Why Volunteering for the Optics is Not a Good Look

Being of service means that volunteering is not just about what you would like to do and when you would like to do it. It’s also about what the community and host agency need and when they need it done.

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Dirty. Icky. Gross.

A colleague who facilitates group volunteering shared a trend she noticed in Summer 2020. Some of the groups calling her began asking for service projects “with a diversity focus”. When pressed for what that meant, most could not offer specifics. One corporate representative replied that he was only the messenger, merely passing along his supervisors’ request. His tone suggested that he would not or could not seek clarification, but he added they would like to serve on Juneteenth.

There was a long pause among the Volunteer Directors after our colleague finished sharing.

And then their reactions: dirty, icky, gross.

The consensus: that these corporate groups were volunteering for optics. And that they had no idea that the optics of their approach were not a good look.  

What’s the problem? The problem is that the project request seemed to be all about positioning the corporation to look "woke" instead of meeting an authentic community need. That any agency hosting this group would end up being a pawn, used as a backdrop in photos that are intended to put the company front and center. That volunteerism was more about checking a good corporate citizen box rather than connecting to real people and real lives in the community and making a meaningful contribution.

Using community members and nonprofit agencies is not a good look.

Unfortunately, this approach to group volunteering is not an anomaly, even if there has not been a spoken desire for diversity per se. Many companies have interpreted corporate social responsibility to mean dressing up their employees in matching t-shirts, giving them a day off of work to serve the community (willingly or not), and taking lots of photos that grace the “Giving Back” page of the corporate website.

It’s not that corporate (or any other type of group) service is inherently bad.

It’s just that the good intentions behind these days sometimes get lost in the conversations about how to involve one of the senior execs for 30 minutes so he or she can be seen serving by the rank-and-file employees who are required to be there all day. They get lost in the list of demands that the company has about when and where and how many employee volunteers need to be accommodated at one site when the host organization really needs people to be staggered over multiple dates or locations. It gets lost when the company wants everything to be turnkey for their team but balks at underwriting the agency staff time and supplies needed to ensure the event runs smoothly. It gets lost when the group requests a project that interacts with program participants but cannot adjust their availability to support the structure and safety requirements that have been put in place to create a high-quality experience for said participants.

In other words, good intentions get lost when a company centers its needs before the needs of the people the company says it wants to serve.

Yes, I know. These companies are just trying to help. After all, don’t community organizations need volunteers? Don’t the volunteers’ needs matter?

Yes, of course! I am not trying to scare off anyone from service (or even wearing matching t-shirts). Community organizations absolutely need volunteers. They are thrilled when groups want to get involved. The volunteer experience is very important.

And.

Community agencies that engage volunteers are entrusted with meeting their participants’ needs (which do not necessarily fall on the corporation’s annual day of service). They welcome partnership on new projects (but do not necessarily have existing funding to purchase the supplies or muffins or box lunches requested by the company). They want to engage groups in a meaningful way (but do not have a fleet of extra staff at the ready to do all the prep work necessary for turnkey projects nor to lead projects for dozens of volunteers). They are delighted to engage employee volunteers and participants in thoughtful ways (but not at the expense of the safety or dignity of those participants).

In short, community agencies do not have the luxury of only considering the corporate group’s needs. They need to meet the needs of their participants, their paid staff, and one-day volunteers from a company or other group. They need service with a measure of maturity and thoughtfulness. Everyone’s time and dignity are too precious to waste.

Venn diagram including community needs, staff capacity, and volunteer interests

Finding the intersection of all these needs is a challenge and requires partnership. Especially because many agencies have very limited resources invested in volunteer engagement.

So.

When a corporation calls up asking for volunteering with a diversity focus, for one day, and cannot really articulate what diversity means to them, it leaves the folks fielding the call feeling like their participants and agencies are being used. And if diversity is defined and looks something like having (mostly White) employees interacting with mostly Black or Brown participants, it feels disrespectful and dehumanizing.

What should volunteer groups do instead?

If your group (corporate, faith-based, classroom, or otherwise) is considering volunteering, take some time to consider what it would look like to truly be of service. Being of service means that volunteering is not just about what you would like to do and when you would like to do it. It’s also about what the community and/or host agency needs and when they need it done. As Kayla Paulson of United Way of East Central Iowa points out, their Workplace Volunteer Council emphasizes volunteering "with" the community (rather than doing it "for" or "to" them).

