Community Outreach “do’s & don’ts”: tough love for big hearts

A recently released meetings industry white paper shows that integrating Corporate Social Responsibility into events will grow in 2011.  This coincides with the recent release of  ISO 26000, a comprehensive framework on which to build a socially responsible management system which might influence such a meeting.  All very exciting.

But for the meeting planner with a sincere desire to integrate a ‘social responsibility’ element into the events they organize, risk awaits.  The desire to ‘do good’ can result in poorly channelled resources and wasted time.  In short, Good Intentions Are Not Enough, which just happens to be the name of the website of our ‘guest blogger’, Saundra Schimmelpfennig, the founding director of The Charity Rater, LLC.  Saundra’s comprehensive experience in ‘aid from almost every perspective’ combines with just a touch of  ‘tough love’ and is a fresh and important voice for big hearts in the meetings industry.

Whether it’s disaster relief for Haiti or Pakistan, or painting a school as part of an event organizer’s effort to ”give back’ we, as an industry, need to be educated.  We must not operate on our assumptions exclusively.  Our ‘powers’ can, indeed, be used for good, but such outcomes require thought, planning, collaboration and strategy.

At my request, Saundra designed a list which speaks to green meeting planners. The result is this “Do’s & Don’ts” guide.  Please review these points and take a moment to review Saundra’s site.  What at first seems counter-intuitive (‘what do you mean my help isn’t helpful’?) becomes a new and very important understanding for any organization seeking to give back.  Please share your comments here and/or on Saundra’s site.

Also, if you feel these tips are timely and relevant, please share these and involve Saundra in your future discussions to develop your social responsibility plan.  With that, here we go…

The Do’s & Don’ts of community outreach: Meetings Industry version, by Saundra Schimmelpfenning

Do decide what your main goal is

It’s important to have a clear idea of what you’re hoping to achieve as some goals conflict with each other. The goal of creating a positive impact means doing activities that the charity needs the most, socializing or team building for staff is generally not the best fit for charitable volunteering. Building a quality CSR program requires targeted inputs over a longer period of time.

Don’t be surprised if the charity turns down your offer to help

Working with volunteers requires a substantial commitment of time and resources for a charity. It often means pulling staff off of other work to meet, greet, supervise, and problem solve for the volunteers. It can often take more time and resources to work with volunteers than if staff just did the work themselves. Even if large groups of volunteers are sometimes needed your group might not be available during the right season or the right time of day, or your participants might not have the right skill set for what needs to get done.

Do keep your contribution in perspective

Charity volunteer work days are often held for other reasons beside the need for free labor. They can be done to build an affinity for the project, as a link to fundraising activities, or as an awareness raising or educational activity. It’s important to keep in perspective how much you’re actually “giving back.”

Do donate money as well as time

Volunteer projects often need long-term maintenance. For instance plants – even native ones – need to be regularly watered for the first two years. Freshly painted schools still need maintenance, teachers, electricity and running water. While the villager might enjoy the novelty of working side by side with a foreigner for a few hours or days, an extra week of paid work is going to mean far more to him, his family, and the success of the charity.

Do consider mentoring staff or offering free trainings

It’s difficult for charities to pay for staff development and trainings as these are seen as overheads by donors. Consider either offering one-on-one mentoring with the nonprofit employees or have your staff work together to offer trainings for several nonprofits. This will help the nonprofit become more effective and potentially lead to long-term work with the charity as professional relationships are built.

Don’t be surprised if they don’t get it

In some cultures the idea of a well-educated foreigner coming to their hometown to do manual labor is crazy. After all the only reason they do backbreaking manual work is because they don’t have the education or connections to find a better job. They can also be confused by the economics of the whole thing. If you volunteer for a day then all they get is a day’s labor from you, and you’re likely far slower at the work than they are. However, if you were to work at your regular job for a day and then give them the money you made for that one day’s work they could hire several people for a day, a week, or even a month – depending on wages – and get far more accomplished.

