In last week's post about what I learned from Engineers Without Borders (here) I said we (voluntary sector) are only just beginning to understand the corporate sector. In three years with Engineers Without Borders I had more contact with companies than I'd had in the previous 17 years (at Oxfam GB, Nottingham CVS, Skillshare International, Regeneration East Midlands and One East Midlands), and it was all very useful contact.
We are often thinking about fundraising when we think about corporate engagement but Engineers Without Borders involvement with the corporate sector brings the organisation a lot more than money. It brings talent, learning, volunteering, connections, recognition and, most importantly, long-term sustainable impact.
You're perhaps thinking, well, yeah, but they're about engineering so no wonder it works for them, engineering companies are bound to love them. There's some truth in that but I think there are also useful lesson for all sorts of organisations, so hear me out.
The lessons are:
Engineers Without Borders' approach means that conversations with companies are often started by employees who want the company to get involved with the charity. As student engineers they were hugely motivated by membership of their EWB society at university, and they want to continue to support the organisation when they start work. This isn't about fundraising, it's about participation in a movement, shared goals, and Engineers Without Borders does a great thing by saying, "Yeah, OK, let's see what we can do together". Crucially, for Engineers Without Borders, this isn't a fundraising strategy, it's what they do: recognising that change, that improving people's lives, is most likely to happen when people work together.
Probably every month at Engineers Without Borders I talked to senior company managers who absolutely loved the fact that they could involve their graduate staff in working with us. You can probably find ways for company employees to volunteer for your cause, and why wouldn't you want trained, motivated volunteers from an organisation that shares your values - or at least aspires to develop share values? Think differently about how you do things to make this really meaningful though: you'll struggle to forge strong relationships if you keep asking volunteers to come back to paint the same wall. Companies gain a lot from having their employees engaged in this way. They're walking the 'values' walk, not just talking the talk, often getting free training for their staff, certainly enabling their staff to gain new skills and grow in confidence, and gathering stories to tell potential new recruits and customers about how they make a difference.
Really meaningful volunteering comes from making leadership possible, which Engineers Without Borders is great at because it is a volunteer organisation with a few staff, so centralised control of decision making is relatively weak: volunteers are able to invent programmes, run events and seek resources for their ideas.
What's changing in the world? Lots, obviously, but here's a quick list: attitudes to race, gender, faith, sexuality, disability, power and participation; global climate; availability and ownership of fuel, water and land; technology and communications. I found that companies are talking about this stuff, and they're investing in it, especially the big ones. To continue to exist and to generate profit they need to understand these issues, to have staff who can lead their response, to have customers who will support their response, and to work in partnership with others. Individual staff in the companies I talked to 'got it' to varying degrees, at junior and senior levels. One thing they did recognise was that we were a source of expertise and that we could do things to tackle these issues that they couldn't: there was a real need for partnership.
Finally, and highlighted for emphasis, but not discussed because it's so obvious: values are your strength. You're not for profit, that's the difference.
This week I'm finishing putting together a project management training course, broken into a "strong starts" module and a "happy endings" module (I reserve the right to come up with more sensible titles), customisable to suit specific individuals and organisations. I'm looking forward to sharing these with whoever wants them! Then there's another blog to come, on what I've learned about my leadership style - or lack of it.