Start a dialogue with the host agency; ask about their needs. Listen to their responses, and be flexible and open. Understand if the agency says it cannot accommodate your group on a particular day. It may be that the most meaningful contribution your employees or members can make does not lend itself to a one-day group project. A longer-term engagement of a small team sharing their skillset may yield far more impact and satisfaction for all involved even if the photos are not as compelling. (And if photos are the driving factor, reconsider who the service is about.)

Share your budget upfront, or adjust your expectations if the agency is not able to underwrite project expenses. Be transparent about whether the service comes with a grant, now or in the future. Many agencies feel beholden to meet demands from corporate groups in particular because they think it may lead to funding.

When it comes to diversity, consultant Marjie Bland noted that the most meaningful conversations she witnessed in supporting corporate service were the ones that companies had with their employees and partners before reaching out to volunteer. By doing so, these groups could articulate what diversity meant to them and be thoughtful about how to put it into practice. What's more, these conversations can help identify existing relationships that employees have with community agencies, which may offer a natural link into a broader partnership. 

Consider ways that one-day service can translate into an ongoing relationship with the agency or community. Ask the agency to include an orientation about the organization’s cause and a debrief that educates volunteers about ways to stay involved with the organization as an ongoing volunteer, a donor, an advocate, a newsletter or social media subscriber, or a participant. Explore ways that the group or individuals can make a commitment over time.

Finally, ask yourself or the group, why are we volunteering? What does a meaningful experience entail? Would we do it even if there were no photos? Is it important enough to do even if the rest of the world does not know we did it? Who is this service really about? Hopefully, the answers reveal a desire for authentic engagement.

That’s always a good look.


With gratitude to the Volunteer Directors, Corporate Social Responsibility professionals, and other volunteer group leaders who work toward meaningful and authentic service that lands at the intersection of many needs. Thanks to Kayla Paulson and Marjie Bland for sharing their experiences through comments on an earlier version of this blog. Keep up the hard conversations and thoughtful work.

Photo credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Sue Carter Kahl

Sue is the President of Sue Carter Kahl Consulting and has 25 years of experience in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. Her work is infused with lessons learned as a volunteer center executive, state service commissioner, nonprofit board member, staff member, volunteer, and researcher. Her current projects include teaching volunteer engagement and translating her research on the value that volunteers bring to organizations into practitioner-friendly resources. Sue has a PhD in Leadership Studies and is committed to bridging practice and theory in the volunteer field.
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Comments

Go to the profile of Susan Wolford
6 months ago

Exactly. Well stated. Thank you! 

I've been on both sides of this story. When I was in the corporate world I knew our project had to meet their needs, but now from the nonprofit side no one wants to take that into consideration. I'm tired of working to lineup a project only to find it wasn't sexy enough for the corporate group, but they won't call me to let me know. Or lining up a group only for them not to show up. 

Go to the profile of Sue Carter Kahl
6 months ago

Thanks for the comment, Susan. I know a lot of us have been in the same boat. It's a frustrating experience.

Here are a couple ideas for those who might be exploring options to reduce this behavior:

When I first started at a volunteer center, we had a number of groups drop out after our staff had done a lot of work setting up the project with a partner agency. To help, we started requiring an initial deposit for any projects that we facilitated before we invested significant time in it and explained that it helped support the staff time needed to create successful projects. We also asked a lot more questions upfront about their goals to see if we/our partners were a good fit. Our no-shows and ghosting experiences dropped dramatically. I know not everyone charges a fee for these experiences, but you could instead ask for a deposit that is returned at the end of the project. Or perhaps create an agreement outlining expectations for the volunteer group and the host organization that needs to be signed before work begins. Not only does this help align everyone, but it helps educate volunteer groups about how much work it takes to create meaningful and successful service experiences. 

Go to the profile of Faiza Venzant
5 months ago

Thanks Sue - As always your writing hits home. 

It will be one year since George Floyd passed away next week and I suspect there will be many "here's what did in the last year to address antiracism"posts as well as some panicked calls from groups who know they didn't follow through and are looking for a quick win.

Any tips on how to respond as a leader of volunteers who receives those dirty.icky.gross calls/emails?