Smart Volunteer vs Dumb Volunteer

Corporate Volunteering belongs to Human Resources — not Corporate Responsibility.

This is a mind-blower, right? When you think about it, there is not a single Corporate Volunteering program designed to solve a social problem. They merely focus their attention to social problem’s symptoms, they don’t try to solve anything. They are meant to engage employees, make them happier, create that warm fuzzy feeling and hopefully more productive. Therefore Volunteer belongs to Human Resources.

That is, unless you adopt a “Smart Volunteering” strategy and carry out it inside a Corporate Sustainability program. But we will talk more about that in Part II of this book. Where we go over all the things that you can do to actually solve problems to increase revenue.

Smart and Dumb Volunteering

What is “Dumb Volunteer” and why is it being called that way? Well it’s quite simple, really. Dumb Volunteer — which uses people’s time — gets its name thanks to its counterpart the “Smart Volunteering” — which uses your organization’s core skills.

What do we mean by this? Using your people’s time for volunteering is like using flamethrower to light a candle: a complete waste of energy and resources.

If you are thinking of — or perhaps already — running a corporate volunteering program, it means that you have a large number of smart people collaborating in your organization. As any smart organization would do, you want to make the most out of your resources.

Let’s say that you have a great team of financial planners and an orphanage with bucket-full of challenges. Which approach do you think is smarter?

  1. Sending a brilliant financial manager to paint a wall of an orphanage for an entire saturday morning, or
  2. Having him meet for an hour with the orphanage’s accountant ?

You wouldn’t pay a painter the same hourly rate that you pay your CFO, right ? So why are you spending the same amount of money by sending a CFO to do a painters work? Now multiply that by hundreds of collaborators and imagine the amount of value your organization would be wasting.

A few years ago an international non-profit arrived to Mexico. They (still) offer outsourced corporate volunteering programs, where they take your employees and make them build wooden houses, paint walls and sometimes even plant trees. Their selling point is that your employees would feel engaged and happy for helping people in need spending their weekend doing physical work. Notice there is no real impact in the value proposition.

Back in 2008, one of our corporate clients called us in. They wanted us to assess their strategic programs and improve them. Impact-wise, something didn’t sum up. When we inquired about the performance and indicators of this particular program — the house-building volunteering — they spilled the soup and told us what really happened.

Even when employees were given incentives to take part, few actually assisted. The few that participated made a terrible job out of building and painting. They simply are not skilled construction workers, they don’t enjoy doing it. And worse of all when the employees left the place, the non-profit that offered the program had paid real professionals come in to undo and redo the job that the employees thought they did.

Let alone that fact that this is quite dishonest for people tricking into making them think they are actually helping. It’s simply a really stupid and inefficient use of any company’s resources. Yes… I said it — it’s stupid — deal with it.

Your employees are smart. Really! That is why you hired them. You need to treat them as the valuable high skill talent they are. They don’t longer buy the “let’s go paint a wall” — “building a 2×2 wooden house” volunteer programs. That perhaps used to work for some baby-boomers. But no longer works for Millennials. If you even get them to be part of it, they will sooner or later find out how their time is being invested and they won’t like it. Perhaps they already know they have little value to add to “dumb volunteering” and your participation rates are already low.

The Orphanage and the Marketeers.

You remember the Orphanage example I was telling you about? It’s actually a true story. Back in sunny Mexico, we were invited to a planning meeting. The head of Corporate Social Responsibility gathered Humana, the leaders of an orphanage, and their corporate volunteering program manager.

We were there to come up with a solution for two challenges. The lack of

  1. Employee engagement, and
  2. Orphanage funding

All the usual ideas you might imagine were mentioned: let’s have the kids write letters for donors. Let’s make a new marketing campaign to motivate our employees… bla bla bla (same old ideas that come from old-school advertising and marketing schemes).

When it was my turn to speak, I offered a drastic solution:

— “Why don’t we get rid of the orphanage”.

By the face of the orphanage’s president you could have imagined said “Let’s bomb the children”. After their silence I continued:

“The real problem here is not the lack of engagement, although we could fix that, and it’s not the lack of funds, neither. Next year you will come back asking for more money, just like you’ve for years now.” — I added.

“The problem here is that there hundreds of children without a family, most of them are given away or abandoned by their families. And on the other side of the problem — you have parents willing to give a nurturing home for them.

So instead of spending more money and annoy employees, let’s focus our resources on improving the adoption efforts.

