As businesses, we are continually challenged to find and engage with our target markets. And as small enterprises, we have to do this as cost-effectively as possible, being without the big marketing budgets of corporations. A great way to do this is to volunteer.
I live in a small community where it is possible to connect in ways that may not be possible in larger areas. However, there are certain principles that can be applied at any scale, including online.
1. Choose strategically as well as ethically. There are two things to consider in choosing how to volunteer. One, of course, is to pick a cause that reflects your personal values. If you support organic farming, you could join the board of the local farmer’s market. If you support community outreach to at-risk populations, you might volunteer for the YMCA or United Way. Service clubs like Rotary are highly effective at doing good and have many business people as members.
The other consideration is strategic. Most organizations have boards whose members are listed on their web sites. Look at the board lists of the causes you want to help, and look for people for whom you would like to work. Volunteering is a perfect way to showcase your worth while supporting a cause your prospect cares about. But your support has to be sincere – phonies and opportunists will eventually be outed, resulting in negative marketing. Sincere support is first, your marketing agenda is second.
2. Volunteer for tasks that require your abilities. This is a golden opportunity to demonstrate your expertise, professionalism and integrity to potential clients. You will be judged the same as on a paid job, so treat it accordingly. Show up, do what you said you would do, and be accountable and available. Don’t assume that because you are working for free that the job is any less important to your reputation or matters less than your paid work.
3. Define the assignment the same as you would paid work. Set it up in front with a formal proposal that has a defined scope, timeline, etc., just as if you were being paid. This does two things: it sets limits as to what you will do pro bono, and it educates your fellow volunteers as to what such a job entails. It would be very bad if your philanthropy resulted in misperceptions about what it really takes to provide products and services. It’s up to you to prevent that by being clear about the assignment’s details and boundaries.
4. Execute as though the gods were watching your every move. This is your chance to show the pillars of your community not only how excellent your work is and how professional you are, but what a joy you are to work with. People tend to hire those they know and trust. This is how you show that you are that person. People also tend to hire those who they feel have similar values.
5. Do not neglect invoicing! It’s another opportunity to educate your future client, and also gives your group a valuable tool for fundraising. Non-profits are always chasing grants. Often grants require either a hard or soft match for the funds they hand out. A hard match means the group has to match the grant in dollars. A soft match means the group can provide a match of in-kind products or services. This has to be documented, however, and that’s where your invoice comes in. You submit an invoice as you usually do with its actual price, and then add a note that says “Discounted 100%” (or 50% if it’s a partial pro bono). This will not only allow the group to use your donation as a soft match, but it will also make them fully aware of the value of what you gave. This will ensure that when Mr. Fellow Board Member comes to you for his business that he doesn’t have any unfortunate assumptions of what it will cost. And it will also make you look like a hero for thinking of it. They will thank you.
When It Looks Like the Karma is Going South
Not all non-profits are ethically squeaky clean. Recognize when your benefactees may be sliding towards exploiting you. This can happen for a number of reasons: when a non-profit is starting up because someone is trying to create a job at no cost to himself; when the board has no respect for anyone’s time or abilities but their own; or the executive director, ditto. It’s up to you to see when this is happening and deal with it in a way that is not damaging to your business. No cause is worth feeling used and resentful. But - even if the group you volunteered for turns out to be less than ideal, you did a good job, you made new connections, and now you can return refreshed to your regular clients.
Weasels Are the Exception, Not the Norm
The vast majority of people and groups are wonderful. Besides the chance to make meaningful and satisfying connections, volunteering offers opportunities to expand your knowledge and skills in ways that are not always available to a small business. In volunteering, the very least you will gain is getting to know some great people, and the knowledge that you have used your talents to make the world better.