Tag Archives: change

Volunteering, by itself, isn’t enough to save the world

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteers

Like so many communities across the USA, the town where I live has many, many homeless people: people, including children, who are couch surfing, living in cars, sleeping in public spaces or sleeping in shelters, because they have no space of their own. There is a patchwork of organizations trying to help them with basic, immediate needs, and I attended a presentation by one of the organizations trying to offer temporary shelter – and by temporary, I mean both temporary for people that will stay there and temporary in their own existence. One of the slides in her presentation had a list of all of the many things different agencies were doing to assist the homeless. But there was also this warning on the slide: None of which will go to preventing or ending homelessness. And that included the temporary shelter her organization was providing, and all of the volunteers helping in such.  

In Houston, we’ve seen all sorts of people volunteering to help people get to temporary shelters, to feed people in those shelters, to evacuate people from their flood ravaged homes and cars, to get animals to safety, and on and on. And that’s not just nice, that’s necessary, and I’m so grateful that I live in a country where people are so willing to donate their time. But volunteers could not do this alone, and eventually, disaster-response volunteers are going to go home, and there are going to be thousands of homeless people and animals who are going to need ongoing, continuing assistance, even as volunteers leave the area.

I love volunteerism, and I don’t trust nonprofits that don’t involve such. I think volunteers are critical for nonprofits, schools and government agencies – and not for saving money. I am passionate about the critical role volunteers can play in a range of issues and services. Again, they aren’t just nice – they are necessary.

However, I also believe we need more than only – solely – volunteers to keep schools open and of high quality, to keep water clean, to keep hike and bike trails safe, to help the homeless, to address drug abuse, to give children the safety nets they need to navigate their life into adulthood, to promote the arts, to address youth violence, to respond to disasters, and on and on. Full-time, fully funded experts are needed. Initiatives solely, completely dedicated to certain issues are needed – and these initiatives must have funding. I have been begging nonprofits and schools, for years, to tell government officials and corporate philanthropy folks explicitly that, while volunteers are great, money is ALSO needed, to meet the needs of the community. We cannot do all that needs to be done in our spare time, donating just a few hours a month. The last time I was fully on this soapbox on my blog was in 2011, regarding the UK’s “Big Society” movement.

I have often gotten a very cold reception because I don’t embrace the idea that serious community and environmental issues can be fully addressed by people giving a few hours whenever they might have some time to spare, as volunteers. I’ve even been accused of being anti-volunteer, which, given the amount of time and effort I give to promoting volunteer engagement and best practices for such, is ridiculous.

In July 2000, The New York Times published “The Vanity of Volunteerism,” by Sara Mosle. She taught public school for three years, and after she left that profession, mentored four of her former students for a few years. She writes about her experience in her Times’ piece and weaves into her account statistics and feedback about the growing expectation of the US government for volunteers to fill in the gaps in service left by the federal government withdrawing support for nonprofits, state governments and government social services. She quotes people and sources that note that the need for social services was increasing at the time, but donations and government financing didn’t increase, and volunteering wasn’t enough to fill the gaps. She also talks about the negative consequences for clients of nonprofits, schools and social service agencies of more and more people engaging in episodic volunteering – what we now call offline microvolunteering – instead of long-term, high-responsibility traditional volunteering.

The piece also references the Presidents’ Summit on America’s Future in Philadelphia, a three-day event that was aimed at boosting volunteerism and community service efforts across the USA. President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, former Presidents George Bush, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and retired Gen. Colin Powell all participated. I blogged about the 20th anniversary of that summit earlier this year.

Below is an excerpt from the 2000 New York Times article. Sara Mosle was singing the same song as me back in 2000, and I think her article’s statements, and the circumstances of nonprofits, need to be revisited. Note: the piece refers to Impact Online, and that is the original name of what is now VolunteerMatch. Also, the bolded text is my emphasis, not the article’s:

Excerpt:  

For more than a decade, politicians and civic leaders have been looking to volunteers like me to take over the government’s role in providing vital services to the poor. Although the movement arguably began in 1988 with the candidate George Bush’s invocation of ”a thousand points of light” as a response to Reagan-era cutbacks in social spending, it has been embraced by the current Democratic administration, which has continued those cutbacks, and culminated in the 1997 President’s Summit for America’s Future in Philadelphia, where President Clinton and Gen. Colin Powell touted the power of volunteerism. Now George W. Bush has picked up his father’s theme of ”a kinder, gentler” America by pushing ”charitable choice” — the provision in the 1996 welfare reform bill that allows faith-based organizations to contract with government to provide social services to the poor. (Al Gore supports it, too, though less vigorously.)

”Compassionate conservatives” would probably claim that I am the kind of ”caring adult” who can transform the lives of disadvantaged kids more effectively than any government program. I’m all for volunteering, but I would disagree. While I don’t doubt that I have had some positive effects on my kids’ lives — studies show that mentoring can reduce dropout rates and drug use among teenagers — they have mostly been of the ”boosting self-esteem” variety that conservatives, in other contexts, usually disdain. Besides, I’m not a very good volunteer. To work, mentoring has to be performed consistently, over a sustained period of time and preferably one on one. For the first couple of years, I saw my kids as often as twice a week. But now I’m lucky if I see them once a month, and I almost never see them individually. In their lives, I’m less a caring adult than a random one. And my failure is representative.

