I’ve been thinking a lot lately about offers to help / volunteer in the nonprofit sector, and I think these cut both ways more than most people realize.
On the one hand, I laud President Obama’s call to service and I am encouraged by the fact that one of the results of the economic downturn has been an upsurge of interest in volunteering in the nonprofit sector. At the same time, in some cases there’s an undercurrent of expectation that work in the nonprofit sector is somehow easier, simpler, and more straightforward than work in the for-profit sector. Hence the oft-repeated refrain, “I want to take the skills I’ve learned in the for-profit sector and apply them in a new way.”
If the nonprofit sector is meant to be a main driving force – in partnership with with government and the public sector – to address the unsolved problems of poverty, healthcare, education, malnutrition….well, that sounds like a pretty tall order requiring some seriously high-order skills.
Experienced philanthropists and experienced nonprofits know that the best kind of giving is a two-way street, where both the donor and the nonprofit get and give something of real value out of the relationship. Volunteering can be the same way, but at times “I want to help” really means, “I want to help in the way that I want to help.” To me it’s like the difference between a grant and a grant that ties a nonprofit into knots. They both might look the same at first, but they take you down very different paths.
I don’t think a big change is required, just a small shift.
“I want to help” is such a show of generosity. “I want to help…so please tell me what you really need” can open the door to an entirely new conversation.