Finding the sweet spot when giving back

By Anna Patty / Guest Column

I spent more than a decade working for nonprofits before going to the “other side, meaning the for-profit world. Having worked on both sides, I feel I have a unique perspective on what it means to give back in a meaningful way. 

As a nonprofit marketer, I tried to envision what a donor would want. What would they want to know? If it was a company sending volunteers to help for a day, what experience would they want their employees to have? What would they want to learn about my organization? Would painting a room where after school programs take place make them “feel good” about their efforts? But what if I need a team of people to deep clean a building? Surely, cleaning toilets is not on anyone’s “Favorite Things To Do While Volunteering” list.  

On the other side, a lesson learned from my political science professor while studying abroad in Costa Rica comes to mind. We spoke about the history of Latin American politics and the common experience of intervention from other countries, with the intent of helping. He asked rhetorically, “Did they ask for help?” Oftenthe answer was a resounding “No.” Although the intervening nations wanted to help, they frequently ended up doing the opposite. 

As a business owner, I spend a good amount of time deciding which local organizations to support through money or inkind services. When I choose a nonprofit to help, I want to make a difference. But how do you help in a way that is truly helpful? And if you are a nonprofit marketing or development officer, how do you make sure the time donated to your organization is spent doing something that will help you? 

If you are a donor or company supplying volunteers, ask yourself 

  • What do I want to get out of this experience? 
  • Do my skills align with the nonprofit that I want to help in a way that could be useful? 
  • Why do I care about this nonprofit? 


If you are a nonprofit officer, ask yourself: 

  • What do we need help with? 
  • How can I give the donor/volunteer a great experience? 
  • What do I want the donor/volunteer to remember? 


From the nonprofit side, it is OK to be honest about what you need. Cleaning toilets might not be glamorous, but if it is what you need, then ask for it. A better route is to ask the giver what they are skilled in and what they want to do. You may identify the perfect fit that benefits both parties.  

Let’s look at another example. A nonprofit I once worked for was preparing to host an outdoor event with more than 200 participants. Our registration relied on the internet, and no internet access meant having to resort to paper check-ins. Fortunately, one of our lead sponsors was a local internet provider. We talked with our contact at the company and they were able to get us connected for the event. They ran a special line to our registration table and assigned a staff person to stay at our event to ensure no interruptions. It was glorious. By having an efficient event check-in for the attendees, they had a great first impression. This came in handy later in the event when we asked for additional donations.

The donor providing internet received the valuable benefit of networking with the attendees, many of whom were decision-makers at their respective companies. It was a win-win. 

The lessonCommunicate. Ask questions. Together we can make a difference. 

Anna Patty is the owner of Be The Good Consulting LLC, a strategic and comprehensive marketing, fundraising, data management and public relations firm based in Cedar Rapids.