All 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.
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:
- 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.