Volunteer management is community engagement

logoAll these years that I’ve been a manager of volunteers and a consultant regarding the management of volunteers, I have felt quite alone in how I approach the value of volunteer engagement.

I believe that volunteer engagement should live under “program” at an organization, not under “human resources” or the fundraising/fund development department. Here’s why:

  • I believe in creating tasks specifically for volunteers because, sometimes, volunteers are the best people to do a task, even if it’s not the most efficient way to get something done, even if it means the tasks take twice as long as they would if completed by an employee. That may be because the organization needs to emphasize transparency to the community in its operations, and therefore wants to give community members a first-hand view. That may be because it wants to give the community a sense of ownership in the organization, through volunteering. That may be because clients prefer interacting with volunteers in certain activities rather than paid staff.
  • I believe in sometimes defining tasks in such a way so that certain people – a specific type of person – could do them as volunteers – a group, youth, people with disabilities, online micro volunteers, etc. That may because such volunteering gives the organization access to audiences they may never reach otherwise. That may be because the organization has a mission to serve specific audiences or engage in certain activities, and this kind of volunteering is a manifestation of this.
  • I believe volunteer engagement can help to address youth unemployment, cultural conflicts, intergenerational misunderstandings, integration, community cohesion, social integration, and on and on. Volunteer engagement can play a vital role in building social cohesion and intercultural understanding.
  • I’m passionate about a big tent approach in talking about volunteer engagement, including anyone who is donating their unpaid time at a nonprofit, school, government program or other mission-based entity – that means I include people volunteering in order to fulfill a community service obligation or people in an unpaid internship. I don’t believe in motivation purity tests when it comes to who gets called a volunteer (only those volunteering out of the goodness of their heart get to be called volunteers? No.).
  • Volunteers are not free, and often do not save money. Plus, no one says, “Wow, I really want to work for free for such-and-such organization!”

I believe volunteer engagement is so much more than just finding people with supposedly good hearts to do work for free. I believe volunteers aren’t just people that want to donate time out of the goodness of their heart, but also people that want to gain job skills, people who want to apply what they are learning in a classroom, people who feel anger about a particular issue and want to do something about it, people who think the volunteering activity looks fun, people who are skeptical about an organization and wants to see first hand what they do, people who are new to a community and want to meet locals, and on and on.

So I’ve spent copious amounts of time deriding the monetary value of volunteer hours. I talk instead about measuring success for volunteer engagement in terms of impact and transformation and community connection, not hours donated and number of volunteers involved.

I’m not entirely alone in this way of thinking: Sharon Capeling-Alakija, then head of the United Nations Volunteers programme, talked about why UNV was committed to its online volunteering program, she never said it was because NGOs or UNVs have so much work to do and need people to undertake some of that work for free. She said it was because “this is a way for people to be involved in the work of UNV, first hand. Before the OV service, the only way to do that was to be a UN Volunteer – and most people don’t get to do that.”

Not that I believe that an organization has an obligation to involve absolutely every person that wants to volunteer as a volunteer. Some organizations, because of their mission, may not be appropriate places for children as volunteers, for instance. Nonprofits and schools have every right to say no to an offer of group volunteers from a corporation if the proposed volunteering activity offers little return of investment for the organization. And I don’t think every volunteer is worth the effort – volunteers aren’t automatically “good guys.”

But all of my ideas about volunteering, along with my promotion of virtual volunteering, has made me the odd gal out at most conferences and in most conversations regarding volunteerism and volunteer management. In fact, my point of view about the value of volunteerism has made many people angry, people that want volunteering to be talked about only in the most basic, old-fashioned terms: people donating their time purely out of the goodness of their hearts, never for any other impure reason, like because they have been compelled by a court. They want to value volunteers based on number of volunteers, how many hours those volunteers give and a dollar value for those hours.

