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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Friday 7 March 2014

The Value of Your Time

"Time is money."
    - A common phrase

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a concept gaining currency in the world of business.  The basic idea is simple - people want to feel good about their purchases; the notion that, by buying a product or service from company X, they are contributing to a social good is appealing.  Plus, individuals are more forgiving of the inevitable scandals or glitches when they can see through a company's actions that they have the right intent.

CSR, it's important to note, is different than traditional charity.  We tend to view charity as handing sums of cash to worthy causes.  Those donations can go to physical assets like technology or buildings; they can also be spent on bringing in outside expertise to do things like management consulting or communications planning.

Which brings us to one of the frustrating but opportunity-rich conundrums of our time.  For specialists in fields like government relations, law, organizational transformation, communications and the like, their time literally is money - they bill by the hour for consultations, not by the project.  If they're going to dedicate any of their time to something - even a mentorship opportunity - they (or their CFOs) will carefully calculate the value of that time and the impact it's expenditure will have on the company's bottom line.

So it works like this - if a high-priced consultant spends some of their working hours offering free advice to, say, a struggling Not-For-Profit with a great mission but inadequate skill sets, that's seen as lost earning for the company.  Not a good investment.

That's because, again, time is money.  This isn't to say that a company may not want to support a community-oriented service provider; most of them, in my experience, do have a pet project that they'll give monetary donations to on a regular basis.  
Time is money, but when it comes to charitable giving, the emphasis is just on time - not money.  Why?  It's because money is a thing, it can be shifted around as you please.  Time, however, is a finite commodity, especially when it's tied to a specialized skill set.  Companies would rather write a check than donate consulting hours.

Which is a shame, really, because what a lot of good, well-intentioned not-for-profits and grassroots groups really need is expertise.  As they don't have a lot of money (dependent as they are on charitable donations), they don't offer overly competitive salaries.  That, unfortunately, limits their ability to hire the best talent.  

After all, we keep telling people that their time is valuable, the moreso the more skilled they are, so it's natural for highly-trained individuals to scale upwards for financial compensation.  It'd be a bit like a Jacob Barnett going back to Grade 10 math for a User Generated Content (UGC) whiz to work for $15 an hour for a food bank.

Which leads us back to CSR.  If companies really want to do some good and ultimately, see their cause of choice get to a point where they don't need donations, the trick isn't to give cash, but to give time and training instead.

It's the teach a man to fish thing.

Not long ago I sat down with Bianca Wylie, a brilliant community consultation expert working for the firm Swerhun (who I'm more than happy to promote, because they're amazing).  I asked Bianca what Swerhun's end goal was, what they wanted their legacy to be.  Once she realized I wasn't looking for their "value proposition" but how they would define victory, her answer came fast and with perfect clarity:

"We want to put ourselves out of business.  When every community group, NFP, government agency and citizen knows the tools of the engagement trade and don't need us, then our work will be done."

People like Bianca and firms like Swerhun don't do projects - they empower communities.  When their work is done the people say "amazing, look what we can do on our own!"

If smart companies see that dedicating a bit of their team's time to capacity- and skill-building among the more disenfranchised members of our society is not only good for business, but will reduce the cost of public services (and therefore, the cost of government), they'll recognize it for the win-win it is.

And governments, instead of flowing money down their current bucket-funding model can invest more of their time in facilitating coordination and cooperation between their various stakeholders, helping to foster a social system instead of the series of disconnected silos we have now.

Really, this is the only way we're going to solve our current fiscal, training and engagement imbalances.  

It's the right thing to do.  It's the smart business thing to do.  Best of all, we'll all feel better for the act of giving back.

And there's no better time to make the shift than now.

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