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If They Know So Much About HR, Why Do Their Employees Prefer Volunteering Over Work?

If They Know So Much About HR, Why Do Their Employees Prefer Volunteering Over Work?

e-Volunteerism’s Steve McCurley and Susan J. Ellis recently attended the 2010 National Conference on Volunteering and Service, where they were deluged with what is becoming an increasingly common message: “Don’t despair. For-profit corporations and their business wisdom are coming to save you.” The obvious premise of the push towards such "new" concepts as pro bono volunteering is the age-old assumption that agencies are best when “operating like a business.” This comes along with the assumption that the so-called do-gooder types in nonprofits (and the incompetents in public service) obviously lack business skills, which implies that anyone from a corporation can put an agency on the right track. 

In this Points of View, both Ellis and McCurley unleash a round of post-July 4th fireworks to question why corporations have to be so “smugly sanctimonious” about sharing their expertise. These volunteering experts readily acknowledge that corporations do have some useful knowledge, and that many non-profit and government organizations could certainly improve their management practices. But, they explain, a corporation’s notion of wisdom might not match a non-profit’s notion of wisdom, especially when it comes to volunteering.

Points of View authors Susan J. Ellis and Steve McCurley attended the 2010 National Conference on Volunteering and Service – a fascinating, huge and baroque affair that every manager of volunteer programs ought to experience at least once. There is no other venue, especially in the United States, which exposes managers to such diversity of volunteer programs, and to both the weaknesses and strengths of our volunteering systems.

As part of the conference, we were regularly deluged with what is becoming an increasingly common message: “Don’t despair: For-profit corporations and their business wisdom are coming to save you.”  The obvious premise of the push towards such supposedly new concepts as pro bono volunteering is the age-old assumption that agencies are best when “operating like a business.” This comes along with the assumption that the do-gooder types in nonprofits (and the incompetents in public service) lack business skills and that anyone from a corporation can put an agency on the right track. 

We both know and readily acknowledge that:

  • Corporations do have some useful knowledge; and
  • Many nonprofit and government organizations could certainly improve their management practices.

But we are also quite convinced that:

  • A corporation’s notion of wisdom might not match our notion of wisdom, especially when it comes to volunteering; and
  • They don’t have to be so smugly sanctimonious about it.

So here is our respondent rant upon this topic. By getting this out of our systems, we hope we can go back to advocating for some reasonable forms of corporate involvement.

1. These are, after all, the giant brains that destroyed the world economy.

We’re not sure that it is a good idea to take business advice from companies who inflated the value of their assets far beyond any reasonable level. And we’re also a bit hesitant about what it might indicate regarding their ethical and financial acumen. The fact that you’re in a business does not necessarily imply that you know something about running it, much less know anything about running someone else’s operation that operates in a completely different structure and subject area.

The next time some business-will-save-the-world spokesperson starts slapping nonprofit organizations around for their lack of planning and management control, just smile at them and sweetly say: BP.”

2. Many companies don’t know what their own mission is, much less yours.

Businesses have increasingly moved to the notion that their only purpose is to make money. Business school teach this, and business leaders judge themselves against this benchmark.

This was not, you might remember, always the case. Many famous businesses started out trying to make the best product in the world or to deliver the best service in their community. As a result of actually focusing on this type of mission, these businesses lasted and flourished for decades; the employees of those companies could feel substantial pride in creating something that actually improved the world, a notion that those in volunteering have always understood.

Many of those same companies have disappeared in the last two decades, killed by managers who thought “income at all costs” was an operating philosophy and that money was the sole purpose for being in business.

There is a reason that Apple Computer is the most successful company in the world – it is run by a CEO who thinks that “making insanely great products” is the rationale for the company’s existence. Generating money is incidental, although it miraculously follows if you have a mission actually worth accomplishing. Smart nonprofits are fully aware of this principle and all of their volunteers are aware of it.

Unfortunately we have already been invaded by a wave of corporate leaders who think that the primary function of nonprofit boards is financial and they have advocated for cost cutting and economy at the expense of actually delivering worthwhile services.

3. Look at what business people have done on nonprofit boards.

Just about every nonprofit we know salivates at the prospect of recruiting business executives onto its board of directors. Primarily, this reflects the nonprofit’s fervent hope that they will give company money to the agency. Secondarily, the agency hopes that the executives will provide access to funders and politicians (as well as some clout). A distant third consideration for having a business executive on a board is the prospect that the board member will contribute the top-level skills expected from a corporate manager.

