The charity team building day – reality or urban myth?

34d3df5789706bf11905104c6c101ce0Over the last few weeks I have heard a story several times that makes my heart sink. Before I start a rant on the topic, I want to check whether it is indeed a truth, something that happens frequently, or a one-off that has become an urban fundraising myth.

The story goes like this; on a dark and stormy night a local business gets in touch with their local charity because they want to help them; they want to make a difference in their community. They don’t have a budget for charitable donations, but they would like to help by volunteering their time. They have an idea of how they could do this. They suggest that they could paint a building or do some gardening and that would also give them the opportunity to work together as a team. They ask the charity if this would be possible.

The charity welcomes this enquiry and is thrilled to have the opportunity to work with this local company. They are delighted that the company thought to ask them.

However, there is a slight problem that there isn’t any painting that really needs doing, or any gardens that need attention. Rather than turn down an opportunity, or investigate whether there is something else that could be mutually beneficial, the charity creates painting and gardening opportunities, because there is an outside chance that this will lead to more support from the company in the future.

The highly skilled accountants, project managers, communications and marketing experts turn up on their allocated volunteering day to paint a shed that, unbeknown to them, doesn’t need painting and plant some shrubs and trees that don’t need planting.

Let’s assume that they had a good day, they built some rapport in their team, got to know each other better, felt good because they did something for the community and slapped each other on the back for their good work in the pub on the way home.

We hope they did have a good day, because the standard of painting work was so appalling, that the charity had to employ professional decorators to clear up the mess and a trained gardener to revive the shrubs and trees.

It’s not a surprising result, given that the teams skills are not painting and decorating, they are in strategic communications, accountancy and managing complex projects. Skills that the charity might have been able to deploy to greater effect if only they had been bold enough to ask.

Does this happen or is it an urban myth? Please comment below, or drop me a line.

21 Comments on “The charity team building day – reality or urban myth?

  1. Sadly true…I have had to fix a garden after a company made a mess of it before. It didn’t cost the charity any money (other than my time) but it wasn’t ideal!!

    Have you also heard of the charities that have rooms that are never used so that they can constantly be painted and repainted by corporate volunteers? I know of at least one hospice that does this!

    • Thanks Mandy, I have heard, and again I wanted to check if it was an urban myth, about unused rooms specifically there to be painted by corporate volunteers. Does anyone else have this experience or examples of this? All information much appreciated.

  2. Hi Lucy, I come across this a lot. We host a lot of groups and our facilities team do have to tidy up after them, but on balance feel that the volume of work done by these groups more than justifies the clean up effort (otherwise we wouldn’t do it). All our groups are doing necessary tasks, but we often hear from them that they have done similar activities for other charities where it was obvious that the work wasn’t really needed. The flip side is that we insist on their being a level of financial support to accompany any group coming down – there is a huge naivety among companies about just how much help their volunteer groups are, at the end of the day there is a lot of effort put into the days by our team. We could bring down groups pretty much every day and hope they will support us but experience shows that this is unlikely.

  3. Completely true. This is the classic challenge of corporate fundraising and involvement. Corps often impose ideas on charities which feel obliged to accept their “kind offer” or feel that it may lead to a stronger, more fruitful corporate relationship. Often the charity has to manage the whole thing and at the same time watch a whole load of potentially really useful accountants/lawyers etc muck about with painting or gardening. My experience is that corps can either be brilliant and totally “get it” or they can be exceedingly demanding and totally focused on what they can get out of the relationship – be it team building, PR or marketing. It can also do a charity damage to turn down these offers.

    • I was really hoping it was an urban myth, but it appears that it is something that happens with regularity. Thanks for sharing – really helpful and it will inform another blog in due course.

  4. I though this madness was dying out. Maybe we’re lucky as we’re based right by the City so tend to work with the Head Office, better resourced and with fairly well developed CSR team or plan. We charge too (on the whole) and have found that companies with no budget to cover costs are often the ones who don’t turn up. However it does frustrate me that companies plan their CSR objectives based on what they perceive as the need and not what the need is. Just come and ask us! realy happy to talk further on this Lucy.

