In anticipation of my workshop at VolunteerMaine’s annual, statewide Blaine House Conference on Service and Volunteerism in Orono next week, I’m guest blogging about how to prepare for and start partnerships that support volunteer programs.
Archive for the 'philanthropy' Category
Check out my guest blog today on VolunteerMaine!
I’ll be presenting a workshop all about episodic volunteering at their annual conference next week.
The BBJ has a good article describing AmeriCorps’ potential “do or die” funding situation in Massachusetts.
Although many of my colleagues, AmeriCorps alumni, and friends are lobbying for full funding of AmeriCorps in MA due to the federal match and their livelihoods, I find myself unsure when direct needs like food and housing subsidies, education, day programs for the needy, counseling, and substance abuse treatment are being cut in the state budget process.
I’ve been unconvinced that subsidizing below-minimum-wage positions is the best way to maximize volunteer engagement since AmeriCorps began, and now I question whether saving the Massachusetts Service Alliance should be a priority given the direct needs of the least able among us and the core educational needs of the next generation.
Direct philanthropic investment in experienced volunteer recruiters and volunteer managers paid to serve on charity staffs may be a better route to increase volunteer engagement, versus “hiring” inexperienced people with limited training and resources for short stints without long-term vision and commitment to volunteerism from charity leaders. (And if volunteers are so important, how can we be equal opportunity if we expect them to live on less than minimum wage or limited health coverage?)
There are certainly more active volunteers who are NOT in AmeriCorps than those who are in AmeriCorps, and I contend that broader, more long-term growth will occur if charitable donations are invested directly into community charities like Tenacity in the BBJ article and possibly PMD (rather than passed through a middleman-like agency operating with bureaucratic, government-imposed funding restrictions that impossibly attempts to serve our whole state and all of its communities). More charity boards of directors, executive directors, CEOs, and other leaders must encourage, support, and reward excellent volunteer programs that engage and retain volunteers, and respect, assign, and use volunteers’ time and talents effectively for ongoing and project-based commitments.
If the Massachusetts Service Alliance would expand to assist the majority of charities NOT funded by AmeriCorps that seek to increase their volunteers’ roles and numbers (as evidenced by the many applicants for Commonwealth Corps funding that I wrote about last year), then could we make more progress in our state? This need used to be addressed somewhat by the United Way of Mass. Bay until it reorganized into such tight focal areas such that volunteerism became hidden and disjointed with minimal training and services and a redundant database instead of experienced leaders at the forefront.
Deborah Finn, who moderates the Mission-Based Massachusetts yahoogroup, pointed us to a blog entry about Information Age volunteerism by Ben Rigby, a cofounder of the Extraordinaries. It combined with the comments are interesting. Like the commenters, I think that a combination of new and old ways of volunteerism is needed.
I also posted this comment about real reasons why people don’t volunteer:
I founded and run People Making a Difference (http://www.pmd.org) in Boston to remove the common barriers to direct service volunteerism while providing effective recruiting and volunteer group management services that bring real value and non-redundant assistance to the mostly small charities we serve.
Though I am quite familiar with the traditional, survey responses as to why people say they do not volunteer, I no longer believe these for the most part. It seems like respondents are giving the same excuses because the survey instrument offers these standard, superficial choices about not having time, being unasked, etc. when the underlying reason is that most who do not volunteer have yet to become motivated. As Ben points out, if people have time to watch tv (I’ll add: and they are not responsible for caring for family members), then most can and will make time to help with something for which they are passionate (cause or tasks) and for which the experience is positive. And the easier the entry point, the easier it is to get started.
Motivation is a shared responsibility between nonprofits and potential volunteers. As others have already pointed out, nonprofits need to define and to articulate accurately what help is needed, provide the internal support to make it possible, structure/market the opportunities attractively like the Extraordinaries is attempting, and select people best suited to help. (Few for-profits expect their employees to be productive as quickly and stay on staff with as little as the nonprofit sector allocates for volunteers, whether in strategic planning, budgets, supervision, work space, etc.) Likewise, potential volunteers need to figure out, sometimes by trial and error, what inspires them and how they can contribute meaningfully. When they find a rewarding volunteer position, most people will stick with it, finding a way to contribute unless their personal circumstances change (commonly in Boston, they move too far away).
I admit that I am concerned about the statistical “problem” with low volunteer retention, but I wonder if this is partly a side effect of the trial and error when people seek a “volunteer placement of a lifetime.” Just as most people date before they marry, moving on to volunteering somewhere else is not necessarily a sign that the original volunteer position was bad, just that the fit perhaps wasn’t great for that person. And while the nonprofit and person could do more to try to “save the marriage,” the easiest path is usually to split up and try again. (Of course, if the experience is really horrible, some people give up and don’t try again.) People often become unmotivated because they don’t understand how they make a difference, so PMD project managers articulate this a lot before, during, and after people volunteer, which seems to work, but is much easier to implement during 3-7 hour, one-time volunteer experience as compared to once every week.
One last thing: We should make entry to volunteerism easy, but also maintain high standards. At PMD, while we do let anyone sign up 10-31 days before a PMD service project, we promote “informed and responsible volunteerism” to raise the proverbial bar on one-time volunteers since we are investing limited resources into organizing high quality, free service opportunities for both participants and recipient charities. I often talk/blog about doing more good than harm, like the direct consequences of not showing up as committed, and so we have 90-100% participation. No matter what volunteers are expected to do, all nonprofits should set high standards out of respect to the people, places, and others we aim to assist, and explain our rationale. Implementation will vary from requiring 40 hours of technical training with certification to basic reference checking about people’s ability to do what they say they can do to help, then supervision with checks and balances to review volunteer performance along the way.
On Saturday, I traveled down to New Bedford with a friend to help Jim Stevens start his GiftsToGive warehouse. We assembled repurposed (i.e., used) shelving and tables–it was just like playing with a life-size erector set. Without the responsibility of orienting or training anyone else, I was able to focus on accomplishing the tasks, so didn’t even notice the newspaper photographer. There were a few dozen volunteers who working all morning, but I was pictured in the article in the New Bedford Standard Times. This is unusual since when I personally volunteer, I aim to be low-key and not make it all about me.
Gifts to Give is going to be a well-organized charity that serves many people in need in this commonwealth, including kids over age 13 and their parents, by collecting and sorting new and gently used donations of clothing, toys, books, child safety equipment, prom dresses, etc., and distributing them to families who need these items. It has an ambitious outreach plan, as well as one to engage volunteers of all ages in meaningful work. And, of course, it has a good distribution chain of dedicated, front-line social workers and assorted distribution sites planned.
After the G2G warehouse gets going in early ‘09, PMD will likely organize a service project so people can get acquainted with this charity AND so we can respond to requests from some of our volunteers for opportunities beyond Boston.
I can’t afford a subscription to The Chronicle of Philanthropy to read the latest study about giving to the poor, but I’m not surprised that it concludes ”Many donors say they want to support charities that help the nation’s most vulnerable citizens, but their giving patterns don’t support that goal,” since many people say that they want to help the homeless, for example, but then these same people are uninterested in volunteering to help this population.
Volunteering in direct service gives participants first-hand experience in shelters and other programs that serve the needy. These experiences, while short of actually personally utilizing these services, make lasting impressions on PMD volunteers.
Our younger volunteers have even gone so far as to tell us that they think that everyone should have the awareness-building experience of volunteering in a shelter, despite the obvious greater issue of eliminating the need for homeless shelters.
And while many people will decide to try to help the needy in more ways than direct service volunteering, I think that their early experiences do shape and influence how they do so, whether by voting choices, personal and corporate philanthropy, etc.