February 28, 2012; Source: Business Week

When Jean Case, the CEO of the Case Foundation (which she founded with her husband, former AOL and AOL Time Warner chairman Steve Case), argued in the pages of the Washington Post that nonprofits themselves say that they don’t need more donations, but more pro bono technical assistance. Her brief op-ed was dismissed by many people as kind of out of touch, and reportedly Case herself tried to walk her comments back a little bit after she undoubtedly received some critical feedback.

Now Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the state’s former governor and a multi-millionaire due to his technology investments (notably Nextel and Capital Cellular), has been quoted telling Business Week the same thing in a somewhat more nuanced form:

Rather than just giving an organization some money, how do you actually help build their capacity?” Warner said. “It’s great if a corporation lets off all their folks for a day to paint or build a house. It’s better if the corporation can lend specific expertise to the nonprofit.”

Are such statements the odd musings of two extraordinarily rich people who don’t appreciate the struggle of nonprofits to pay for their services and their personnel in the midst of a prolonged charitable giving downturn? There may be a little more to be concerned about with the Warner/Case message:

  1. Both are members (Case the former chair, Warner the current chair) of President Obama’s “President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation.”

  2. Case is the co-founder and Warner the honorary chairman of “A Billion + Change,” which Business Week describes as a “national campaign…to match nonprofits with so-called skills-based volunteer services” (getting corporations to pledge employees’ volunteer time). The campaign is managed by the Points of Light organization based in Atlanta.

  3. Warner is one of the nation’s most powerful and influential Democrats, sometimes talked about as a vice presidential candidate. He is slated to become the senior senator from Virginia when Senator Jim Webb leaves office, and is the “honorary chair” of the Forward Together PAC.

The obligatory accolades to the value of volunteers aside, nonprofits are starving for cash. Both sides of the aisle in Congress are cutting and slashing key federal programs sustaining community nonprofits such as the Community Development Block Grant and the Community Services Block Grant programs, which the NPQ Newswire has frequently noted are endangered. We doubt that Warner and Case are telling the big universities that recently announced 2011 fundraising totals in the hundreds of millions to forego their revenues in favor of pro bono volunteers from the corporate sector. Volunteers cannot make up for the losses in charitable and governmental support that nonprofits around the nation have suffered.

Please, Sen. Warner and CEO Case, don’t feed the nation the popular and inaccurate trope that the nonprofit sector needs volunteers instead of money. It may give corporations positive spin for their willingness to give employees some days off to do volunteer work, and it may provide welcome infusions of temporary labor to supplement the hard work of nonprofit employees. But working for nonprofits, just like working for Nextel or AOL, is a career, not a hobby. Nonprofits need capacity-building for sure, but giving them money to purchase and retain trained, capable professionals is much more preferable than relying on the occasional and usually inconsistent availability of corporate volunteers.—Rick Cohen