Although 55 percent of Americans reported that they volunteered at some point in 1998 — a 7 percent rise over 1995 — this jump does little more than recover ground that was lost in the early 1990’s and represents just a 1 percent increase over 1989. Moreover, the total number of hours that people are giving has actually declined. ”It’s a new trend,” says Sara Melendez, the president of Independent Sector, which compiled this data. ”People are volunteering, but when they do, it’s more of a one-shot deal — half a day one Saturday, instead of once a week for x number of weeks.” Overall, Americans donated 400 million fewer hours in 1998 than they did in 1995.

Consequently, while Powell has made recruiting 100,000 new mentors a top priority of America’s Promise, his volunteer outfit, there is little evidence that people are sufficiently answering his call. In New York, for instance, Big Brothers/Big Sisters receives just 4,000 inquiries each year from potential mentors. Of these, two-thirds never follow up once they learn they have to commit to seeing their kids at least twice a month. Another 700 lose interest after the initial training session or are eliminated through the program’s rigorous screening process. Only 600 people ever become mentors — this in a city with more than one million schoolchildren — and nationally, the program has a waiting list of some 50,000 kids.

To help nonprofits cope with this new unreliable work force, groups like Impact Online and New York Cares have sprung up that act like temp agencies, matching the interests (and busy schedules) of what might be called the impulse volunteer — someone with an urge to give but only a few hours to kill — with openings, arranged by time slot and geographical location. But this Filofax approach to giving often robs volunteerism of the very thing that was supposed to recommend it over government in the first place — namely, the personal connection that develops when you regularly visit, say, the same homebound AIDS patient.

And in a volunteer’s market, not every need has a buyer. ”People will come in and do a project — a school painting, a school wiring — and think they’ve done a good service and go away,” says Paul Clolery, editor of The NonProfit Times. ”But it’s not the type of traditional, week-in and week-out volunteering that a lot of organizations really need.”…

The experience of Meals on Wheels in Dallas is typical. It can’t find enough volunteers to commit to even a few hours a month to help deliver meals to the city’s elderly shut-ins. ”People can’t get away during the middle of the day,” says Helen Bruant, the program’s director. ”So, they ask, ‘Why don’t you deliver in the evenings?’ Well, we looked at that. But for a lot of our clients, this is their only meal. They eat half at lunch and save the other half for dinner. Plus, it’s not good for the elderly to eat a big meal at the end of the day.” Therefore, the program must hire 30 percent of its drivers. Even paying people, Bruant cannot find enough help. ”We can’t compete with McDonald’s,” she says…” Yet, if anything, the need is increasing. ”The aged population has grown by leaps and bounds in the last decade,” Bruant says, ”but giving and government financing haven’t increased.”

As a result, the heads of some of the most reputable nonprofits — the United Way, the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities — have reported that they can’t keep up with rising demand for their services. ”We’re having to turn people away, or ration portions, to stretch supplies,” says Deborah Leff, the president of America’s Second Harvest, the nation’s largest network of soup kitchens. And while charitable giving is up sharply, the growth has not kept pace with reductions in government aid to the poor. ”People have replaced some of it with volunteering, some of it with cash, but not all of it,” says Richard Steinberg, a professor of economics at the joint campus of Indiana and Purdue Universities in Indianapolis…

end of excerpt

September 14, 2017 update: wow, someone must have been inspired by my blog:
Bill Gates: Don’t expect charities to pick up the bill for Trump’s sweeping aid cuts.

Also see:

Changes in working with volunteers: scary & energizing

logoAlmost 20 years ago, I co-presented at the national conference in Orlando by the Corporation for National Service. The presentation was regarding the emerging senior volunteer — the Baby Boomer. I was the representative from Generation X, another presenter was a Boomer himself, and the other presenter was of the then current senior age group. We thought it was a rather benign but important topic. We certainly had fun putting together our presentation via phone and email (we were in different parts of the USA and had never met face-to-face until the day of the presentation).

The day of the presentation came, and we had a full room waiting to hear us. Our presentation began, with much energy: we talked about how the emerging senior volunteer — the Baby Boomer — wanted to volunteer their professional skills, not just stuff envelopes. How they were willing to commit a lot of hours provided it came with a high-level of responsibility. How they weren’t interested in giving unselfishly as much as wanting to have a real impact and feel like, as a result of their volunteering, they had made a real difference. How this was a great opportunity for volunteering programs…. right?

We were all but booed out of the room.

The workshop attendees, who worked exclusively with senior volunteers, primarily from the “Greatest Generation,” did not hide their venom for our message, and about 15 minutes into our talk, we knew we were in trouble. Amid sighs and folded arms and scowls, attendees started raising their hands to comment and express their obvious frustration. They called these emerging senior volunteers “selfish” and “lazy,” even “un-American.” The characterizations would have never been said about an ethnic group, but it was open season on Boomers. One said, “I’m not changing, and if they don’t like it, they can go somewhere else.” Another said, “I would rather our current volunteers die off and our organization close than work with these people.” One added, to me, directly, in front of the whole group, “You don’t want to know what I think of your generation.”

