“Help” or help, and the Fifth Element

Nonprofits face a dilemma.  Especially in a down economy, we get lots of offers of help.  How do we figure out what to do with these offers?  And how do we, kindly, with grace, respond to “I’d like to help” with tough questions to figure out whether that help will be, well, helpful?

The dance of sorting this out – in a way that minimizes investment of time and effort for everyone involved – boils down to figuring out who is offering what across four dimensions:

  1. Brand
  2. Skills
  3. Resources
  4. Time

1. Brand. E.g. “I’ve got an startup online marketplace where the profits go to nonprofits and I’d like to feature your organization on my site.”  This happens pretty often.  There are lots of online startups that have noticed the success of places like GlobalGiving and want to populate their own sites with lists of brand-name nonprofits that get them to critical mass.  So in this case an “I want to help” might really mean “I’d like to borrow your brand, which is worth a lot to me, in exchange for which you might get some revenues/visibility down the line.”  Not necessarily a problem for the nonprofit, but understand the exchange that’s going on and make sure the exchange is a fair one.  (This analysis also applies to multinationals linking up with nonprofits – there’s huge value in nonprofit brands, but as an intangible asset, it’s often undervalued in the exchange).  Also, this can cut the other way, namely a firm that offers pro-bono help (legal, PR, communications, etc.) to a nonprofit – you can only figure out what such offers are really worth if you can get past the brand that’s being offered (which is often very appealing) and learn more about the Skills, Resources and Time (meaning the people) you will get on the project (see below).

2. Skills. E.g. “I’m a strategy consultant…maybe I can help your organization with strategy issues.”  Potentially hugely valuable.  Also the hardest to judge up-front.  Recognize that nearly all Skills offers require significant investment of time and energy by the nonprofit.  You’ve got to dig deeper on the specific skills being offered and their potential value to you – and you’ve got to know what other Resources and Time are being offered – to understand how to evaluate these offers.  Coupling Skills offers with Resource offers is often a good way to make sure everyone is equally invested in making the relationship work.

3. Resources. E.g. “I’d like to support you financially” or “I’d like to introduce you to people who can.”  These offers are hard to come by, but when they do, you probably want to take them very seriously.  The main thing to keep an eye on is Brand – will this individual strengthen and protect your brand with the same care you will?

4. Time. Brand, Skills, Resources offers cannot be understood without an understanding of Time.  Talking up-front about how much Time is on offer – and when – is key to understanding any offer of help.  For example, the world’s greatest transaction lawyer, offering her services for free, is no use to you if you cannot get her or anyone on her team to reply to an email when your next transaction comes up.

The Fifth Element – Values. Assessing who is giving and getting what – in Brand, Skills, Resources, and Time – is often hard to do up front.  The starting point is having a candid conversation about what is on offer, and explaining that any engagement, volunteer or otherwise, requires your staff’s time so you always dig a little deeper to understand offers of help (drawing up terms of reference helps a lot too).

The silver lining is that you have a trump card, often undervalued and underplayed – Values.  If, when talking with someone who offers to help, you are convinced that both parties hold shared values, then that creates space for honesty and dialogue and transparency and clarity, even when you know very little up front about the things you need to know about.   Conversely, if, as the nonprofit, you walk out of that first conversation wowed with the offer (brand, skills, resources, even time) but feel crummy about the values, it’s probably time to ask a lot of question or just walk away.

One closing thought.  If you’re feeling hesitant about asking tough questions of people who offer to help, consider this: no one at Apple or Virgin or Amazon or Toyota or any brand you respect would mind replying to someone knocking on the door saying “I’d like to help” by saying, “Really? How?”  Why does it feel so different when you’re at a nonprofit?

P.S. A nod to the The Blog of Unecessary Quotation Marks for inspiration on this post’s title.

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