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Volunteer Power!
Building Successful Partnerships
The Exponential Explosion of Synergistic Partnering
By Thomas W. McKee

We all know the theory of synergy. In our profession, 2 + 2 does not = 4, but often 5, 6, and even 10 when it comes to the energy that volunteers can generate when working together. We know how it works in our organization, but do we understand the exponential explosion of partnering with other organizations? Many volunteer leaders are learning how to harness this great potential to expand their cause. Let's define volunteer synergy as:

Two or more organizations working together to produce a result that is not obtainable by any of the organizations independently.

In 1994, an Arkansas public school nurse noticed some children arriving at school listless and hungry. When she discovered that their school lunch was their only meal, she contacted the Arkansas Rice Depot to see if they could help. A partnership was formed and the Food For Kids program was launched, sending hungry children home with backpacks filled with food every night. One nurse couldn't do it alone. One school couldn't even do it alone. But because of a partnership hungry children are fed. The program now feeds 28,000 children in over 600 schools in Arkansas and Food For Kids has been replicated nationwide.

In the summer of 2009, Arkansas Rice Depot received national recognition of their programs, when Al Roker brought NBC's Today Show to the Depot, with his Lend A Hand program. Through Lend A Hand, Arkansas Rice Depot received five truckloads of items with a value totaling over $600,000. Local dignitaries came out to join in on the fun. Arkansas Rice Depot was one of only five charitable organizations chosen through Lend A Hand. That is the explosive power of synergistic volunteerism.

  • How do I make these connections?
  • How do I expand my volunteer base with partnerships?
  • Or perhaps the most important question, what kind of partnerships will help me the most?
There are two types of partnerships that are working today. The first one is the one we hear about the most-partnership with business. But the second opportunity for partnership is very exciting and often ignored-connection with other non-profits. Let's look at each one:

Option One: Business Partnerships

The past few months I have been talking with several volunteer leaders who have developed significant partnerships. A few months ago while speaking in Bentonville, Arkansas, I met Lisa Bryant who is the director of development for the Arkansas Rice Depot. Lisa comes from a business background and when I met her she had left a marketing job with Verizon to take on her new position. As we visited I discovered that Lisa was primarily in Bentonville to meet with some key decision makers at Wal-Mart to talk about a partnership. Recently when I called Lisa and asked her how the meeting went, she responded, "The meeting went really well." Wow, was that an understatement. The Arkansas Rice Depot was running out of storage and renting freezer space, so Wal-Mart decided to essentially redo their whole warehouse. In other words, they are retrofitting an outdated warehouse with new equipment and freezer space, as well as providing the staff with training to operate the new equipment safely and efficiently. And another thing that came as a result of that meeting was that during the month of July and August their corporate employees teamed up on a food drive and a financial drive for the Arkansas Rice Depot. Lisa said, "So yes, it turned out to be worth the trip to Bentonville."

Wal-Mart is not the only company that is volunteer friendly. Intel backs up their commitment to volunteerism by sending a check to the non-profit for the amount of time that their employee's volunteers for an organization. About 300 employees from Intel in the Business Cares Program in Larimer County, Colorado, designed and built floating habitats for the High Plains Environmental Center. According to Jami McMannes, the Volunteer Center Specialist, United Way of Larimer County, Colorado, Intel not only promoted the project in their company, but they also matched every volunteer hour with a financial gift. The hook for these volunteers was that as engineers they responded to the challenge of designing and building something that would benefit their community.

Jeff Bock works for Intel in Folsom, California, and is an active volunteer of Sun Hills Church in El Dorado Hills, California. Jeff organized the Intel employees that attend his church for a huge community project (repairing and painting school buildings, homeless shelters, power washed the meals on wheels vans, etc.) and kept records of their involvement. He turned in the names of employees with the hours they volunteered, and Intel wrote the check for the projects.