This improved adoption program will help parents meet with single mothers and families that can’t have their child so they can have a family — that way children will get adopted faster.

You will still work as a non-profit, slowly transform yourself into an adoption agency. Eventually, if we succeed, you can close the housing division. Children won’t have live in orphanage until they are kicked out at 18. Instead they will have a loving family, even before they are even born.”

They didn’t like it. Actually the Orphanage’s leaders even hated it.

If this idea worked, it meant they were going out of business and they would have no more jobs. And as for the volunteer program coordinator, she hated it too. Because this meant she would need to find something else for their employees to volunteer. She would be forced to actually solve a problem, instead of simply organizing weekend field trips.

I don’t blame them. I mean, imagine this. Here come this kid (I was the youngest in the room) and tells you that he wants to change our entire organization’s strategy, which you have run for the last 30 years of your entire life! Who the hell does he think he is, right?

They kept their strategy and changed nothing. They bet high on the marketing and advertising approach: sending even more emails to employees.

Sadly, the orphanage closed the following year. They simply couldn’t sustain the operation costs. The company is now trying to find new causes for their volunteering program, which of course only a fraction of employees support. The numbers diminish by every quarter. No one got any value out of having “dumb volunteering” program. And worst of all, I’ve no idea of where have the children ended up.

CSR and Volunteering can’t survive with marketing alone. People demand real value and nothing less. And you can’t trick them with gimmicks anymore.

C’mon guys, stop running Corporate Responsibility as a marketing or advertising department. Really, no one is buying into that for decades ago.

Yes, we need communication and marketing people in the team. But we also need the missing skills there! Get designers, engineers, business modellers and researchers. Corporate Volunteers don’t want field-trips. They want to make a true impact in the world.

What to do about Dumb Volunteering?

Simply stop it. Instead go for Skill Based Volunteering, the Smart Volunteering!

Smart Volunteering enables your employees donate their skills to the causes they choose, not the sweat to the causes you chose for them. This is a great talent attraction and engagement honey pot. Not to mention that it increases your rates at popular rankings like “Great Place to Work”.

Let me guess… You are probably having trouble attracting and retaining talent for your business. All of our clients have. With global economy and the best talent being able to choose any company in the world to work for, there is great pressure for securing talent before the competition gets them. We can’t seem to find enough people to meet your demand.

I know this because, I have to solve this problem for our own companies, and we also run our own Venture Builder. Not to mention every-time I speak with investors fellow venture builders, accelerators etc., they ask help to find talent. Everyone is trying to get top talent into their companies. It doesn’t matter if you are a Fortune 500 or a growing startup. We all know we need talent, and a good paycheck no longer does the trick.

If you never have trouble getting all the top quality talent you need, you can skip ahead to the next chapter of the book (sign-up to get notified of launch). I don’t want to waste your time.




Good, you are still here. Now, please consider that you might have problems attracting talent, it might be because your are not helping your collaborators to have meaningful jobs. It’s that simple: everyone wants a meaningful job, including you!

You see, companies used to engage employees using extrinsic motivators such as bonuses, appliances or god forbid public recognitions like trophies and recognition diplomas you see in old people’s office.

What we need to do now, is aim for intrinsic motivators. They are simple things, but mostly allow us to have a sense of purpose and meaning. In his Book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink lists the following:

  1. Mastery: being allowed to reach for that wish for perfection.
  2. Meaning: allow people to develop a sense of purpose and reach it.
  3. Community: help people build strong relationships with others.
  4. Autonomy: allow people to have control over their work and actions.

Smart Volunteering has them all!

  • Mastery: We are practicing and getting better at what they do best, they job.
  • Meaning: We know they are helping solve problems, not attending symptoms.
  • Autonomy: We decide what causes and activities to invest our skills on.
  • Community: Having recurring interaction with people you help and others that enjoy their actions does help build strong relationships.


Time based volunteering is “Dumb Volunteering” — a waste of time and resources. Not to mention that it can even damage your reputation and trust among your employees, who are no longer engaged by such programs.

Instead adopt “Smart Volunteering” — skill based volunteering that helps people develop purpose, meaningful careers and live fulfilling lives. This is by far the second best way to engage your employees. (I’ll tell you the best way further in the book in Part II when we talk about what strategies work best).

Extra reading:

If you haven’t take a look at now a classic story on dumb volunteering: The problem with white little girls and boys, by Pippa Biddle.

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