Posted on July 12, 2005
The Pitfalls of Having a Program Sponsor
(and suggestions for Mission-Based Organizations on how to avoid them)
For-profit companies, particularly large corporations, often sponsor specific programs at mission-based organizations (non-profit organizations, non-governmental organizations/NGOs, civil society, school, etc.), providing funding, donated staff time, and in-kind equipment and services to help launch and maintain a program.
In most ways, this is a blessing for the mission-based organization, which gets resources it needs to launch and maintain a program that helps it fulfill its mission.
But there are often hidden costs, and one of the biggest is the interference of for-profit/corporate culture in the operations of the mission-based organization. What the for-profit company wants out of the program may not be what the mission-based organization feels is appropriate, or may conflict with what the mission-based organization feels is best for those it serves.
Some ways that for-profit, corporate culture of sponsors can interfere with a mission-based program:
- Limiting participation of volunteers in the program to only employees of the sponsoring company.
Some mission-based organizations have no problem with this limitation, and may even find the limitation to its advantage, for instance, if the corporation takes care of criminal background checks or management of its employees who will volunteer. But others can find it too restraining, limiting those who experience the organization and programs as a volunteer to only one select group of people, to the exclusion of others.
- Not including the mission-based staff in all aspects of program design, development and management
Companies often believe that, if they are holding the purse strings, they should have absolute control of a program at a mission-based organization. But just as a company would never allow their stock holders to design the products they will sell, companies should respect the expertise and autonomy of the staff at a mission-based organization.
- Limiting evaluation and progress reports to internal use only
In the late 1990s, I attempted to study every online mentoring program in existence, as part of my work at the Virtual Volunteering Project. My guess is that, as of May 2005, at least a quarter of these online mentoring programs have, at some point, done research on their own individual programs regarding their effectiveness. Unfortunately, I have found a great reluctance on the part of these programs to share their results. Many of these mentoring programs are sponsored by a corporation, and, per the for-profit culture, each corporation sees its online mentoring program as proprietary, and does not want to share its "trade secrets", in addition to not wanting any weaknesses in its programs to become public. It's a shame, because a viewing of all these internal evaluations on individual programs would probably lead to wonderful insights on best practices in online mentoring, and improve EVERYONE'S programs.
- The "We're The Best and Only One!" Mentality
I'll again use my attempt to study every online mentoring program in existence, as part of my work at the Virtual Volunteering Project, as an example. Another big frustration was that each program sponsor, with few exceptions, believed that its online mentoring program was THE model. The idea that there might be a variety of different approaches, with a variety of strengths and weaknesses, was just not something many program sponsors would consider. They were always surprised when I started talking about other programs -- they truly thought that their program was the first and only one. This limited way of thinking takes away one of the mission-based world's greatest strengths -- its tendency to network and share, to always be on the lookout at what others are doing and ways to learn from such.
How to avoid these pitfalls? There are a number of ways:
For For-Profit Corporations
The mission-based sector is NOT the same as the for-profit sector. Please stop trying to make it such. Just because something works in the business world does not mean it will work -- or is even appropriate -- for the mission-based sector. The nonprofit sector encompasses important, unique expertise and resources. Your sponsorship isn't just good for the mission-based organization -- it is your opportunity to learn about the vital work that mission-based organizations undertake, and learn about approaches that might work back in the for-profit world.
Make a commitment to sharing the results of the program you sponsor externally. This can be done through sharing evaluation results with graduate students or university faculty producing academic papers, or sharing such with other mission-based organizations, often through conference presentations. Even better -- you could be truly proactive and allow the mission-based organization to post the results on its web site. Transparency is one of the most valued qualities in the mission-based world. Being upfront about what works and what doesn't adds greatly to the credibility of a mission-based organization, which leads to greater and sustained support for the organization.
Involve mission-based organizations in all decision-making, and NEVER overrule their decisions about the program you are sponsoring; all decision-making must be done by unanimous agreement between you and the organization. Period.
Listen, listen, listen to the mission-based organization. Its priorities are its mission and those it serves. Period. If you are going to sponsor a program at a mission-based organization, those priorities should be fully respected and supported. In addition, the staff at the mission-based have expertise and experience your staff does not; just as you would never dream of allowing their staff to take over your product development and sales, don't try to take over theirs. You are an investor and a contributor to THEIR project.
Many mission-based organizations become frustrated with companies or consultants providing donated services because the for-profit side feels that the organization should be satisfied with whatever service is provided, whenever it is provided. "After all, it's FREE." This is an unhealthy and potentially disastrous attitude. Treat the organization you are assisting as a customer, just like your paying customers. Their deadlines and expectations are just as real as your paying customers, and are often even more important; to not fulfill your obligations could mean the mission-based organization cannot serve some or all of its constituency.
How will you measure success regarding your donated services? What will be the process be for the organization you assist to evaluate your work with them and to communicate to you their evaluation? Include this in the contract with the organization. Hearing an evaluation of your donated service is part of a quality volunteering experience.
For Mission-Based Organizations
Also see Pro Bono / In-Kind / Donated Services for Mission-Based Organizations:
- Never lose site of your mission in anything you do. That includes working with donors. That can mean sometimes saying "no" to offers of volunteers and donations. Being focused on your mission will lead to more support, not less, and greater credibility and respect for your organization. It will also make decision-making much easier.
- Before any agreement is made, insist that a company who wants to sponsor a program at your organization go through an orientation process, where their staff learns about your organization, its mission, its culture, whom it serves, how it measures success, etc. If the agreement is finalized, insist that all company staff who will participate in the program go through the same orientation. Don't assume that asking company staff to read a brochure or your web site will get the job done! You probably already require potential volunteers to go through such an orientation -- why not these corporate volunteers?
- Work with the company to create a flow chart to show how decisions will be made, at all levels, and how actions will be taken. "Who does what", at every step in the development and management of the program, should be answered before action is taken, and this chart should be regularly revisited. Getting these processes clear up front will prevent many, many problems later.
- Define the goal of the program, and how success will be measured. Make sure there is complete agreement in this regard. This will put everyone's expectations on the table, and show discrepancies long before the program is launched.
When, Why & How?. There are all sorts of professionals who want to donate their services -- web design, graphic design, human resources expertise, legal advice, editing, research, and so forth -- to mission-based organizations. And there are all sorts of nonprofits and NGOs who would like to attract such donated services. But often, there's a disconnect -- misunderstandings and miscommunications and unrealistic expectations that lead to missed opportunities and frustrating experiences. This resource is designed to help both those who want to donate professional services and those who want to work with such volunteers.
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