“Help” or help, and the Fifth Element

Nonprofits face a dilemma.  Especially in a down economy, we get lots of offers of help.  How do we figure out what to do with these offers?  And how do we, kindly, with grace, respond to “I’d like to help” with tough questions to figure out whether that help will be, well, helpful?

The dance of sorting this out – in a way that minimizes investment of time and effort for everyone involved – boils down to figuring out who is offering what across four dimensions:

  1. Brand
  2. Skills
  3. Resources
  4. Time

1. Brand. E.g. “I’ve got an startup online marketplace where the profits go to nonprofits and I’d like to feature your organization on my site.”  This happens pretty often.  There are lots of online startups that have noticed the success of places like GlobalGiving and want to populate their own sites with lists of brand-name nonprofits that get them to critical mass.  So in this case an “I want to help” might really mean “I’d like to borrow your brand, which is worth a lot to me, in exchange for which you might get some revenues/visibility down the line.”  Not necessarily a problem for the nonprofit, but understand the exchange that’s going on and make sure the exchange is a fair one.  (This analysis also applies to multinationals linking up with nonprofits – there’s huge value in nonprofit brands, but as an intangible asset, it’s often undervalued in the exchange).  Also, this can cut the other way, namely a firm that offers pro-bono help (legal, PR, communications, etc.) to a nonprofit – you can only figure out what such offers are really worth if you can get past the brand that’s being offered (which is often very appealing) and learn more about the Skills, Resources and Time (meaning the people) you will get on the project (see below).

2. Skills. E.g. “I’m a strategy consultant…maybe I can help your organization with strategy issues.”  Potentially hugely valuable.  Also the hardest to judge up-front.  Recognize that nearly all Skills offers require significant investment of time and energy by the nonprofit.  You’ve got to dig deeper on the specific skills being offered and their potential value to you – and you’ve got to know what other Resources and Time are being offered – to understand how to evaluate these offers.  Coupling Skills offers with Resource offers is often a good way to make sure everyone is equally invested in making the relationship work.

3. Resources. E.g. “I’d like to support you financially” or “I’d like to introduce you to people who can.”  These offers are hard to come by, but when they do, you probably want to take them very seriously.  The main thing to keep an eye on is Brand – will this individual strengthen and protect your brand with the same care you will?

4. Time. Brand, Skills, Resources offers cannot be understood without an understanding of Time.  Talking up-front about how much Time is on offer – and when – is key to understanding any offer of help.  For example, the world’s greatest transaction lawyer, offering her services for free, is no use to you if you cannot get her or anyone on her team to reply to an email when your next transaction comes up.

The Fifth Element – Values. Assessing who is giving and getting what – in Brand, Skills, Resources, and Time – is often hard to do up front.  The starting point is having a candid conversation about what is on offer, and explaining that any engagement, volunteer or otherwise, requires your staff’s time so you always dig a little deeper to understand offers of help (drawing up terms of reference helps a lot too).

The silver lining is that you have a trump card, often undervalued and underplayed – Values.  If, when talking with someone who offers to help, you are convinced that both parties hold shared values, then that creates space for honesty and dialogue and transparency and clarity, even when you know very little up front about the things you need to know about.   Conversely, if, as the nonprofit, you walk out of that first conversation wowed with the offer (brand, skills, resources, even time) but feel crummy about the values, it’s probably time to ask a lot of question or just walk away.

One closing thought.  If you’re feeling hesitant about asking tough questions of people who offer to help, consider this: no one at Apple or Virgin or Amazon or Toyota or any brand you respect would mind replying to someone knocking on the door saying “I’d like to help” by saying, “Really? How?”  Why does it feel so different when you’re at a nonprofit?

P.S. A nod to the The Blog of Unecessary Quotation Marks for inspiration on this post’s title.

add to del.icio.us : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook

Canned beans or bananas?

Every year, between the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many Jewish congregants take home a brown paper bag to be filled with non-perishable food for people in need.  It helps fill food banks, and is emblematic of the principle of tzedakah, or charity, which plays an important role in most major religions (tithing, zakat, etc.)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the surge of interest in volunteering / working in the nonprofit sector, especially the social enterprise sector (where I spend my days).  There’s a tsunami of people, young and old alike, interested in using their skills for good in the world.  Organizations like Acumen Fund, where I work, seem to be attracting particular interest, and I think it’s because of the impression that nonprofits that work with social enterprises are more likely to be able to take advantage of people’s business skills and put them to good use in solving social problems.

(I say “impression” because I still haven’t been convinced that “business skills” – which I take to mean effective leadership, management, strategy, organizational design, use of capital, etc. – have any more or less application in social enterprise organizations vs. the nonprofit sector more broadly.  And I bet the leadership of CARE or Mercy Corps or UNICEF or Save the Children would agree here.)

Part of the challenge of matching this talent to needs is about canned beans vs. bananas.  Historically, “volunteering” has often been about applying less specialized skills (serving in a soup kitchen, helping to build a home) to directly serve a population in need.  This is canned beans: highly nutritious, long shelf life, can plug in almost anywhere.

Bananas are tougher.  They don’t travel particularly well, they spoil quickly, they’re best if you pick them and buy them locally.  Yes, you can transport a banana across the world (and we often do), but you would never think that a banana and a tin of canned beans are interchangeable.

I think it’s time we start calling bananas bananas, which may mean distinguishing between “volunteering” and “service.”  This is a tough one, because even those words feel like they imply that one is more valuable than the other…which isn’t true.

But if we could develop a common vocabulary about long-term, on-the-ground, specialized engagements requiring  screening and specialized skills, we’d be a long way towards clearing up a lot of confusion.

Because, in truth, we really do need a lot more bananas.

add to del.icio.us : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook

I want to help

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.

add to del.icio.us : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook