In Praise of Painting Fences


"People are tired of painting fences."

I hear this a lot in conference rooms when talking about employee engagement and volunteerism.  There is a sense that the talents of a company's people are being squandered if they are underutilized in the community. I mean, if you had an all-star accountant (marketer, nurse, graphic designer, [enter job function]), why would you want to waste all that skill on painting a fence?

"Painting fences" has become the nickname for the traditional idea of volunteering inside companies — and it's not an endearing one.

I find myself defending the idea of painting fences when it comes to helping the community because it's about the fences and not about the fences.

It's About The Fences

Environments matter. They matter in schools. They matter in waiting rooms. They matter in mediation gardens, parks, food banks, community centers and homes. Things need to be maintained and when you are an organization or individual trying to do a lot with a little, maintenance goes out the window. And, when the environment gets run down, it shows on the faces of the people in those environments. 

If you cannot tell your impact after painting a fence, planting a garden, or some other physical act, then you are in the wrong place! There is a lot of work to do in your community. Work that you can do and work that will have an impact. If you aren't seeing it, then look harder or connect with someone who can find the places that need the work.

It's Not About The Fences

Hamdi Ulukaya is the Turkish-born founder of Chobani Yogurt. Before Chobani became a billion-dollar brand, Hamdi pooled everything he owned and bought a defunct dairy factory in upstate New York and hired five of the factory's old employees. All six of them showed up on the first day and stared at this huge factory wondering what to do next. Hamdi went to the hardware store and bought paint, rollers, tarps and ladders. They spent the next nine weeks painting the factory (and it needed it).

While they were painting, they figured out a plan for what they were going to do. Yes, the walls needed painting, but the real benefit was working together in an environment where everyone was somewhat equal. It turns out CEOs and founders put paint on a wall (or dig holes) the same way interns do. The lasting effect of that work was the connection this group of people made with each other, and that group, who still work at Chobani, went on to create a billion-dollar company. Not a bad outcome based on "just" painting fences.

The truth is that there is ample opportunity to have an experience in your community that is less than inspiring or engaging. But, with effort, there is the same opportunity to help organizations in very tangible ways that leave a mark on the organization.  

Sometimes you need spreadsheets and special skills to help out, other times you just need to get your hands dirty. They both have value. 

Photo by Jamez Picard on Unsplash