In a white paper issued last month, the Taproot Foundation argued that a commitment to pro bono services by the strategic planning profession could unleash $1.5 billion worth of high-impact free advice to nonprofits, and offered its own system for organizing and dispensing that advice to the agencies most in need. Its emphasis on donated services puts the Foundation in the thick of a task otherwise left to Executive Directors, Program Directors and Volunteer Coordinators: finding roles for volunteers that are simultaneously meaningful to individuals and useful to the nonprofits they seek to serve.
The Nonprofiteer, a strategic planner herself, thinks more nonprofits should indeed have access to strategic planning services, and likes the idea of bringing volunteers in as professionals rather than grunt laborers. Here are her concerns with the Taproot formulation–bearing in mind that it’s always easier to nitpick a project than start one:
- Taproot’s approach to strategic planning seems to bear the fingerprints of its funder Deloitte, emphasizing the ideas that nonprofits’ central strategic planning task is to determine whether they should merge with other nonprofits. This is a drumbeat that the charitable sector has heard from the business sector for years, and we should be concerned about a widely-distributed strategic planning template that argues from a stance of expertise that there are too many nonprofits and the essential question is how to make them fewer, bigger and more efficient. In fact, if we’re going to go on having social services delivered by private nonprofits instead of by government agencies, the main reason is a belief in the value of localized, community-based, small-scale interventions as against nationalized, standardized and massive efforts. So let’s pause before we export to thousands of nonprofits the idea that their job is to go out of business.
- Taproot’s idea of putting volunteers on site briefly–a single meeting with the client, a 6-9 month overall commitment–may work for some volunteers whose main concern is getting a resume credit or honing their preexisting skills; but most people are looking for a volunteering home. The Nonprofiteer can only speak for herself (as usual) when she differentiates between what she does for a living–parachuting into agencies to offer an outsider’s perspective–and what she does, or hopes to do, for love: being a long-term unpaid staff member. There’s a reason to keep these two activities separate: strategic planning requires asking hard questions while long-term volunteering requires implementing the answers. Strategic planning requires a willingness to be unpopular to the point of exile while long-term volunteering requires figuring out how to work with people whose ideas and motives are very different from one’s own–a skill without which nothing important or lasting can ever get done. To put it another way: charities need expert external perspective far less than they need enhanced internal capacity–the kind that comes from long-term volunteers.
Unless we can figure out a way to turn skilled outsiders into committed insiders, we’re just churning: roiling the water without moving the ship forward. Lest we forget: the point of volunteering is not to provide free labor to charities but to connect people within communities to the broader work of those communities.
Glad to see, though, that someone is thinking seriously about the problem of making voluntary work satisfactory to the volunteers–without that, there’s no chance for the long-term relationships the Nonprofiteer considers so essential. Maybe Taproot’s next project could be to help volunteer managers think about their work from the perspective of capable volunteers, and foster a longer-term commitment between volunteer and institution.