In practice, however, none of the three anticipated benefits automatically materialize. For every businessperson backing up board service with cash and in-kind donations, there are many others who turn out to have absolutely no influence on the philanthropic giving of their companies. A feminist civic leader from a wealthy family in Philadelphia tells the story of how she approaches corporate CEOs personally with a plea for funding and, when all she gets is a company check, calls them back and says, “But what are you going to give individually?” Are business people supporting a cause or representing their employers? Wouldn’t that make a difference in the governance decisions they might reach?

And we’ll also ignore the fact that many of the largest nonprofits that already have business executives on their boards are among the organizations with operating problems. Why haven’t these executives already dispensed wisdom to solve these difficulties?

4. Beware assumptions about the understanding of corporate employees.

Susan once ran a workshop for accountants in a major accounting firm who were on the fast track towards partnership. The objective of the session was to prepare them for board and other pro bono service in the community. As an opening icebreaker, she asked, “What is the definition of a ‘nonprofit organization’?” Silence. After some prodding, one participant said, “It’s an organization that does not know how to make money.” (Honestly, he said that). In astonishment, Susan tried to determine why the group seemed so uninformed, to which they replied, “We never had to take the course in nonprofit accounting.” Now picture these CPAs dealing with grant applications, fund accounting or designated donations.

The moral of this story is never assume what someone does or doesn’t know – or whether or not someone is even aware of his or her ignorance.

As with accountants, be cautious about lawyers without training in the rules, practices and purposes of nonprofit organizations. If you need proof, read most nonprofit bylaws written by a corporate lawyer!  

Master’s degrees are common in the nonprofit world, but there are few educational prerequisites to be successful in business. Sure, there are many MBAs out there, but studying business does not necessarily provide a multi-faceted worldview. We often flatter business people to join us by speaking about their many skills. Yet the staff members in our organizations are not unskilled; they are skilled in different ways. And they are far more informed about the community needs they meet than for-profit employees might be. 

Not every volunteer can automatically transfer business expertise to the nonprofit or public environment. It’s not that the skills aren’t relevant, but the context and process are different. Take money, for example. Business employees generally expect resources to be accessible for any planned activity, with those responsible for carrying it out having the authority to approve expenses up to a certain amount. But in a nonprofit, a proposed change might need to go before the board of directors, which may mean delay before gaining approval. Further, planning usually precedes fundraising – and so the time lag between setting a goal and implementing action to attain it can be months or longer. Business volunteers get frustrated at such “unbusinesslike” procedures, while the nonprofit staff sees the volunteers as mystifyingly impatient. 

Another assumption is that all people in business know how to consult, as opposed to do or direct. Pro bono volunteering directed at building management capacity will almost always take the form of a consultancy – but there is an art to providing technical assistance, whether the expert is paid or an unpaid volunteer. The process requires diagnosing what’s wrong at the nonprofit, without preconceptions and with respect for those already doing the work. It also implies patience to allow the nonprofit staff to “own” the solution through participating in reaching it, or else there is a great chance nothing will move forward once the volunteer leaves. What happens if the business volunteer is used to independent action or tightly managing a staff that’s used to jumping at his or her requests?

5. Business arrogantly seeks the quick fix.

About 20 years ago, a favorite corporate volunteer activity was the “Adopt-a-School” project. In theory, it was a brilliant match of needs and resources. Businesses would be matched by a local school district to a low-income or otherwise struggling public school. Together with the school faculty, the company would agree to a year-long plan of hands-on involvement by employee volunteers, in combination with some funds, equipment, supplies and other aid. The idea was to inject a massive, focused dose of help in order to make a difference for the students. School administrators pictured this wonderful gift as a long-term strategy with some staying power. Unfortunately the companies were sure they could “fix” things in about a year.

While much good was done for a while – and many hundreds of schools were “adopted” – after a few years the business community became impatient. Why were there no miracle changes? Why was progress being made in such tiny steps? Eventually, most companies left the program and today it is a mere shell of its promising beginnings.

There are rarely quick results when the problems being tackled are intransigent, long-rooted, and complex. Nonprofits and government operate under an extended timetable, understanding that improvements will be incremental and may take decades. 

Too many business initiatives swoop into a situation that took a long time to fester and expect to transform it. But this is not emergency surgery; it’s painstaking rehabilitation and requires staying power. We have developed a healthy skepticism of proclamations by corporations that they genuinely intend to meet their service commitments because, over and over, initiatives gradually disappear as companies drop off in frustration.

6. Consider the latest corporate causes du jour.

In the United States, we have two developments that are getting lots of media attention right now: pro bono volunteers and corporate human resources professionals to the rescue.