    • I hope that partnerships that serve neither the charity or the company no longer happen, but many people have given me recent examples. It would be great to have a chat about your experiences please! Thank you! You can email me 🙂

  5. In 1996 we set out the basic requirements for a community challenge asking local businesses to invest time and skills – we didn’t want their money because that let them off too easily.

    All the challenges were real and we had a fantastic response. It became a normal practice for businesses to give as much as 2 days a year for every staff member and this was a tremendous start. Then we were hit with new regulations on project planning and and extension of responsibility for Health and Safety as a charity – plus we had real Child Protection and Vulnerable Adult issues.

    Our opportunities began to dry up, many of the groups didn’t have the levels of insurance or the technical skills to make these projects happen.

    So a new breed of Corporate Volunteering was born and this led to the creation of projects and challenges – many became artificial and contrived to meet the Gold, Silver and Bronze standards of participation.

    That was really the sad time when painting a shed or planting some trees developed as the solution.

    However CVS and volunteer bureau projects didn’t follow the Health and Education partnering programmes which large Banks, financial institutions subscribe to through Business In the Community and the urban myth continued to develop.

    There was one great community/business project where a graffiti wall was created during the summer vacant for the teens in the area and then in September three local companies participated in graffiti removal as a community service with pressure washers and paint – the end result was no participation the following year but the community centre was covered in pic’s and signs.

    So the point of this failure to understand insurance and legal responsibilities has led to incidents like the one you record. A little more guidance on how to set these company volunteer days up and the outcomes would improve.

    Nice point though Lucy.

  6. In a previous organisation, we used to get “free consultancy” from a major multinational which will remain nameless. This was their CSR agenda, and the purpose was supposedly to help us improve our business.
    Except that we got their latest graduate recruits, who knew little about my work area and challenges but had been charged with trying to help fix us. So I, the practitioner with 20+ years experience, had to endure the well meaning but naïve ministrations of someone who had clearly Googled “How to carry out evaluation” the previous evening and then presented their findings back to me with some models from a text book I know well.
    I kick myself now that a) I wasted an hour of my life and precious work time b) said nothing to either the young woman, the organiser of the so called free consultancy or her organisation about how patronising this approach was, not just to me personally, but to the corporate world view of charities.

  7. Lucy, we get calls all the time from companies wanting to do this type of volunteering and have experienced the good, the bad and the ugly. We’ve had enthusiastic volunteers who have decorated a room and gone out of their way to make it special, and then put us forward for a grant from their company, we’ve had people not finish the job and get paint on the carpets (which had to be replaced). We’re now more upfront about the time commitment and cost of this and have found that companies often do have funds to contribute to the cost of materials. We’ve also experienced really valuable volunteering – executive coaching, help with strategy and marketing from really senior people. That has been worth a lot!

  8. In my experience this is not a myth and SME companies especially do not seem to realise that turning to charities to run their volunteering programs causes distraction and strain. The 3 day paid volunteering policy laid out by the conservatives last week could increase the demand on charities. I wonder who they consulted?

  9. Last year HSBC Australia decided to scrap team volunteering days. They were popular with staff and well supported, and often produced a good morning’s work. But turn out and productivity in the (post pub) afternoons was such that the bank feared reputational damage (a bank fearing reputational damage? Think about it!) and scrapped them. I was once asked to find volunteering opportunities for a day for 100 local employees, quite a challenge. I replied ‘I can find you 20 a day for 5 days but not 100 at once’ and the company said ‘forget it’. They were interested only in team building, not social impact. There’s more about this in my book ‘Welcome to GoodCo’ – including how to do it properly!

      • Thanks, Lucy. If you order the book online it will say £55 and ‘out of stock’ – but if you email me where to send it I can let you have a hardback for £20. This is because publisher’s stocks have been run down prior to release of second edition (paperback) in Sept.

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