Motivations matter

How can we help: Why we give, and how we might do it better

People clearly like to help other people. Last year a friend posted on LinkedIn that she was looking for a mentor; she expected one or two responses – but got an astonishing 25 offers. You see it the other way round, too: mid-career professionals offering time to answer questions or advise younger people on breaking into their industry. 

Why help a stranger? Some remember their own early-career struggles. Some want to help open up a field that lacks diversity. Some, no doubt, do it because they benefit too: they learn something new, they connect with someone of a different background or generation, they boost their own profile. (All of these reasons influenced my decision to mentor with CharityWorks.) The mentor that my friend ultimately chose said that he wanted to continue meeting up partly because her extensive professional network might one day be useful to him. Does that take away from his offer? I don’t think so. Altruism + a selfish motivation might just be the combination that makes something stick.

Similarly, agencies offering pro bono support – providing professional services for free to good causes – also gain from the arrangement. Yes, it’s good for their reputation, and probably helps attract new hires in a competitive job market. It can also allow commercial companies to take on work that is creatively challenging, but which wouldn’t be lucrative enough to justify as a paid gig. As one consultant, who works with small charities for free, says: “I’ve worked in the sector for 22 years, but the free work I’m doing now enables me to work with charities I’d just never been able to work with historically.”

When it goes well, charities benefit hugely; they get access to expertise they could never otherwise afford. It’s not always smooth, though. Business-charity partnerships can face an awkward power imbalance: as a report by think tank NPC on corporate-charity partnerships puts it, “sometimes it can seem like corporates hold all the cards because they are providing the funding”. A more recent survey by Three Hands, which helps businesses to have a positive impact on society, found that – while 96% of charities say they need employee volunteers – 60% think businesses put their own needs first in relationships. The businesses might disagree (the researchers only spoke to charities in this case). But director of Three Hands Michael Hilton suggests commercial incentives exert a strong pull: within a company, corporate staff may struggle to prioritise their pro bono clients as highly as their paying ones.  

A number of organisations try to smooth out these issues by running structured pro bono schemes (Charity Excellence lists some of these). They range from long-term, facilitated programmes that companies pay a fee for, like those provided by Pilotlight; to light-touch advice or mentoring services, like Digital Candle, which connects users with digital experts for a one-off, hour-long call.

Michael, whose work is primarily with small and medium-sized charities, says long-term help is usually the most beneficial. Businesspeople love turning up to share their ideas, he says, but most small charities (and 96% of the UK’s charities are small ones) need help with implementation, not ideas. So experts may leave a conversation with the “warm glow” of having done something good, while the resource-strapped organisation leaves without the manpower to follow through.

Digital Candle currently has more experts than charities, according to its website. They suggest this is because of a lack of awareness – but is it also just easier to offer this kind of help than it is to receive it? Three Hands research showed a pretty big mismatch between what small charities need and what they get offered: 40% of those surveyed had been offered one-off volunteering by businesses, but only 3% said they needed this kind of help. Meanwhile, 45% needed ongoing volunteering, but only 16% were offered this.

Advice from services like Digital Candle is no doubt really useful in certain situations. And importantly, they’re offering real expertise. The notion of corporate volunteers spending a day painting a fence feels rather dated by now, but apparently charities still get these sort of requests. As NPC writes, corporate employees want a hands-on experience that takes them away from their day job. But “their biggest added value is very likely to be closely linked to their profession – accountants are more valuable as accountants than as decorators”. People love the idea of helping, but motivations matter. And sometimes offers of help don’t necessarily mean helpful.