Do consider having “Donate Your Day” events

Because of the economic considerations listed above, consider having days at work where staff donate their paycheck for that one day. This could include a group lunch purchased by the office. During lunch a short video or slide show from the charity you gave to could be shown so people could see how their money was used to provide jobs and meet local needs.

Don’t expect to work with vulnerable populations

While many people imagine themselves helping out in an orphanage or volunteering in an under-privileged school this type of work is often not good for the children. Unless you are a long term volunteer with a completed background check, do not to try to work with vulnerable children. You should also be suspicious of any organization that allows or encourages it. There have been recent incidences where sexual predators have used charities to gain access to children. Additionally children in orphanages need adults they can bond with and maintain long-term relationships. An ever rotating group of volunteers can create feelings of abandonment or problems creating future attachments.

Don’t bring donated goods overseas

Whenever possible purchase all goods locally. Donated goods often go unused because they are inappropriate for the local climate, culture, or way of life. If the goods are used then by giving them out for free you are outcompeting local stores and manufactures. While a single donation won’t have a big impact, the cumulative impact of thousands of similar donations can start to put local manufacturers and their employees out of work and hurt the local economy.

Do buy as much a possible from the local market place

Don’t rely on the fancy hotel chain for all your needs. Hire a local translator and driver to run errands and purchase the goods you need from the market place. Hire local taxi drivers, pay for local guides, and buy trinkets from local sellers. Spread your money to the widest variety of people so that it does the most good.

Do take time to make sure you’re supporting a good charity

The process to register a charity varies from country to country, but in general it doesn’t take a lot to get or keep charitable status. Many charities even function without legal status and without informing the government of their work. Unfortunately, some charitable projects actually leave people worse off than if the charity hadn’t done any work at all. You cannot count on any entity monitoring the work of the charity, it’s up to you to ensure that they are not a scam and are doing quality work. It is critical that all charities are carefully chosen before partnering with them.

6 Comments

  1. This is great advice – thanks for the list. Is there a question filter that you suggest we apply to achieve the last point? Especially if they don’t have legal/government status?

    Also, would be great to see some case studies of ‘good’ examples from events shared in future, too.

    Thanks Saundra and Michael!

  2. Saundra says:

    Shawna,

    Many people have asked that same question, how do you evaluate a charity to ensure you’re choosing the best one possible. Unfortunately, there’s no quick and easy answer to that question and all previous attempts to provide simple answers have lead to problems. For instance most nonprofit evaluation systems use the percentage spent on administration costs as a large part of the rating for the charity. Unfortunately administration costs is a fairly meaningless indicator and the emphasis on it is hurting the viability and quality of charitable activities.

    The other problem you’ll run into is the fact that there are 1.8 million charities registered in the US alone. This means there’s a good chance that the charity you are considering supporting has not been evaluated.

    All of these issues led me to developed The Charity Rater http://thecharityrater.com. This is a system that walks people through the process of evaluating a charity before giving. The rating system is a series of 18 questions that the user answers based on the information provided on a nonprofit’s website or in their annual report. It is designed to help users evaluate any charity regardless of size or location.

    The process takes about 20 minutes, but it’s time well spent. By the end of the process you’ll know whether the organization is being transparent and following best practices.

    Over the course of this week the rating system will be updated to make it more user friendly, so don’t be surprised if the appearance changes during the week. I’m also currently developing a handbook to go along with the rating system for people that want to learn more.

    Hope that helps,

    Saundra

  3. Guy Bigwood says:

    Saundra,

    your tool http://thecharityrater.com is very useful. Simple to use and really makes you think about the questions you need to be asking the charity. thank you for sharing

    Guy

  4. Saundra says:

    Guy,

    Thanks, I’m glad you found the Charity Rater useful.

  1. […] following is a copy of the guest post I was invited to write for Less Conversation More Action, a blog which discusses issues faced by the green meetings industry. Organizations involved with […]

  2. […] Schimmelpfennig from Good Intentions are Not Enough guest blogged some extremely valuable advice on Less Conversation More Action. Actually I am amazed at the overlap between what she wrote today, and what I will be talking about […]

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