In January 2016, I decided to say all this and more via my keynote speech to the South Carolina Association for Volunteer Administration (SCAVA). My speech was to managers of volunteers, and it was about what we are versus what we should be, what we COULD be, touching on all the aforementioned points. If managers of volunteers are merely in charge of creating assignments for people with good hearts, and measuring the success of such with the number of hours contributed and a monetary value for those hours, then we deserve to be thought of as low-level administrators, and we deserve the anger we get from labor unions. If we want a seat at the senior staff table, it’s time to approach volunteer engagement as community engagement, as something much more than bodies doing work for free. We don’t just coordinate, we manage, we facilitate, we direct. I thought my speech would very likely cause people to storm out of the room – and instead, I got a standing ovation, complete with yelps and tears. It was a stunning reception. People said they had never heard volunteer engagement talked about that way.

But I found out that I’m late to this evangelizing, per recently finding this outstanding blog from 2008, Volunteer Management: Once More with Meaning, by Jennifer Woodill of Ontario, Canada. She developed these ideas while working at St. Christopher House (now West Neighbourhood House). Woodill seems to have been as frustrated as me regarding how nonprofits and corporate folks talk about volunteering. Like me, when she started out as a manager of volunteers, she joined the Association for Volunteer Administration (AVA) – now defunct – and attended various conferences and meetings, hoping to find kindred spirits and inspiration. But what she found instead was a big disconnect, as she notes in her blog:

My big-picture questions about how voluntarism connects to community development, civic engagement, and social inclusion were never discussed in these resources, however, or in meetings with other volunteer managers.

She continues later:

The principle of resource development views volunteers—much like money—as resources or assets. You can see this principle at work by identifying where volunteer management lives within an organizational structure. Often volunteer management is housed with administrative and fundraising functions. This principle underlies the trend to measure volunteering and calculate hours worked, people employed, and placing dollar values on the value of a resource. Again, quantity rules over quality, because a numerical value cannot express relationships developed or the ability to cultivate passion in another’s work. This principle of resource development allows an organization to deem a prospective volunteer “not worth the effort” after conducting a quick cost-benefit analysis. But if a volunteer is poorly educated or he has a disability, traditional management principles don’t view him as a valuable resource.

And this:

I propose an alternate way of approaching volunteer work and management, where the emphasis is on social inclusion and community development. With this alternate way of thinking, planning for volunteer involvement, practices, and management structure starts with these central questions: “How can we find creative ways for community members to get involved in and engaged by our work? How can we develop an organizational culture where volunteer engagement and involvement is central to all our programs? How can we develop a culture in which volunteers are completely integrated into the organization?” These questions move us in new and creative directions… in this model, an organization also makes a commitment to think creatively about ways to create opportunities for newcomers to volunteer. Instead of finding the “best” person for the “job,” an organization makes a commitment not to exclude newcomers from participation in a community and to create meaningful space for their engagement.

I don’t agree with all of what she says in the blog, like the statement “social exclusion is an inevitable result of conducting volunteer management based on the principles of efficiency, resource development, and control.” I don’t think the emphasis on quality standards in volunteer management is what is excluding a diversity of volunteers – I think it’s the emphasis on how to value volunteer engagement perpetuated by various groups like the Corporation for National and Community Service, various UN entities, and the Independent Sector is what is driving the oh-so-narrow view of what volunteering is. Still, you MUST read Jennifer’s blog!

Of course, I had to track Jennifer down and tell her how much I loved her 2008 blog! I found her on Twitter, and she seemed genuinely flattered at my fawning. But then she said this in our public online conversation:

I decided to leave my work with #volunteers cause I couldn’t move forward. I needed to make a difference.

My jaw dropped. We lost her. She needed to make a difference, and traditional management of volunteers did not allow her to do that.

I’m not surprised though. After all, most organizations worldwide, not just in the USA, want to measure volunteerism with a monetary value for service hours. Most volunteer management conferences focus on talking about the basics – how to recruit large numbers of volunteers, how to retain volunteers for years and years, etc. – but avoid more advanced topics, like how to recognize unconscious bias that might drive our exclusion of certain volunteers and how and why to create volunteering opportunities for people struggling with unemployment. These conferences and workshops also segregate technology use in volunteer management to one catch-all workshop on the last day, rather than integrating it into all workshops. There are no workshops on how volunteer engagement can, and SHOULD, support the goals of the marketing department, or the goals of a specific program.

