The Shorter the Better?

The Chronicle of Philanthropy had a few interesting pieces concerning volunteerism. In the January 22, 2015 issue titled What’s Next, I noticed a small piece concerning volunteer retention. New York Cares, one of the largest volunteer management organizations is offering eight week, web tutorials, in-person workshops, and one-on-one counseling to help groups develop high quality programs.  Gary Bagley, executive director of New York cares stated that, “The lack of excellent experiences is the biggest reason people don’t volunteer.”

Flipping a few pages, an article by Megan O’Neil, “Volunteerism and Trust in Public Institutions Are On the Decline”, discusses the drop in volunteerism across the country. According to the Bureau of labor statistics, the volunteerism rate fell to 25.4 percent in 2013. This is the lowest level since this data collection began in 2002.  What is happening here? Why are fewer folks volunteering? The data is a bit confusing, so let’s look at a few indicators. A report released by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) states that 62.6 million adults (25.4 percent) volunteered through an organization in 2013, and more than 138 million Americans (62.5 percent) also engaged in informal volunteering in their communities, helping neighbors with such tasks as watching each other’s children, helping with shopping, or house sitting. Wendy Spencer, CNCS chief operating officer noted that the share of Americans that participate in formal volunteering has remained steady, at about one in four for many years. So does this mean that volunteerism is doing kinda okay? Maybe we are looking at the wrong set of indicators. In Megan O’Neil’s article, she quotes Greg Baldwin, president of VolunteerMatch stating that nonprofit sector and volunteers are as vulnerable to the economic swings as other sectors. He further states that, “Strong volunteer programs are coordinated by healthy, strong organizations that are well resourced.” So it’s the organizations fault? Not exactly.

Right now VM sees an amazing shift in how folks want to volunteer. Over the past four years, our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators report that they are recruiting more episodic volunteers. These are folks that volunteer for a shorter duration then the stereotypic, long-term volunteer that most organizations dream of. Our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators are consistently reporting volunteers that provide less than one hour per week, and serve for shorter durations. But here is the really interesting thing; volunteer satisfaction has risen with our sites as they are able to offer a more tailored approach to engaging volunteers. Providing opportunities for volunteers to engage in a less structured way has not diminished the experience or the productivity of the programs. So is the answer short term all the way? Not completly. Circling back to Greg Baldwin’s comment concerning strong volunteer programs; I think we also need to keep in mind what the volunteer market is telling us. If volunteers are looking for short-term, meaningful opportunities, how can we meet that demand? The simple and not so simple answer is start identifying opportunities where a shorter commitment would work. Engaging volunteers on projects with a very specific end date, or being open to one and done volunteers. Meeting the market in terms of opportunities offered is not only good for volunteers, but good for organizations as well.

More than giving thanks

I’m thankful for the chance to help others.  That’s what I shared this past Thanksgiving holiday when anyone asked me, “What are you thankful for this year?”  Yes, I am thankful for my health and the health of my loved ones, but more importantly I am thankful for the fact that my health affords me the chance and the ability to do well in this world.  So instead of focusing on food and gatherings and football  this Thanksgiving  I chose to spend the first several hours of my morning giving back.  As an ThanksgivingAmeriCorps member I am all too aware of the situations of those less fortunate than myself and I wanted part of my Thanksgiving to be in service to those people.

My roommate and I woke up at 7 am on Thanksgiving morning and went out to join over 120 fellow volunteers, including several other AmeriCorps members, at Moveable Feast. Moveable Feast helps to put healthy food on the tables of people in Maryland with AIDS, cancer and other life-threatening illnesses and when we arrived we found out that our time would be spent helping sort a week’s worth of meals for 200+ clients.  Once the sorting was complete we then worked with volunteers loading meals into cars for delivery and as an added bonus to the morning, my roommate and I were able to make a few deliveries ourselves.  Delivering those meals may have been the most sobering and rewarding part of my service.  There is a bittersweet dichotomy that occurs when you find yourself trying to balance the joy you feel helping someone and the stark realization that there are so many who are in need of that help.hgl

Holidays are a great opportunity to give of your time in service to others, but it’s also important to keep in mind that there are hundreds of other days when people need help just as much.  We here at Volunteer Maryland are all about volunteering.  Not only do our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators recruit volunteers for their respective sites  but they also participate in their own direct-service each week, as do myself and all of our staff.  In fact, by the end of this service term we will collectively log over 4000 hours in service to others. I don’t know about you, but I know that I speak for all of us here at Volunteer Maryland when I say that we hope all of you who read this will consider giving a little of your time to volunteering before, after, and during the holidays.

A Culture of Volunteerism

What does a culture of volunteerism mean to you?  It looks a little intimidating on first sight, not a phrase that I would use in the course of an average day.  So why am I writing about it?  At this month’s training, our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators and their Site Supervisors took part in roundtable discussions, with one of the topics being “Developing an Organizational Culture of Volunteerism”.

Joining on that conversation was a great opportunity to learn what that phrase meant in practice, and to hear how important it is to an organization successfully making volunteers a part of the team.  We’ve seen that a nonprofit can flourish when it utilizes volunteers as a full part of an organization’s work.  So what impediments prevent that seemly natural partnership from taking root?

Some of the things that came up in discussion were: getting the needed infrastructure in place, and resistance to change.

Recruiting and training volunteers is a scary idea for any time-strapped staff member.  One suggestion is to reframe the use of volunteers: show the value of that investment.  Would you turn down the offer of a grant?  No, you would find a way to make it happen.  Volunteers are worth that consideration too!

One of our Volunteer Maryland Coordinator described her strategy of sitting down with each staff member to assess what their volunteer needs are.  She then builds orientations and training specialized for each volunteer need.  But sometimes, if may be even better for the staff members to create those volunteer positions themselves.  They know what they need better than anyone else, and by creating a volunteer position now can get a volunteer with exactly the skills they need.

Another Volunteer Maryland Coordinator said that her service site’s staff meeting, she would use her time to speak to highlight one exceptional volunteer that month, but  also a staff member who had a done a great job of embodying the welcoming spirit and volunteer-employee partnership.  This also allowed her to reward the staff member for their great work, while also encourage a change in thinking.

I’m glad that I joined this discussion of volunteerism – it reinforced that nonprofit organizations can gain from a volunteer-friendly environment.  Training staff (and maybe even yourself!) to treat volunteers as a part of the organization, and not just ancillary elements, is key to successfully integrating volunteers and creating a new culture.  All of the pieces need to be working together to achieve the best results.  What techniques have you been using to create a culture of volunteerism?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

A new wave of volunteer talent is building. Some nonprofit leaders will take advantage of this opportunity and exponentially grow their impact; the rest will be left behind trying to make do the old way.