Instead Of Corporate Philanthropy, How About Corporate Volunteering?

It’s easy for large corporations to throw money at the issues they care about. But it’s more meaningful—for the company and the organizations they support—if they can lend manpower and expertise.

These are uniquely challenging times for those seeking social development. On the one hand, the demand for nonprofits to tackle entrenched problems has never been greater. Economic hardship around the world has swelled the ranks of individuals and communities in need. On the other hand, this is a time of austerity. From national budgets to foundation budgets to household budgets, resources are stretched thin. For those committed to the cause of social progress, the fundamental question today is how do we reconcile those dynamics? Put most bluntly: can we truly do more with less?

This post is part of a series on the future of service in America, in conjunction with Catchafire.

There is one school of thought that says we need to scale back our ambitions, perhaps by narrowing our focus, or accepting that certain achievements will have to wait for sunnier economic times. But for those unwilling to reconcile themselves to those limitations, the answer lies in innovation. And in that effort, the smart use of technology is central. Large companies can just give away money, but is that the best use of their resources, or the resources of their employees? Instead of, say, just giving away computers and routers, what if major corporations’ philanthropic efforts also involved providing expert know-how? Add to those routers the manpower and expertise to design and build software and infrastructure and you’ve truly made a difference.

This is the underlying belief of the Technology for Social Good program at JP Morgan Chase. Under this program, we are leveraging the strength and talent of our global staff to partner with organizations around the world and equip them with the tools to maximize the impact of every dollar they invest in their missions.

We’ve worked with a program called Operation Morale Call to connect deployed servicemen in Afghanistan with their loved ones via high end video, and with the The King Center, to digitize Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speeches, sermons, and correspondence, and develop an innovative, global educational website. These investments of resources can have a broad multiplier effect; each organization we work with can better use funds originally allocated for technology and invest them in other areas to directly meet their missions.

The driving principle behind this initiative—making an investment in an organization beyond a monetary commitment—should be a model for likeminded companies seeking to make the greatest difference for the communities they support. We do not want to minimize the importance of a financial contribution. That said, too often there is a disconnect between the company and its beneficiary. Instead, we should encourage the donating company to take a personal stake in the program, be it a one-off commitment or a long-term engagement.

Challenging times require creative solutions. Working together, private companies, nonprofit organizations, governments, and other stakeholders can apply the same technological innovations that have boosted productivity around the world to make social programs ever more effective. As we look forward, expanding this mindset and building upon its foundation will be increasingly essential.

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  • Anders

    Ali's article and several comments resonate with those of us who are active in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education area. As someone who has worked as a bench scientist, a corporate philanthropy executive and now consults with non-profit education advocacy orgs. and educators, I know that neither cash giving alone, nor in kind giving of volunteer time alone can solve our nation's critical problems in education. Both are necessary! In this field the volunteer role is to offer unique expertise and validation of science,math, etc. as necessary building blocks for careers and personal "story telling" of how problem solving and critical thinking skills are developed through strong STEM education. Money is obviously necessary for innovative curriculum and teacher professional development (that departments of education should, but rarely pays for).
    Here is another area of expertise that can be offered by CSR professionals: How to strategically plan for and drive social change through private-public partnerships. Educators and government has little expertise in staging inter-corporate collaboration to drive social change. Corporate philanthropy can have enormous impact by leveraging combined cash and in kind charitable giving by multiple companies challenging policy makers to make strong commitments for support.

  • Lisa

    Providing manpower and expertise will only help if the nonprofit has
    enough funding to keep its doors open in the first place.  The economy has been pretty brutal on nonprofits, who have taken a
    double-beating of trying to serve more of those in need, but with less

    I've worked in corporate community relations giving away money and coordinating employee volunteerism, and also spent ten years as a development director for two nonprofits.  Having worked on both sides of the coin, so to speak, my experience has been that the primary reason corporations donate funds and sponsor events is for PR.  The primary reason they are providing more volunteers is because they are significantly scaling back or eliminating their financial support.  Very few are so altruistic that they are specifically interested in the missions of the nonprofits they support.  Nonprofits are continually being dictated to by their funders, who feel that its their money, so they should be heavily involved in how that money is spent, or dictate in excruciating detail what they will fund.  Often the nonprofits have to turn themselves inside out to receive the funding, tweaking or completely restructuring their programs to appease the funders, which takes them off their core mission.

    While volunteerism is greatly appreciated (depending on what its for), it can often create more work for the nonprofit to coordinate and/or train groups of volunteers.  Some nonprofits actually have to hire staff to coordinate volunteer activities -- not exactly the best use of their ever-shrinking pool of unrestricted general operating funds.  The disconnect seems to be getting bigger. 

