Canned beans or bananas?

Every year, between the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many Jewish congregants take home a brown paper bag to be filled with non-perishable food for people in need.  It helps fill food banks, and is emblematic of the principle of tzedakah, or charity, which plays an important role in most major religions (tithing, zakat, etc.)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the surge of interest in volunteering / working in the nonprofit sector, especially the social enterprise sector (where I spend my days).  There’s a tsunami of people, young and old alike, interested in using their skills for good in the world.  Organizations like Acumen Fund, where I work, seem to be attracting particular interest, and I think it’s because of the impression that nonprofits that work with social enterprises are more likely to be able to take advantage of people’s business skills and put them to good use in solving social problems.

(I say “impression” because I still haven’t been convinced that “business skills” – which I take to mean effective leadership, management, strategy, organizational design, use of capital, etc. – have any more or less application in social enterprise organizations vs. the nonprofit sector more broadly.  And I bet the leadership of CARE or Mercy Corps or UNICEF or Save the Children would agree here.)

Part of the challenge of matching this talent to needs is about canned beans vs. bananas.  Historically, “volunteering” has often been about applying less specialized skills (serving in a soup kitchen, helping to build a home) to directly serve a population in need.  This is canned beans: highly nutritious, long shelf life, can plug in almost anywhere.

Bananas are tougher.  They don’t travel particularly well, they spoil quickly, they’re best if you pick them and buy them locally.  Yes, you can transport a banana across the world (and we often do), but you would never think that a banana and a tin of canned beans are interchangeable.

I think it’s time we start calling bananas bananas, which may mean distinguishing between “volunteering” and “service.”  This is a tough one, because even those words feel like they imply that one is more valuable than the other…which isn’t true.

But if we could develop a common vocabulary about long-term, on-the-ground, specialized engagements requiring  screening and specialized skills, we’d be a long way towards clearing up a lot of confusion.

Because, in truth, we really do need a lot more bananas.

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One Response to Canned beans or bananas?

  1. Ozzybeef says:

    I agree with your train of thought here.

    It is more effective to use a persons skills, strengths, passions that we may use in our work place to move social programs towards their goal.

    I have been fortunate to be part of a church that does this very well. I have discovered more about who I am and been given the opportunity to grow as a person while serving. Which has improved my effectiveness and allowed me to make a bigger contribution to my job.

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