May 8, 2018; Kellogg Insight
Kellogg’s School of Management released a podcast last week on the increasing desire and opportunity for professionals and their companies to move past traditional philanthropy and lend their expertise to nonprofits in need of their specific skill sets, popularly known as skills-based volunteerism. Professional skill sets can be of enormous benefit to a sector that has limited funds for overhead spending, given funders’ eagerness to keep administrative costs to a minimum. That overhead—the strategic planning, leadership development, technology, finance, and marketing functions—is what enables organizations to thrive and scale effectively. Corporate and professional skills-based volunteering can play an effective and critical role in these precise areas, if done right.
Megan Kashner, the director of social impact at Kellogg, puts it simply:
When I think about a professional—Jan in accounting or Chris in marketing—and I think about that person wondering, “What can I do?” The very first thing I think is, “Well, you’re an accountant. You’re a marketer.” The nonprofit sector and startup social entrepreneurs are hungry for help, for pro bono support, for project work, for skills-based volunteering from people who have hard skills that they’re willing to bring over and help a nonprofit by using.
While it has, according to the presenters, gained new popularity among companies in recent years, skills-based volunteering is a longstanding model in volunteer engagement. Nonprofit intermediaries like Executive Service Corps and Common Impact have been matching professionals to nonprofits for decades and supporting them in navigating these delicate cross-sector marriages.
But, there’s a “but.” Kashner and Kellogg Insight podcast producer Fred Schmalz go on to discuss the importance of nonprofits pushing back or saying no to pro bono volunteers or a company when the project’s not right or the work isn’t done well.
“Not all pro bono is the pro bono you need. Just because someone’s offering it, you don’t have to say yes,” Kashner states.
And while this is true, there is often a catch. Access to a company’s employee talents often comes when an existing, and often grant-making, partnership is already in place. It can be challenging for nonprofits to act as an equal partner or, better yet, a client when there are significant funder-grantee power dynamics in place.
More than 50 percent of companies now have some type of formal pro bono program in which they’re funneling their employees into capacity-building projects at nonprofit organizations. At its best, of course, this could provide a badly needed resource, but at its worst it provides a tangle of retraining, relationship management, and fit issues that create a return on investment that’s not so positive. This is yet one more idea that’s just off-base enough to cause more angst than payoff in many situations. Expecting nonprofits to just “buck up” and say no when needed ignores deeply embedded sector dynamics that haven’t yet been untangled.—Danielle Holly
Disclaimer: Danielle Holly is the CEO of Common Impact.