    On the whole, the nonprofit community provides highly valuable services and support that no one else provides.  Perhaps its time to make it easier for our nonprofits/public benefit organizations and start listening.  If you did a survey of nonprofits about whether they need volunteers or funds, the overwhelming majority would say funds.  Many nonprofits are on life support, people.  Are you going to get out the paddles and give the nonprofits an infusion of support, or hand them the defibrillator and instruct them on how to resuscitate themselves?  By that time, they may be dead.

  • Libby

    The issue with this article (other than it being an advertisement written by Chase masquerading as an article) and the comments is that both flee to either end of the spectrum.

    One commenter is right that this article if taken at face value as most do leaves less educated readers wtih the thought that - oh - lets stop giving money and show up for the 4, 8 or 12 hours our employer allows us during the year and the nonprofit will flourish thanks to our wisdom.  Um, no!  It takes more than that.  And I know.  After a 15 year career in the for profit sector (IT and marketing) I am now in the nonprofit sector.

    The #1 thing we need is unrestricted funding.  PERIOD.  If we didn't have to spend 75% of our time catering to the whims of each restricted funder and focusing on mission we would be able to invest some funds in infrastructure and efficiency rather than producing 10 similar things to placate funders for the 18% of their dollars we get to use to fund operations. 

    We also want, crave, beg-for committed, long-term SKILLED VOLUNTEERISM - especially in IT.  Funders say sure, then vanish.  They hand off millions of dollars (we are a large national organization) of technology with no training or support and question why it isn't used to its full capacity 1 year later.  volunteer opportunities are created then 1 person shows up for 1 day.

    Until the volunteers are in it for the long haul, are willing to develop solutions that match the nonprofits needs, not just be a on time showcase for their latest technology and get real about what it means to be a skilled volunteer, please stay at work and send us unrestricted funds and let us do what we do best - serve those in need.

  • Navi Radjou

    hi Ali: in my hurry, I mistyped your first name in my comment (see below). My apologies. Navi

  • Ryan_11

    As someone who co-founded a nonprofit I feel confident in saying that no social mission organization would turn down professional help and expertise. No where in this article does it say that corporations should STOP giving funds to non-profits. It specifically says that an innovative and economically powerful way to increase the impact and reach of those funds is through corporate volunteering- using the skills you have been educated and trained in to give back. Ali Marano states: “Instead of, say, JUST giving away computers and routers, what if major corporations’ philanthropic efforts ALSO involved providing expert know-how? ADD to those routers the manpower and expertise to design and build software and infrastructure and you’ve truly made a difference.” The author never says corporations should stop giving, she is demonstrating the efficacy of using corporate strength and skills to help organizations achieve their missions, and is encouraging other companies to do the same. Also, to clarify, Ali Marano used to work at a nonprofit for over 9 years before heading over to JPMorgan with the genuine intention of continuing to support social mission work, now through a very powerful platform. 

  • a_user212

    It is pretty obvious you don't work for a non-profit or know the first thing about it. Volunteerism is great, and many non-profits appreciate and applaud your contribution. However, to pretend that giving away an old router or setting up a social network is anywhere near as helpful as unrestricted funds to help keep the lights on, you're sadly mistaken. Most people like the idea of supporting the projects that sound good to them, but they forget that at the most basic level, non-profits need operating funds to keep their doors open. Chase is certainly not suffering in any way that would demand it should reduce that funding. For shame.

  • fu_corporate

    No no no no.
    This is just part of the corporatization of charity.  In Dallas it is illegal to give a panhandler a dollar, but every store hits you up for donations, my empoyer tries to pressgang employees to "volunteer" for their chosen causes.
    FU corporate america.
    I break the law, I give money to those who need it, not through companies who use it as part of their fing marketing.
    Look at Komen, that's where that shit came from.

  • Cong Cao

    Great article! I work for one of the largest financial institutions in Australia and every employee has 2 days of volunteer leave every calendar year, and in many areas it forms part of our KPI's.

    In 2011 there were 15,839 volunteer days across the enterprise, this is not only volunteering to help charities at events but skills based volunteering at schools and communities.

  • Amber

    I'm at a small consulting office in Atlanta, GA.  Employees here get 4 hours of volunteer time per month which adds up to six days a year.  Because we're small we might not have the overall numbers of a larger organization, but within our community I'd like to think we have an impact.  I've seen one benefit to making volunteering part of the culture here is that when we work as a group people who might not otherwise have an outlet are encouraged to volunteer with the organization.