The European Volunteer Centre (CEV) feels that unpaid internships are “mistakenly perceived to be or even presented as volunteering,” yet also says that

Volunteering is an outstanding source of learning and a contributor to personal and professional development. CEV considers it important to recognize volunteering as a source of non-formal and informal learning, while keeping a balance in order not to move the focus from the benefit to others to the benefit of the individual in the form of qualifications or recognition of skills.

So, apparently, volunteering can have all the goals of an unpaid internships, but can never be called an unpaid internship, because then it’s not volunteering? A European conference in April of this year in Romania supported by CEV and focused on managers of volunteers emphasizes that managers of volunteers should “be able to explain the definition of volunteering and differentiate it from other concepts such as civic engagement, internship, traineeship, etc.” – yes, that’s right, don’t you dare confuse pure volunteerism with impure and completely unrelated practices, like executives on loan, pro bono consultants, unpaid internships, etc., and it’s most certainly NOT community / civic engagement…

As a manager of volunteers, I don’t want to be just an HR assistant. There’s nothing wrong with HR assistants – I was one, actually, a long time ago, and it was an excellent work experience. But as a manager of volunteers, I want to be talking about how the organization will use volunteer engagement to better connect to the community and help meet our program goals. I want to see managers of volunteers invited to speak at conferences by the American Planning Association and or conferences for online community managers or conferences on building community.

In my speech to the South Carolina group earlier this year, I lamented that managers of volunteers are obsessed at being labeled “nice,” that we like to be thought of reliable, sweet and over-worked. And that thinking makes us expendable. What’s the first position to be cut in bad economic times? The manager of volunteers. Why? Because most people do NOT know what we do. They think anyone can do what we do. We contribute to this thinking ourselves, because of the old-fashioned approach to volunteer management and volunteer value:

To get other people to think of you differently, YOU have to start thinking of yourself differently… here are some words I’d like to hear about managers of volunteers in addition to nice:

  • daring
  • innovative
  • pioneering
  • unpredictable
  • instigator
  • radical
  • audacious
  • feisty
  • gutsy
  • cutting edge

How much longer are managers of volunteers going to marginalize themselves by having such a limited view of who volunteers are and why volunteers should be involved? Volunteering is community engagement, and such engagement is vital to any organization serving a cause or a community. It’s overdue to demand more from conferences and workshops about volunteerism. It’s overdue to reject limited views of the value of volunteerism. It’s overdue to demand more of ourselves.

14 thoughts on “Volunteer management is community engagement

  1. Daniel Bassill

    Fully agree with you. I was a volunteer, leading a company sponsored tutor/mentor program in the 1970s and 80s, with more than 200 volunteers involved, and often felt left out when in meetings with members of the Volunteer Councils in Chicago. Yet, because I and other volunteers provided all of the leadership for the program I developed a keen appreciation for how important a volunteer-engagement strategy was.

    Here’s an animation created by an intern, based on a blog article I wrote, that illustrates how volunteer engagement grows as a result of on-going support by an organization. http://www.tutormentorexchange.net/chicagoland-volunteer-recruitment/177-volunteersleaders

    Keep pushing these ideas.

  2. Carol Bloemer

    If management or Boards would work strategically with the volunteer mangers the whole organization would proper. So often volunteer managers meet people who are excited about helping the organization and the manager knows that they would be underutilized with many of the routine tasks that are assigned to volunteers but there is no process to get them connected to the program development level for lack of a better term. So the connection gets dropped. The post it sits on someone’s desk until the person can’t remember why they were keeping it.
    We can continue to discuss these topics but the biggest problem with non-profits inability to connect to their community is that “no one called me back.” I have worked at a Volunteer center for almost fourteen years and this remains the number one complaint.

