2009 has already had unprecedented numbers of leaders encourage more Americans to serve: President Obama on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, the massive Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, and Michael Bloomberg encouraging more New Yorkers to volunteer last week. Last year, Deval Patrick created the Commonwealth Corps in an effort to increase volunteerism and the capacity to volunteer among Massachusetts residents and charities.
However, not much has changed for the ordinary person who still has to work, pay rent, and put food on the table, who cannot dedicate more than a few hours a week to volunteer, or for local charities struggling to serve more needs with fewer resources in this economy slump. Beyond leaders telling the public to do more for the common good, little has (or has so far) changed to remove barriers to involvement since few resources and directives have been created to improve the volunteer programs and capacities of local charities.
For significant growth in the for-profit sector, a supply chain (which translates to the nonprofit sector as volunteer program development, recruitment, screening, placement, and feedback loops) is developed to handle expansion, but it seems like our leaders are overpromoting one aspect, general volunteer recruitment, instead of the whole process for volunteer engagement. I’m concerned that many people may try to volunteer but then not feel valued or utilized effectively if local charities can’t respond and place them immediately. For example, at the very beginning when someone is newly inspired to volunteer, s/he is typically directed to a web search engine like VolunteerMatch that assumes s/he knows who s/he wants to help, has skills to do it, and what will be personally fulfilling, then generates an overwhelming number of purported matches. These sites have been around for decades, and yet they still lack eHarmony-like interfaces to help people identify their passions, temperaments, and resources and display appropriate matches based on more than physical proximity and a cause/needs. If these sites aren’t improved, then we have/will plateau since they are geared for people who think they already know what they want to do.
Volunteer program development (such as ongoing needs assessment and the creation of fulfilling positions) is static/outdated at most local charities. During the past two decades, the number of volunteer programs with professional managers/coordinators/administrators on staff has significantly contracted; some volunteer programs have been totally eliminated, while others have staff who also has significant fund raising and programmatic responsibilities (like PMD board director Jenny Hartwell at HEARTH). Volunteer programs are typically absent from nonprofits’ strategic/business plans, often with unwritten assumptions that if funds cannot be raised to accomplish documented goals and objectives, then uncompensated volunteers will somehow do so to meet these needs without additional charity staffing to recruit, screen, and manage them.
Furthermore, without fewer staff to welcome and screen potential volunteers who have been inspired to serve RIGHT NOW, long response times can be a huge turn off. There’s nothing like hearing a barrage of calls to volunteer since charities need more help, responding by calling/emailing my interest, and then hearing nothing back or delayed responses while those general messages continue. This phenomenon can really make someone feel unappreciated when, conversely s/he needs a really positive, first experience so s/he doesn’t give up.
Beyond finding out what’s needed locally (since I’m unconvinced that knowledge was provided by the Council on Foundations, Independent Sector, the National Council of Nonprofits, and other national organizations among the 300 who met at the White House on 5/20), leaders must fund real volunteer capacity increases at local charities and must help the public understand that volunteering is like searching (and finding) a perfect job. This process depends on
- Determining what one is passionate about and the types of activities one is suited for (and can make a difference at)
- Learning what is needed in one’s community, and
- Understanding that this takes time and special effort. And, like many of our professional paths, it could mean a series of several volunteer commitments to determine and to find a good fit.
I fear that another volunteer web site snafu like the former pic2009.org one (since removed) on MLK Day (didn’t collect phone#s or allow charities to email informative attachments or close sign ups when capacities were reached) will jeopardize a White House call to serve this summer.