Making Volunteer Management Happen: A Proposal for AmeriCorps

By Steve McCurley

From Susan: Steve McCurley’s reaction to the Urban Institute report and my March Hot Topic was too long for an ordinary response posting, but just right for keeping the discussion going through a new Hot Topic. Thank you, Steve—and maybe more site visitors will join in the conversation (since we know there is a lot of talk about this going on off-line).

In last month’s Hot Topic (“A New Report to Praise, Criticize and Use”), Susan discussed the new report from the Urban Institute on volunteer management capacity in nonprofits and congregations. In a section of that commentary pithily entitled “The Ugly,” she discussed the implicit suggestion within the report that some of our shortcomings in volunteer management capacity could be addressed by assigning AmeriCorps members to act as short-term volunteer managers.

In the month since the release of the report, it has become clear that the Corporation for National and Community Service is taking the findings seriously. Based on recent conference presentations by Corporation leaders and in-house directives to staff, AmeriCorps is gearing up to focus its energies on building volunteer management infrastructure. Also note that the new youth volunteering scheme Gordon Brown has proposed in the UK (see,8150,1151693,00.html) is openly modeling itself on the American operation, so the issue may quickly become an international one.

One thing in the Urban Institute report that can’t be argued is the finding that most charities could use all the help with involving volunteers that they can get. So, if AmeriCorps members were assigned to work on volunteer involvement, what would make it more likely that this bold effort would achieve the desired results, especially given the limited one-year timeframe for AmeriCorps assignments?

Thinking Outside the Box: An Alternate Approach

I propose that the best way to actually make progress is to approach this effort in an entirely different way. Instead of placing individual AmeriCorps members into charities, I’d place a team of members in a community, working through a Volunteer Center or similar resource/technical assistance organization. Have them operate together as a consulting team to create volunteer management efforts in a number of designated agencies, focusing on a coordinated community-wide effort, not a single-agency effort. This alternate structure (call it the Consulting Corps Model) would, I think, work better because:

  • The team would more likely possess the mix of skills necessary to be successful consultants. Team members would benefit from multiple perspectives, additional human resources, and all the other advantages of the team problem solving approach. Working as a member of a team would also be a lot less lonely for the volunteers than working as individuals.

  • Agencies could be linked together to encourage progress. Under the Consulting Corps Model we can create agency “user groups” to discuss progress, and to provide a little competitive impetus.

  • The focus would be shifted from a “subsidized body” to a “project.” The intent is not to simply provide an agency with a short-term volunteer manager; instead it is to assist the agency in creating its own volunteer involvement system. The Consulting Corps Model makes this distinction clear – and more likely to happen.

You could also have some fun partnerships in this model. Imagine the potential for recruiting volunteer corporate employees to assist in the consulting process….

If We Stay in the Box

Whether or not the Corporation considers my proposal above, there will continue to be individual agency placements of AmeriCorps members. Making an organization “volunteer friendly” is not an easy task, and expecting frequently-inexperienced volunteers to be effective is almost insulting to our profession. I have three suggestions for creating a framework in the application and management system of AmeriCorps which could make a real difference in outcomes.

1. Require a strong agency commitment to the effort.

AmeriCorps members are usually assigned based on applications by agencies. These applications resemble those commonly utilized in grant proposals – a lot of promises about what is to be produced. These are fine, but it would be helpful to add a few items not normally included in the usual grant application. Here’s a list:

  • Demonstration of Board commitment.
    This would include a formal endorsement by the Board of volunteer involvement, assignment of a Board member to report regularly on progress to the full Board, and a regular spot on the agenda of Board meetings for volunteer input. Since top management support is essential to the success of volunteer involvement, there is no point in assigning AmeriCorps members to organizations where it doesn’t exist. Expecting an AmeriCorps member to create such support while also building the volunteer program is simply unrealistic.

  • Assessment of any volunteer efforts.
    Some agencies will be new at involving volunteers, others will be working to re-build or re-vitalize existing volunteer programs. It will be nice to have some baseline data on what does exist, so require each applicant to provide data on their volunteer utilization, volunteer pool, and volunteer management practices . Give them tools such as those on suggested in the Energize Library in the Evaluation/Program Assessment section or use Susan’s comprehensive Volunteer Management Audit.

