Saturday, March 28, 2015

Volunteers, not always a good thing.

Many people think that volunteering for NGOs and organizations is doing them a favor and having real social impact. After cleaning up at an old folks home or painting murals, many people think they have done well and deserve a pat in the back.

With many of the CSR projects of organizations, employee engagement seems to be the "in" thing now. In Singapore, there is a system called Community Involvement Programme (CIP) where student are required to clock a certain amount of CIP hours to graduate.

However, after running and working with NGOs, I could tell you that some of these free volunteers are not actually helping these organizations, but rather -- giving them more work.

This is a very fine line to thread. Some people and companies like to think that non-profits should be grateful if we have something to give them. This attitude is really wrong as non-profits will try to accommodate volunteers even if they do not need them in fear of losing donations and creating negative PR.

As you know, with social media, bad publicity is just a tweet away. Non-profits that are savvy knows this. When a corporation comes with 50 volunteers to paint an old folks home, these organizations will find them walls to paint on, even though it was painted a few months ago.

As non-profits, they do work with a lot of constrains. They do have liability if something goes wrong or people get injured, at the same time, they are probably tight on manpower, and every minute organizing activities with corporates is taking time away from doing actual work. The organizations also need to create a positive experience, and the volunteers also come unprepared to the site and need equipment to get things done.

The non-profits do not want the corporates to feel unappreciated and will find all ways to accommodate them. Even if its free labor, building the right experience matters or it may end up in a crisis. There needs to be value created for all parties for it to be a win - win situation, or else its just activity for activity's sake.


To add value in the relation, corporates should:

1) Find a value proposition to pitch to the organization.
       - List skills which the volunteers can provide.
       - Sometimes pro-bono work for the administration is better than donations and engaging the                   beneficiaries.

2) Understand the needs and constraints of the organization.
       - Working with children may require background checks on the volunteers.
       - Working with gardens or disaster relief may require tools and outfits which organization may                not be able to afford to provide.

3) Plan in advance, NGOs need time to plan and respond.

At the same time, the non-profits should:

1) Create a list of support they need (skills)
     - List opportunities available. (Training kids, chefs in soup kitchen, etc)
     - Have some budget to pay for some pro-bono work. (Reimbursements, etc)
     - Share needs openly (IT Support, Tech, Marketing, Accounting)

2) Hire a event planner to manage volunteers.
     - Create volunteer programs which enrich experience of volunteers and allow them takeaways and        shares for more awareness. (Photo Ops, learning experience)

3) Be honest and truthful.
      - If you cannot handle volunteers, just say no.

-- Robin Low

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