By: Susan Arrington, Digital Content & Community Manager

In my 4+ months as a member of the Next Stage team, I’ve been able to get a glimpse of the inner workings of Charlotte’s emerging nonprofits: the joys, the struggles, the grind, the aspirations, the needs and the wants.

As someone who spent 13 years working in ministry, a portion of which involved coordinating initiatives with nonprofit mission partners, some of the findings have set off “aha moments” and others “oh, man” – because I’ve learned that some of the help I offered over the years may not have been that helpful after all.

But as Maya Angelou famously said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

During the holiday season, this is a dynamic that many area nonprofits will experience. We live in generous, thoughtful communities and the holidays always spur people to contribute time, money and goods to local organizations. So how do we make sure this help is actually helpful?

Let’s talk about how we can better support nonprofits and nonprofit leaders in a way that truly supports their mission, eases their burdens and enhances their impact, moving beyond good intentions to purposeful action. Over the last few weeks, I’ve spoken with leaders of area nonprofits to find out what is really on their holiday wish list – and a few things that aren’t.

Here are the top three things nonprofits really want for the holidays (and all the days):

What Nonprofits Really Want: Unrestricted Donations
Think Twice: Unsolicited Supplies

Unrestricted funds say this to executive directors: “we trust you to put these funds to good use where they are needed most.” It’s possible an organization has all the program supplies/donations they need for the year and what they really need is to secure funds for their first paid staff position or money to put towards office rent. Or, they’ve received 100 boxes of spaghetti and two jars of sauce and need to right-size their food pantry.

Many emerging nonprofits also lack space to store unsolicited “we thought you could use these” items that occasionally wind up at their facilities, or worse, on the doorstep of a staff member. (I’m very sorry to say that I’ve actually committed this foul in the past!) We can do much better than treat these organizations like a catch-all for items we’re looking to remove from our homes.

Of course, there are many situations where donating goods IS the main event – Loaves & Fishes, coat drives, Angel Tree Christmas gifts, etc. In those scenarios, have at it – while also being mindful to only give what’s been requested. But remember, even goods-driven organizations need funds to fully activate their mission, support their staff and respond to crisis situations (Hello, Covid!).

What Nonprofits Really Want: Employee Gift Matching or Paid Volunteer Hours
Think Twice: Employee Volunteer Events

A recent polling of 500 nonprofits, conducted by Groundswell, shows that 42.2% believe planning volunteer opportunities for companies is actually a distraction to their core mission.

Whew! This nugget of data convicted me a bit as a former organizer of service outreach and it revealed that I had overestimated the value of these events. At best, I was naive, but it’s also possible I approached some of our partners with a savior complex, as if they were waiting with bated breath for me to email and say, “We have 50 people and four hours on a Tuesday – book it.”

However, the data makes total sense when I pause for a moment to consider the human capital required for a nonprofit to execute an employee volunteer engagement (large or small):

  • Hours spent meeting with the CSR lead to plan the event
  • Time spent organizing the various tasks, assigning roles, creating training materials
  • Dedication of a day/interruption of regularly scheduled programming to run the event
  • Managing post-engagement logistics

Of course, there are certainly organizations and times where this makes sense! Large volunteer projects have built many Habitat for Humanity houses, cleaned up countless school grounds and staffed fundraising events. The key is thoughtfully engaging with the nonprofit you want to support by asking ‘How can we best help?’ and leaving plenty of time to plan ahead. Additionally, there are corporate supports that are always welcome. Companies can create/expand their matching gift programs so employees can double the weight of their impact to the organizations they feel passionate about or offer PTO to those who choose to commit to a regular volunteer activity. I’m a big fan of the PTO option because nonprofits do need committed volunteers to assist with programming and operations – but they often benefit from volunteers with specific skills or who can commit to showing up regularly.

The bottom line – the best way for companies to support nonprofits is to thoughtfully co-design opportunities that create win-win-win’s for everyone involved.

What Nonprofits Really Want: To be valued as equally as for-profit enterprises
Bonus gift: Valued for their leadership and expertise

Do you know what many nonprofit executive directors want for the holidays? To be able to take their staff/key leaders out for a nice meal. In the for-profit world, this is usually a no-brainer that’s readily available on the company card. But in the nonprofit world, this same act of gratitude can be viewed as a frivolous expense.

The same might go for taking a week-long vacation. Or investing in leadership development. I mean, is that really the best use of people’s giving?

Let’s go ahead and cancel all of that thinking.

There’s a BIG difference between expecting leaders to allocate funds responsibility and expecting them to operate as martyrs to the mission. The latter leads to burnout, resentment and a jump-ship of talent from nonprofits. Just scan your LinkedIn feed for evidence.

If we believe nonprofits are vital to meeting critical needs in our communities, let’s make sure we’re acknowledging their contributions this year and providing for their own well-being!.

I believe that people truly want to make a difference – and during the holiday season this is more evident than ever. Let’s harness that generosity this year and intentionally engage nonprofit leaders as purposeful partners – the best way to do that is by simply taking the time to ask, “What do you really want?”