Archive for the 'volunteerism' Category

Should MA fund Americorps? My unpopular view.

Friday, June 12th, 2009

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.

Why Don’t People Really Volunteer?

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

Conversely, What Will Get People to Volunteer?  See final paragraph.
One of my pet peeves is when underlying survey biases influence the results. I recently saw another reference to a common reason why people tell surveyors they don’t volunteer, that they say don’t know where to go, in a NYT article featuring Michael Bloomberg encouraging more New Yorkers to volunteer last week.

Is is that they don’t know where to go, or that they haven’t yet made an effort to discover what volunteer placement(s) would make them happiest? (See third and sixth paragraphs of my prior post “What’s Missing from Calls to Volunteer”). Could this be laziness? Should all volunteering be effortless in this way? Certainly PMD’s one-time, 3-7 hour, unskilled volunteer gigs should be fairly effortless, but potential volunteers for multi-year mentoring should demonstrate ongoing commitment and interest, learn about expectations, and receive training and participate in ongoing support, which requires real effort and expert guidance from volunteer administrators.
In surveys that identify barriers to volunteerism and philanthropy, many people respond they are too busy and/or that no one asked them to volunteer, but I think these reflect simple survey questions with more complex answers, a little truth missing unexpressed feelings and experiences.

I believe Malcolm Gladwell once said (in a podcast I downloaded from ITConversations.org) that people generally tend to select the easiest/quickest survey answers and they they have trouble when they have to choose between more than two choices, so my theory is that more complicated answers take too much effort, are not among available options, and could delve into sensitive areas, such as being too busy to volunteer because one has to work several jobs to make ends meet, and/or take care of young/ailing family members, understandably leaving no time/energy. Perhaps a better question would ask people to rank the priorities in their lives, then see where volunteerism/civic engagement falls to understand what competes for attention and where possible blending can occur, such as volunteering as part of a work event? Marketers could target people who could have more time available, too.
Given how many charities advertise for volunteers and donations, I think not feeling asked is a matter of messages that I am needed in some way not being targeted to me/my cohort. (Charities, no more shotgun advertising that you generally need help.) Beyond the momentum generated by all the broad calls to serve this year, charities must develop volunteer programs with cultures and specific roles that enable volunteers to feel needed and valued.

We already know what motivates people, don’t need surveys to tell us that people prefer to feel needed and valued, and know busy people want their time to be respected, not wasted, so let’s just build this type of culture in our local charities and corresponding volunteer programs!

What’s Missing from the Calls to Volunteer

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

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

  1. Determining what one is passionate about and the types of activities one is suited for (and can make a difference at)
  2. Learning what is needed in one’s community, and
  3. 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.

Tell me about project problems, and I can often help you out.

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

Open communication is key to good service project development, particularly since we at PMD are good problem solvers, plus tap resources and connections when things are not going as planned. Most of the partner charities PMD assists need more than simply volunteers recruited to help them.
For example, last year one of our long-time charity partners asked for our assistance with a new activity, we were excited to expand to something different, and many people signed up to participate even though an earlier-than-normal start time required many to leave paid work early. However, when I arrived 45 minutes before the project began, I learned that 90% of the envelopes, a progress-limiting supply, was missing. Had I learned about this sooner, I could have brought a few hundred from home (since I often have card stock around given that I’m a letterpress journeyman) and informed the charity how it could easily order and have more delivered from Paperworks. Finding out the problem upon arrival was too late for me to be of assistance, and our volunteers would have completed the task in a matter of minutes, not three hours as scheduled, which is unacceptable when people make time in their busy lives to volunteer. (Fortunately, at our urging, additional charity staff identified alternative work for our volunteers that still made a real difference, just not what the volunteers originally expected.)

Another example is a previously town-funded, environmental effort that sadly was not funded this year. PMD volunteers loved volunteering for this service project in 2007 and 2008, and we already had nine people signed up for the 2009 project when we were informed that it was canceled due to lack of funding, only three weeks in advance. Had the funding problem been shared with me 1-2 months earlier, I would have fundraised to make this popular project possible in 2009. We could have asked the dedicated volunteers and companies who participated in this project in years past, as well as small foundations known to support environmental efforts like this. Sadly, it’s too late to save this project and too late to schedule an alternative service project to help another charity on the date we reserved.

So you don’t think that PMD is lost in the theoretical land of “should of, would of, could of”, we’ve purchased and solicited donations of sugar pumpkins and delivered them for past community Halloween parties for Hawthorne Youth & Community Center when the pumpkins they ordered did not arrive as scheduled. Furthermore, during our service projects, PMD project managers are empowered to purchase additional supplies should the absence of a supply limit volunteers’ progress.

Real reasons why people don’t volunteer

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

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.