  • Endorsement of local partners.
    Each grant proposal should require endorsement letters from a sampling of the following: Volunteer Center , DOVIA, Corporate Volunteer Council, fraternal organizations, Chamber of Commerce, interfaith coalitions, college or university community service groups, etc. Give extra credit if all these groups are members of an Advisory Committee for the effort.

2. Provide pre-service training in two key skill areas.

Pre-service training will be invaluable in helping AmeriCorps members get started successfully, whether in one agency or as part of a Consulting Corps. There are actually two key areas for training content.

  • Training in volunteer involvement.
    AmeriCorps members will need to understand volunteer management, ranging from trends, to position design, to recruiting and placement, to supervision and recognition. It is crucial to provide this training directly, since it is not likely to be available from anyone within the organization. This is quite different from past placements, where the agency was likely to have in-house expertise it could provide through on-the-job training. Fortunately, training in volunteer management is something we have extensive practice with in this country, so much so that it is now even being exported to other countries.

  • Training in consulting skills.
    The role of the AmeriCorps member is not just to be a short-term volunteer program manager, it is also to assist the agency in setting up a volunteer management system – and this is a different skill set entirely. Members will essentially serve as consultants to their placement agencies, helping the agency identify and implement volunteer needs. The best example of teaching this I’ve ever seen was the effort in the early 1990’s by the Paradigm Project of the Points of Light Foundation to involve teams of volunteers as consultants to volunteer-involving agencies. You can still order some of the material through their Catalog services unit.

3. Build a support system.

Volunteer program manager can be a lonely job, partially because you often have no counterpart within your organization with whom to talk. Fortunately we can create a support system in a number of ways:

  • Recruit cyber mentors.
    Involve AVA and recruit current volunteer managers who will agree to volunteer as online mentors for AmeriCorps members. This would provide dedicated, experienced help ready to offer information, advice or solace as needed. You could even talk AVA into making all of these folks “adjunct” members, and possibly convincing them that a career in volunteer management might be fun.

  • Link members in existing support groups.
    Enroll each member in the local DOVIA and in online listservs such as CyberVPM. Don’t just involve them in AmeriCorps listservs because the range of help will be broader outside of that insular forum.

  • Provide a technical assistance kit.
    There isn’t much point in re-inventing volunteer management. There are templates, tools, handbooks and every other aspect of volunteer involvement readily available. One CD could contain more than anyone is ever likely to need.

Last Thoughts

Many of us remember when the volunteer management community in the US was a lot stronger than it is today. Part of the discomfort with the use of AmeriCorps members as temporary volunteer managers probably comes from remembering the “Good Old Days.” I can actually remember when there was a major conference of volunteer managers occurring practically every week of the year – each with well over a hundred attendees – and when successful DOVIAs numbered in the hundreds.

We don’t have that anymore and we’re not likely to have that until more charities realize the advantages of volunteer involvement. I’d support anything that moved us closer to that, and I believe that assigning AmeriCorps members to help build the volunteer management infrastructure within charities, while not the Great Leap Forward we’d all like, is at least a step in the right direction.

And, at the risk of offending at least someone, much of the concern I’ve heard voiced by the “professional” volunteer management community toward having these “amateur” AmeriCorps members involved in their highly skilled field strikes me as far too similar to paid staff gripes about involving volunteers for comfort. If the track record of AmeriCorps demonstrates anything, it is that the commitment of young people can produce amazing results, especially with a little help from friends.

Your Turn

Susan asks: So what’s your reaction to the ideas just presented?

  1. If Steve’s framework were adopted, do you think the whole concept might work? Or do you still have major reservations (explain)?
  2. What do you think of the concept of an AmeriCorps Consulting Team?
  3. How might this re-direction of AmeriCorps strengthen or hinder the culture of volunteerism across the USA ? 
  4. What happens when the one-year term of the AmeriCorps volunteer VPM has ended? What practices could be included in Steve's "framework for success" that would help prevent the collapse of the volunteer program structure after the AmeriCorps "builder" has left? 
  5. What do those of you from outside the USA think about all of this?

Receive an update when the next "News and Tips" is posted!


Permission to Reprint