    1. jcravens Post author

      Thanks for replying, Carol. You wrote: “‘We can continue to discuss these topics but the biggest problem with non-profits inability to connect to their community is that “no one called me back.'” That’s a big problem in the management of volunteers. But that isn’t what this blog is about. This blog is about why organizations are even involving volunteers *at all*. The blog doesn’t have to do with how we engage volunteers, in terms of if we are calling them back, if we are creating enough assignments for volunteers, if we are training staff to involve volunteers. etc. Those are all really important, no question, in managing volunteers effectively, and of course they should be discussed. But what I’m trying to convey is — well, exactly this, that managers of volunteers talk about these basics in management, their frustrations on these specific administrative tasks, which is great to a degree, but it’s time for volunteer managers to start thinking about their place in the organization overall. If every discussion about challenges for us is only about volunteer management issues like recruitment, policies and procedures, software, etc., we’re always going to be low-level administrators. What I’m saying with this blog is, great, keep having those management discussions, but let’s start assuming a MUCH bigger mantle, a MUCH bigger way of thinking. Volunteer engagement is a cross-cutting issue, one that should serve every, or almost every, department – *particularly* the program department. That just isn’t getting discussed. And, in fact, many organizations are pushing back and saying, no, volunteer management is human resources management, it’s getting bodies into assignments and making sure they are happy, period, and that we have a big money amount to report per the INdependent Sector’s monetary value for volunteers.

      1. Christina Lizaso

        I think Carol is on to something in the bigger picture here. Lots of nonprofits are BAD at even the basic level of community engagement – returning a phone call. I have walked away from organizations who couldn’t value the community’s input and outreach towards them in even that small way. I think part of what Carol was saying is that – while some volunteer departments do struggle – the bigger issue is that once it gets outside the department the ball gets dropped because the organization as a whole does not have a culture that values engaging with the community and maybe thinks the volunteer manager is the only one who should.

  3. Jennifer Woodill

    Thanks for posting this piece Jayne. It is wonderful, and it makes me truly miss working in the field of Volunteer Engagement. My heart was so much in the piece that I wrote in 2008, and you don’t know how touched I feel that you have written your piece in response to my piece. While I no longer work in the area of Volunteer Engagement, I continue to be passionate about how we can all make a difference in the world, and volunteering is critical to social change. Thank you for your passionate, authentic voice. I especially love the list of words for Managers of Volunteers – I hope you can inspire change!

  4. Annette

    HURRAH! I have been in the field for over 20 years and this is the conversation we should be having. This is a profession, when done well, that can leverage community engagement for the whole organization.
    The very tricky part is, in a world about outcomes and measurements, how to “measure” volunteer engagement.

  5. Jerome Tennille, CVA


    Interesting (and unique) perspective on volunteer engagement. Generally speaking, the non-profit industry undervalues volunteerism, even though the industry wouldn’t exist without that donation of time by those dedicating their services. I believe the undervaluing of volunteer management stems from lack of understanding of talent needed, lack of measurement and understand of the impact by volunteers, and lastly, failed advocacy by professional volunteer administrators. The lack of measuring impact, coupled with lack of adopted practices in volunteer management continue to keep the profession in the shadows, also discouraging non-profit leadership to have the full buy-in necessary.

    This also has a lot to do with societal values of valuing money and the creation of wealth over that of human capital and worth. Because there’s a higher placed value on money, there’s more emphasis for fundraising, higher emphasis on formal education in order professions not associated with volunteer management, and lower salaries for volunteer managers versus fundraisers. There’s equal education needed for volunteer managers in best practices, AND with non-profit leaders who can be a champion of staff professional development for those in volunteer administrator roles.

    Another result of this failed understanding of volunteer engagement is the creation of myths, like volunteers being free (big myth), volunteers ‘saving’ money (when in fact, they don’t often times), volunteers can manage other volunteers (a myth that results in lack of true oversight and management), and the list goes on. Like you said though, no longer are the days that volunteers want to stuff envelopes or create gift bags, they want to be engaged with their skills (both professional and academic) and even online as those are very flexible and can be done from home.

    While I don’t believe in volunteer engagement for the sake of engagement, or volunteer engagement that may be inefficient, I do think that more creativity, time, investment and know-how need to be considered when doing that job. There’s an untapped population out there and we’re not meeting them where they need to be met, in order to facilitate their getting involved.

    Nice post, I enjoyed reading it.