In addition to Wal-Mart and Intel, Ben and Jerry's even got into the act over the summer. With the clever tag line "Scoop It Forward" and their usual sense of fun in naming ice cream, Ben & Jerry's have introduced two new flavors: "Berry Voluntary" and "Brownie Chew Gooder"! A free ice cream give-away is the focal point of a campaign to promote volunteering in partnership with VolunteerMatch and Target stores. Until the end of 2010 (or while supplies last), people can search for volunteer opportunities on VolunteerMatch and register their interest. This then allows them to get 5 coupons from Target for free ice cream to share with friends "when you ask them to volunteer," too. Target and Ben & Jerry's call their partnership "Together for a Sweet Cause".

Option Two: Non-profit Partnerships

I asked Jami McMannes the question, "What is your passion about building successful partnerships?" I loved Jami's answer. Jami said that when we think of partnerships we often think of corporate partnerships. But she has a concern that non-profits need to think outside the box and share their resources. As I listened to Jami talk, I thought of how often non-profits work so hard to get their own resources that they don't want to share them. Leaders become exclusive and protective in fear that someone might steal them. They ignore the principle of investing their resources by hoarding. But Jami had a passion to get us to work together (which is probably one of the reasons she works with United Way).

Feeding the Hungry

The Arkansas Rice Depot story is an example of the potential when non-profits partner. It all started with a small group of concerned people who were overwhelmed with the number of hungry coming to their churches asking for help to feed their families. A group of the church leaders came together to start an organization that would help encourage all churches to feed people in their communities. They decided to come together and share their talent, resources, and volunteers to tackle the huge problem of hunger, and the Arkansas Rice Depot was founded in 1982 by the Arkansas Interfaith Hunger Task Force.

Within a couple of years, nearly one hundred rice growers from Riceland and Producers mills were donating rice. This was just the kind of foundation the charity needed. At first rice remained the only food distributed, and though nourishing, it wasn't a complete meal. A Billy Graham Crusade changed all that. Six tons of food items were collected that year, and soon dry goods, canned foods, frozen meats and other items were donated, warehoused and distributed across the state.

The mantra for the Arkansas Rice Depot is Hunger No More. From a small group of concerned church members they have exploded and today they distribute over 8 million pounds of food each year to 15% of the Arkansas's population, serving over 900 hunger agencies statewide. With a small staff of 15, more than 98% of budget is spent on purchasing and distributing food. (Our Story-The Arkansas Rice Depot-I want to encourage you to take a look at this website-it is amazing organization that serves as an example to all of us).

The Key Ingredients:

So how do I go about making contact with key people to tap into the partnership potential? I have three suggestions that seem to be essentials for beginning a partnership.

The first essential: It's not about networking, it's about building relationships.

Networking begins with building relationships. There is a huge difference between networking and relationships. In networking we so often connect with people to get them to do something for us. In relationships we connect with people because we care. I believe this principle and have found that I do a much better job of building successful partnerships with an organization when I focus on the relationships rather than when I focus on building a strategic network.

Second essential: Look for a Bev in each organization

For those of you who have been reading Volunteer Power, or attended our workshops, you know this principle. Bev is the key person in each organization who can make it happen. For those of you who don't know who Bev is, read: "Networking, how to build strategic alliances"

Third Essential: Ask

When I talked with those who have built successful relationships, they weren't afraid to ask. Make that appointment with to make your pitch.

  • What organizations might have an interest in our mission?
  • Who do I know in that organization that might be interested?
  • When can I make an appointment to talk about a partnership?

Thomas W. McKee

Tom McKee Tom McKee is president and owner of www.volunteerpower.com a leadership development firm specializing in volunteerism. He has over 40 years of experience in volunteer leadership. Tom began his speaking career to one of the most difficult audiences-high school assemblies. Since those days he has addressed over 1 million people spanning three continents-Africa, Europe and the U.S. Over the past 40 years he has trained over 100,000 leaders how to manage the chaos of change in an organization.

The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer Tom and his son Jonathan are authors of the book, The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer (Group Publishing). The New Breed details the new cultural shift in volunteer management and also includes valuable, applicable resources for leaders, including job descriptions, icebreakers, team-builders and community-building activities, equipping leaders to move forward with confidence and empower valuable volunteers.

About The New Breed:
The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer by Jonathan McKee and Thomas W. McKee. Group Publishing. Paperback, 176 pages. ISBN: 978-0764435645. The book can be ordered at www.volunteerpower.com.