More effective volunteering and making Amazonia’s ideas work for Amazonians

Doing do-gooding better

The benefits of encouraging employees to give up their time and expertise to help others are well documented: the individual, the employer and the non-profit group using their skills all gain. But these positive outcomes rely heavily on the volunteer’s experience. And here’s the rub. Poor management frequently leaves volunteers frustrated or underutilised. The complaint list typically includes project mismatches, lack of recognition, little training and weak leadership. As a result, more than a third of those who volunteer one year opt not to the next.

Non-profit organisations need to adopt a more strategic approach to dealing with this undervalued talent pool, this paper argues. It’s for their own good. Low retention rates among volunteers costs the US non-profit sector an estimated $38bn in lost labour. Not to mention lost expertise.

In an attempt to rectify the problem, the authors of this paper lay out what they term a “talent management” approach. For starters, non-profit leaders need to integrate volunteers into their strategic planning. That done, they must then reinvent the way they support and manage volunteer talent.

A first step is to rethink work roles for volunteers. What important tasks could be taken up by non-paid staff, for example? Must roles always be assigned to paid staff and others to non-paid staff, or can they be mixed? A second critical step is finding tasks for volunteers that maximise their skills and talents.

There’s a hidden irony in corporate volunteering. Employees like to do it because it’s different from their day-job. Yet when the experience is aligned to their day-job, they like it even more.

“The New Volunteer Workforce” by David Eisner et al, published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2008

Intellectual property in the Amazon

The indigenous population of the Brazilian Amazon has been using native plants for medicinal purposes for centuries. Understandably, companies are keen to tap that knowledge. Quick to respond, national legislation was passed in 2001 to ensure that the rights of native peoples would be taken into account.

That hasn’t happened, this paper argues. Today, the Brazilian market boasts seven phyto-therapeutic products based on the knowledge of native peoples and local biodiversity. Internationally, on the other hand, more than 700 such products have been patented.

The authors identify similar patterns in the commercialisation of intellectual property among other indigenous groups around the world. Legal protection is not always effective, they argue. Land, and its produce, are often community-owned, not privately, as intellectual property law supposes. Moreover, titles can be – and are – legally expropriated by the government. Obtaining the required free and informed consent of all the local communities that potentially or actually hold traditional knowledge is not practicable, the authors maintain.

Developments in northern Canada suggest a way forward. As the region moves towards autonomy, the rights of indigenous peoples have won constitutional status. Traditional knowledge owners are now better positioned to negotiate the commercialisation (or not) of their biological resources and medicinal plants.

Promoting autonomy and capacity for self-governance for indigenous communities rather than property is the way forward, the authors conclude.

“Toward a New Era of Intellectual Property” published by the International Expert Group on Biotechnology, Innovation and Intellectual Property, Winter 2008.

Research muddles

Corporate social responsibility is in a muddle, at least from an academic research perspective. The field is suffering from a “conflation of distinct phenomena”, this paper maintains. Unsure what it is or why it exists, corporate social responsibility’s future as a meaningful tool for promoting responsible behaviour is looking doubtful.

Worry not: there’s a means to get corporate social responsibility back on track. The answer lies in clearer categorisation. The authors delineate different approaches that fall under the corporate social responsibility umbrella and identify categories under which scholars can place their particular research projects. They count seven in total: individual firm efforts; individual firm and individual non-profit agreements; public-private partnerships; information-based approaches; environmental management systems; industry association ethical codes; and private sector “hard law” (referred to as “non-state market driven” governance).

The divisions are helpful, the paper argues, as a means to identify differences in internal compliance incentives, interactions with state authorities, internal governance, policy scope and enforcement mechanisms.

Using their categorisation model, the authors issue a call for an “evolutionary sensitive” approach to corporate social responsibility scholarship. Researchers should recognise that projects can and do shift from one category to another over time, whether because of internal corporate changes or the broader public policy environment. By adopting such a framework, academics can begin to move towards theories that better capture the “transformative capacity” of corporate social responsibility. Muddle over, then?

“The New Corporate Social Responsibility” by G Auld, S Bernstein and B Cashore, Yale University, in “Annual Review of Environment and Resources” Vol 33, Winter 2008.

Campus news

More than 160 business schools and other academic institutions from 43 countries have reaffirmed their commitment to the Principles for Responsible Management Education. The UN-backed initiative, which held its first annual conference in December, was launched in 2007 to mainstream corporate responsibility in curriculum development and research.

The Skoll Foundation and Santa Clara University are working to attract social entrepreneurs for an innovative graduate course. Skoll is using its social networking site Social Edge to promote the Santa Clara’s global social benefit incubator programme.

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