    Jerome Tennille, CVA

    1. jcravens Post author

      Thanks for writing.

      “volunteers can manage other volunteers (a myth that results in lack of true oversight and management)” Oh, I SO disagree. Volunteers can and DO manage other volunteers, and do it quite well. In fact, nonprofits are lead by volunteers – the board. All paid staff, ultimately, report to those volunteers! I myself have put many volunteers in charge of projects entirely, and they have been brilliant.

      And I don’t at all entirely blame the “nonprofit industry” – I think funders are also significantly to blame. Corporations, foundations, governments – what I’ve written in my blog would confuse them most of all!

      1. Jerome Tennille, CVA

        I don’t want to confuse ‘volunteers inherently understanding how to manage volunteers, because they too are volunteers’ (which is the myth I’m speaking of) with the board of directors, or volunteers who are ‘volunteer leaders’ who have responsibility and oversight of projects. Two very different things altogether.

        I would also say, that while 85% of the 1.5 million nonprofits in America are run on an all-volunteer staff, a vast majority of those (I’d estimate at least half) don’t adopt best practices of Volunteer management. Furthermore, when an organization (that has the means to pay) makes the decision to have a volunteer manage the volunteer program, it’s an indication of that organizations lack of buy-in, because they’re not invested enough in the position to pay for a staff member to fill those functions.

        The board of directors, while they’re volunteers, they have the role of governance, policy, fundraising and measuring performance of the CEO they hire… Not managing volunteers or paid staff. most of them do not understand the delicate nature and skills required to manage the full life cycle of a volunteer from recruitment, training, staffing, acknowledgement and retention.

        That’s not to say that volunteers aren’t capable of managing projects, or other volunteers, but in order to do so, they need a substantial amount of training.

        While funding (and stigma of overhead) is a part of the problem, there’s an equal amount of responsibility and accountability that nonprofit professionals need to take in order to educate the uneducated… Namely, the people you say would be largely confused by your blog. If nonprofit professionals did a better job at advocacy for their fields, funders would be less confused… They don’t know what they don’t know.

        1. jcravens Post author

          “but in order to do so, they need a substantial amount of training.”

          Not necessarily. There are many programs that recruit volunteers who already have the experience and training needed for a role – just like in recruiting paid staff.

          As my blog emphasizes, I’m firmly in the “big tent” when it comes to talking about volunteer engagement. You aren’t – like so many nonprofit professionals, you have a very narrow definition of who is a volunteer. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. I’ve written a blog that, like many of my blogs, emphasizes the advantages of the big tent and the severe limits of the small tent approach. You are welcomed to write your own blog disputing that. CEV will love you for it, no doubt, as they share that point of view.

        2. Christina Lizaso

          I think the myth of ‘volunteers inherently understanding how to manage volunteers, because they too are volunteers’ is an issue and goes across both as you are calling it big tent or small tent mindsets. Training may have already happened (or happened by experience) when someone comes to you, but I don’t think what Jerome is talking about necessarily has to fall under small tent thinking.

          1. Jerome Tennille, CVA


            Thanks for weighing in on this. To me this isn’t a matter of ‘right or wrong’ it’s just a different perspective.

            Truthfully, ‘big tent / small tent’ is something I’ve only come across on this website, and I’m not sure what it really refers to. I don’t know why two tents have to exist, as we (volunteer managers) can do a better job collaborating, not creating silo’s of information or a ‘them versus us’ atmosphere. We already have an uphill battle informing the uninformed about the benefits of volunteerism. Being more collaborative goes a long way to bridge gaps and create understanding.

            As for me, I’m all for volunteers and advocate for them in every sense of the word (as highlighted in my recent article – http://nonprofitinformation.com/volunteers-customers-volunteer-management/).

            Anyhow, I look forward to future posts on this site.

  6. Christina Lizaso

    I think hospital volunteering is one of the areas most stuck in the traditional model. So much good could be done if “audacious” hospital volunteer managers were given time and resources to really shake things up and engage with the community – brining the patient voice and experience right into how everything in the hospital operates. Keep ringing this bell loudly Jayne!


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