  1. The push towards pro bono volunteering – often called “skilled volunteering,” without the slightest notion of how the designation insults all the talent already being donated around the world – is led by such organizations as Taproot Foundation and A Billion + Change. Both organizations, in our opinion, act as if they have discovered an incredible new form of service. We wonder whether either organization has ever heard of “search engines;” it seems patently clear to us that no one in either organization has ever tried to go online and research any of their concepts to discover that – surprise! – there are already organizations out there doing these exact things. So instead of building on or expanding existing best practices, we think that organizations likes these are wasting money and energy on reinventing the wheel. And then taking credit for it.

    At the conference in New York, much fanfare was focused on the announcement from A Billion + Change that “the initiative has already reached the half-way point, with 500,000 hours of pro bono work committed.” Note the operative word, “committed.” This is not a report of accomplishments, but of promises. We think there is a difference.
  2. A second development getting media attention is best illustrated by the Reimagining Service project. The Reimagining Service project allows that the way to save the day for nonprofit involvement of volunteers is to bring in an army of corporate human resources professionals; these HR professionals, simply through their understanding of recruitment and training of paid workers, will be able to set up volunteer programs (though after the set up, no one explains how they would be maintained). This concept has unleashed much booing from various sources, and there is some evidence that the Reimagining Service folks are backpedaling a bit. But some damage has already been done; there are quite a number of organizations trying to “save money” by consolidating volunteer and paid staff management into a single “Department of Human Talent,” the title chosen by the American Red Cross when it made this move last month. On the surface, this sounds reasonable, but readers of e-Volunteerism ought to see the fallacy of this whole idea immediately.

7. Why would you think companies could manage your volunteer program when they don’t do such a good job of managing their own?

Don’t just trust us on this issue; read what the companies say about themselves.

First, let’s look into an area that corporations have lectured nonprofits about over and over – the need to measure and evaluate the results of your engagement of volunteers.

  • In 2003, the Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College found that only 42% of companies attempted to formally evaluate their volunteer programs (Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College and US Chamber of Commerce, The State of Corporate Citizenship in the US: A View from the Inside, 2003-2004).
  • In 2009, TelecomPioneers commissioned the Institute for Corporate Productivity ( to undertake a study of employee volunteer programs. Most (59%) polled companies reported that they don’t track employee volunteer program activity; of those that do, 23% report they do so “occasionally,” and only 17.7% do so consistently. The study characterizes these efforts as “mediocre metrics.” (

Second, consider program operation and support. Let’s begin with the reason that employee volunteer programs aren’t being evaluated. In 2004, nearly two-thirds of community relations managers reported having adequate resources and staffing to measure the impact of their volunteer programs but avoided doing so due to a lack of knowledge and expertise. (LBG Associates, “Corporate Volunteerism: Innovative Practices for the 21st Century,” Stamford, CT: LBG Associates, 2004)

But why stop there? The 2009 TelecomPioneers study reported that even companies that have employee volunteer programs often fail to allocate adequate resources to support them. A full 67% of survey respondents reported that they do not have a volunteer coordinator on staff.

And, finally, consider this interesting statement about the attitudes of corporate volunteer program managers on their work (LBG Associates, Measuring Corporate Volunteerism, 2004):

Another notable difference between CR/volunteer managers and their non-profit counterparts is the emphasis non-profits place on their skills and capabilities, and those of corporate CR/volunteer managers, to successfully plan, organize and manage volunteers, as well as events and activities. In short, nearly two-thirds of non-profits (64%) believe that success literally rests in their hands, as well as those of CR/volunteer managers. As such, volunteer coordinators, both on the corporate and on the non-profit end, need to undergo training, adopt best practices, pay attention to details, and recruit employees from all parts of the company. Interestingly, while a considerable number of managers consider staffing levels to be “key components,” none of the CR/volunteer managers who were part of this study consider their personal knowledge, talents and expertise as “key components” to success.

Read that last part very carefully and then try not to blink.

We’re not sure these guys are good role models for program operation.

Our Conclusion

So, based on the above, we’re thinking of starting a new initiative. Let’s take highly skilled, nonprofit volunteer managers and offer their expertise and experience to badly managed corporations. These people clearly need our assistance.

We’ll probably start by helping them improve the lamentable state of their corporate volunteer programs, but we’re willing to expand from there. The title “Volunteer CEO” sounds pretty appealing, don’t you think?

To add or view comments

Tue, 07/27/2010
Thank you Susan and Steve for another great article that pokes fun but also makes valid points. Recently at a VM conference I met an HR professional who was given responsibility for the organization's volunteer program, simply because she'd volunteered once. It's akin to presuming that bank customers somehow magically know how to run a bank just because they use the ATM machine.