It was, by far, the angriest, most hostile group I’ve ever addressed.

The only comfort was after the presentation was over, after most of the attendees had stormed out of the room: a woman came up to us in tears — literally crying — and shook all of our hands, saying “I’ve tried to say the same thing, and they were like this to me too.”

More than 10 years later, I shared most of the above via a blog because of an article in the Associated Press that confirmed all that we said at that presentation. The article said boomer volunteers “are increasingly seeking to use their professional skills as volunteers, eschewing office and administrative tasks and seeking roles in marketing, publicity, fund raising, and management.” You can see the article by going to archive.org and looking for this URL:
www.nytimes.com/aponline/2010/03/04/business/AP-US-Retirement-Today-Volunteering.html

I’m reviving that blog, saved from a long-defunct platform, because I still think about this incident every time I get in front of a group or have a discussion about trends in volunteer management. In that previous blog, I also wrote:

  • I wonder what ever happened to all those very, very angry volunteer managers, who I don’t think hated boomer volunteers as much as they hated change. Did they quit their jobs? Did they begrudgingly change? Were they fired?
  • I’ve never worked with these “traditional” volunteers the AP article and others talk about, volunteers happy to do any mundane administrative tasks without question, who do whatever they are told without comment. I’ve been working with volunteers for many years, and they have always wanted something worthwhile through their service beyond just work to do.
  • I bet someone writes almost exactly this same story in five years in a major newspaper or wire service, implying it’s a “new trend.”

Of course, since that presentation, the management of volunteers has changed even more radically. I talked about this in May 2006 on my web site. And let’s be clear: innovations regarding management of volunteers aren’t really about technology. The innovation is using technology so that it is:

giving volunteers a bigger voice in what they do at an organization (and, in the end, actually giving them lots more to do, and even more responsibility, which they like very, very much), on engaging in activities that exude transparency and openness in all aspects of decision-making and management, and on being immediately responsive to volunteers’ and other supporters’ thoughts, suggestions and criticisms — and how not doing so isn’t because of a lack of resources but, rather, misdirected priorities and lack of transparency. Tiny nonprofit organizations with very little staff are doing extraordinary things with volunteers, and making the volunteers feel included and energized, not with pins and t-shirts but through greater and more meaningful involvement — and this movement is being fueled by inclusive uses of technology.

It makes for another big challenge to many people who are expected to successfully engage volunteers, but it’s also a big opportunity to raise the profile of volunteer managers within organizations. It makes volunteer management a lot more interesting.

Are you ready? Scared? Angry? Let’s hear from you in the comments below.

Also see:

Have you ever changed your mind?

Have you ever changed your mind? Have you ever decided to let go of a long-held opinion and embrace one you had long opposed? Particularly regarding issues that affect your approach in your professional or volunteering work?

I have. A few examples:

  • I thought instant messaging was a useless distraction. A colleague changed my mind.
  • I thought Twitter was a useless distraction. Actually using it, and following people like Howard Sherman and Rob Jackson and Skepchicks, convinced me otherwise.
  • I used to think it was ethically unacceptable, under any and all circumstances, for a for-profit company to involve volunteers. I had railed against it more than once. It took Triumph Motorcycles to change my mind.
  • I don’t like certificates in return for volunteering. I don’t value them. And I thought most other people did too. But a member of my staff was passionate in her conviction to try it. So we tried it. They turned out to be one of the most popular features of the UN’s Online Volunteering service.

I’m open to being wrong, or to admitting I haven’t been fully-informed, or to new facts. I’m open to having my mind changed – through solid facts and examples. I like working to change minds – you have to like it if you are going to work in communications / outreach – but I also have to be as open as I want others to be.

But beware: if you want to change my mind, I need facts, and lots of them!

Okay, now you: share in the comments how you have had your mind changed with regard to your work or volunteering.

Excuses, excuses

Here’s a conversation I had this week as a member of a certain city’s citizen’s committee regarding bicyclists and pedestrians:

Me: “I’d like for this link to the state agency name redacted web site to added to this web page on the city’s site. I’ve sent two emails requesting it, but no one has responded.”

City representative: “We don’t have money in the budget to do that.”

Me: “You don’t have the money to add a link to a web page?!?”

City Rep: “Actually, it’s because the decision makers need to review that change first.”

Me: “Okay, who are the ‘decision makers’?”

City Rep: “Oh, we don’t have a policy yet on how those decisions will be made.”

THIS IS WHY I DON’T BELIEVE IN CONSPIRACY THEORIES INVOLVING THE GOVERNMENT.

This is also a perfect illustration of the change of mentality that’s needed for effective online communications. Using web pages and social media has nothing to do with budgets or policies – it has to do with mindsets.

Fear-based management – it’s a customer service KILLER.