer.

In instances where the single day of service works for the way your non-profit delivers on its mission, that’s great. However, if you’re like many non-profits and aren’t designed to receive the single day of service the way it’s being offered, simply say no. But regardless of the outcome, don’t stop there. In every instance take time to educate the CSR practitioner on the reasons behind your decision. What’s common knowledge for you may not be common knowledge for those seeking to serve. A little bit of education can go a long way in shaping their behaviors over time, and that starts with you.

While these types of requests often leave non-profits reacting, there’s sometimes an opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade, or get in front of this entirely. It just require that you think long term and strategize.

Understand what’s offered and evaluate your current volunteer operations.

Work to understand what your corporate counterparts are seeking. Think long term and plan for that eventual request for a single day of service. Many companies engaging in a single day volunteerism activity want “turnkey” opportunities, something that already fits their narrow parameters. So, ask yourself “what do our partners look for?” If there are specific companies or industries you engage in service, get feedback on what they’re seeking. This will help you understand if your current volunteer opportunities satisfy their need, or if you need to redesign a current program to be more inviting to your corporate partners. Once you’ve identified the types of opportunities a company is seeking, take time to evaluate your current operations. Think about how those programs and services are delivered and if they can be modified to better allow for corporate partners without compromising the quality of those services. This likely requires the owners of those specific programs be involved with full buy-in since it’ll impact the way they deliver services.

Next, get proactive. If you know a single day of service is on a specific date each year, get ahead of this and initiate planning months in advance. Some of these single day events take a full year to plan. This happens to be the case for companies that engage hundreds or thousands of employees from a single office on a single day. In most cases though this is put off to the last minute. Where you have an opportunity, offer feedback about previous years of service, particularly those that weren’t helpful in serving your non-profit. With every opportunity, work to demonstrate that with greater planning you’ll have a deeper impact for your programs, while also giving a richer experience for their employees. By planning in advance you’ll have an opportunity to modify the day of service in a way that better meets your mission. It’ll also give you the time necessary to ensure the volunteerism is deliberate in satisfying the needs of the company engaged.

Work to understand a company’s motivations.

If you know the goals of a company and their CSR programming, you’ll better identify their motives. Once you know these motivations don’t scrutinize them, rather, better capitalize on the why of their volunteerism. Arming yourself with this knowledge will help you determine if the volunteerism is a good strategic fit for your non-profit, and if by engaging this company you’re able to keep them satisfied long term. If there are specific motives that are tied to their business you’ll be able to position volunteering with your non-profit as a solution to a potential business challenge they’re facing.

Additionally, while you’re seeking to understand the motives and goals, also work to understand the perspective and pressure CSR practitioners face. Just like the goals and motives, this influences their decision making. People’s perceptions are molded by the experiences they have in life, including those that are academic and professional in nature.

Some CSR practitioners understand volunteerism through the perspective and experience they’ve built their career around. For example, those with a deep human resources background may view volunteer engagement through the perspective of employee engagement. As a result, volunteerism to them may be a means to higher retention, cost reduction and professional development. While someone with a public affairs background may view volunteer engagement through the perspective of generating great public relations visibility for the company. The driver in this case could be media coverage for good brand publicity.

Both views while not wrong, change the way they seek engagement. So, work to understand the lens in which they see volunteerism through. But regardless of the background they carry, be sensitive to the pressure they face from their colleagues and leadership. They’re expected to deliver volunteer opportunities the way it’s most widely understood at that company. The way volunteerism is widely understood at the company likely isn’t from the understanding of your non-profit. Tapping into this perspective will aid you in finding mutual benefit.

Whatever you do, don’t ask for money.

This is challenging, I know. The planning and executing of most volunteer initiatives requires increased staff time and money. However, asking for money to purchase supplies will be perceived as a “pay to play” and could shut down any opportunities altogether. If there’s ever an option to point corporate partners towards a current or ongoing need that doesn’t require additional resources, do that instead. But if you’re between a rock and a hard place and what’s being asked of you requires funding to create, turn this into a challenge they’ll need to be equal partners to solve for. Educate the CSR practitioner and explain to them why your non-profit is not optimized to receive the services they’re offering. Then connect the dots to why planning for a corporate volunteer day of service will inadvertently burden the non-profit with increased staff time and costs to plan and execute. Without asking for money specifically, ask them how might they be able to help solve for this issue.

In this instance you’re not asking them for funding, rather, you’re asking them to help solve a challenge they’re unintentionally creating. This same challenge is now standing between them and their volunteer engagement they’re seeking. If they’re equal partners and genuinely seeking engagement they’ll work to solve this with you.

Approach this relationship like you would if seeking marriage. Before you wed, you enter a long term relationship where both parties are aiming to achieve the same outcome. But before you get to that point, you must go on your first date. And while on the first date you’re not likely to ask for marriage, because you’d scare off your romantic interest by doing so. Same goes if asking for funding with a newly formed relationship where volunteerism is the matter to discuss. Don’t sabotage your own effort, don’t ask for money.

Just remember, at the end of all this, if what’s being offered compromises the integrity of your non-profit, simply say no.

Beyond the single day of service, finding mutual benefit and identifying red flags.

There are 365 days in a year, and unlike the single day of service it often requires an intimate familiarity with the corporate partner you’re engaging in volunteer service. To get beyond this single day of service you’ll need to do your research, use critical thinking and navigate dicey waters.

In the next post I’ll address Identifying the CSR focus areas of a company in efforts to help you determine if it’s worth your limited resources to build a partnership. I’ll equip you with a greater understanding of how to use a company’s publicly available information to understand the implications on your volunteer program. Building on that, i’ll outline a process to help you find true mutual benefit so you can position your volunteer opportunities as a solution to their business challenges. And lastly, i’ll address the reality of spotting what could be red flags as you engage corporate partners.

Until then, don’t hesitate to reach out, I’m always available to provide greater context or guidance. I’m here in your service.

Note: The thoughts and views expressed in this post reflect my personal views alone and are not those of Marriott International or any of its brands

About the author: Jerome Tennille is the Manager of Volunteerism for Marriott International. Prior to that Jerome held the position of Senior Manager of Impact Analysis and Assessment for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a national organization that offers help, hope, and healing to all those grieving the death of a loved one serving in America’s armed forces. Jerome is a board of directors member of Peace Through Action USA and also serves on the PsychArmor Institute Advisory Committee for the School of Volunteers & Nonprofits. Jerome holds a Bachelor of Applied Science in operations management and a Master of Sustainability Leadership (MSL) from Arizona State University. Jerome is designated as Certified in Volunteer Administration (CVA) and is also a veteran of the US Navy.