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Volunteerism’s Positive Deviants

The practice of leveraging volunteers to sustain operations is ingrained in the everyday functioning of nonprofits, especially in the arts. It is so familiar that a recent study by TCC Group on nonprofit effectiveness, touting the benefits gained from strategic use of volunteers, might feel to some like nothing new. We all know and love volunteers! How else would nonprofits survive?

On the other hand, it’s safe to say that many nonprofit employees have all too much experience with dysfunctional systems of volunteer management or lack thereof. Most are accustomed to high rates of turnover among volunteers and have learned not to have high hopes of exchange. Still, others are frustrated with the pressure nonprofit employees face (not to mention interns… or artists!) to accept major compensation gaps in exchange for work in the area of their passion. Understaffed nonprofits increasingly look to volunteer labor to make up for the shortfall and keep operations running, a practice that exacerbates burnout and one that is unwise for long-term sustainability.

“Nonprofits that strategically leverage volunteers outperform their peers on all measures of organizational capacity and have greater impact. But less than 15 percent of nonprofits nationwide demonstrate these characteristics.”—Reimagining Service: Investing in Volunteer Capacity

Volunteers: Can’t Live With ‘Em, Can’t Live Without ‘Em?

I was looking forward to exploring the topic of volunteering in more depth recently when I attended a presentation hosted by Northern California Grantmakers, a regional association of funders that put together a discussion on TCC’s research as part of their Effective Philanthropy Program. The approach to the subject is exciting in that from the outset, TCC sought to highlight “positive deviants” – in other words, organizations doing things right when it comes to “Investing in Human Capital to Drive Greater Impact.” It makes me think of Helicon Collaborative’s Bright Spots work which serves to remind us that rather than asking ourselves, “What’s the problem?” or, “What are we doing wrong?,” it can be more productive to consider “Who are the models? And, “What is it that they are doing well?”*

Who is Doing What Well?

To start, TCC Group’s study suggests on the whole we need to start thinking about service differently and this “reimagining” has to come from both sides. On the one hand, volunteers shouldn’t continue to see their volunteerism as peripheral to the organization – nor something they might do only in retirement or for community service hours. The same applies from the top down: organizations must truly consider volunteers as central to their operations, and make volunteering a “core strategic function, not an add-on.”

Nonprofit Service Enterprise characteristics developed by Reimagining Service

Nonprofit Service Enterprise characteristics developed by Reimagining Service

Successful organizations, Peter York of TCC indicated, view their volunteer programs in conjunction with other core strategies and policies such as fundraising and human resources. Another presenter referenced work done by Jennifer Aaker of Stanford University who has written about trends in giving related to one’s volunteerism and other factors. Other findings shared included:

  • Volunteers who are asked first for their time, rather than their money, are more likely to donate and do so at a higher level when asked.
  • In contrast to other donors, including board members, volunteers are often more likely to feel comfortable making pitches on behalf of an organization to their friends.
  • Volunteers can be the perfect sounding board for leaders. Since volunteers aren’t getting paid, they often feel at liberty to give hard and honest feedback!

Becoming a Service Enterprise

When an organization implements these volunteer-centered principles, it’s the act of becoming a “Service Enterprise,” as Reimagining Service puts it. A national coalition representing nonprofit, governmental, and private interests, Reimagining Service was founded following President Barack Obama’s signing of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act in 2009, calling for the dramatic growth of service opportunities to address key social issues.

Reimaging Service is eager to highlight effective volunteer engagement practices, and the particular session I attended featured some corporate initiatives. Bobbi Silten, President of the Gap Foundation, for example, relayed how volunteer cohorts within their staff have come together to tackle select projects for a few San Francisco nonprofits. She talked about how Gap has a “link and leverage” category on their grant application that asks nonprofits not only about funding needs, but what kind of services Gap staff might be able to contribute to support them.

Considering Solutions

There’s no one way to structure a volunteer program within nonprofits, or corporations for that matter. Each organization is unique, with its own resources and network to leverage creatively. Yet, I think TCC’s work shows us that there’s significant room for growth and a need for new approaches.

Personally, I’ve begun to wonder what it would be like if we considered volunteers as strategically as we do paid staff. An observation that stuck with me from the session noted that very few consultants working with nonprofits today are focused specifically on Human Resources. What would happen if we concentrated efforts more heavily here? Perhaps HR strategy is one area where the corporate world has something to offer nonprofits. After all, as Reimaging Service argues, “The responsibility of successful volunteer engagement resides beyond nonprofits alone.” The more cross-sector participation there is in the volunteer ecosystem, the more likely we’ll see volunteer time being used effectively and for the greatest impact.

* Following the bright spots is a problem-solving technique described in the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath.

Katie Fahey
Program Associate, Arts

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