A Great New Report to Praise, Criticize, and Use

By Susan J. Ellis

In February, the Urban Institute released its new study, Volunteer Management Capacity in America's Charities and Congregations: A Briefing Report. Everyone is urged to download and read this 34-page PDF from http://www.nationalservice.org/research/vol_capacity_brief.pdf. You can also read the press release, containing a summary of the key finds, at http://www.usafreedomcorps.gov/about_usafc/ whats_new/announcements/20040219-1_A.asp. The study was organized by the UPS Foundation, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the USA Freedom Corps and it is probably the strongest argument I've ever seen in the United States for the value of, in the words of the report, investment in volunteer management:

Funders and organizations that invest in staff volunteer coordinators and training will produce charities and congregations with a greater capacity to their use of volunteers. This report finds that investments in volunteer management and benefits derived from volunteers feed on each other, with investments bringing benefits and these benefits justify greater investments. We conclude that the value that volunteers provide to organizations they serve should make the effective management of volunteers a key priority. (pp. 29-30)

The Briefing Report is well-written and easy to read. But, as with all studies, there are some questionable assumptions and conclusions. My favorite saying is that statistics are like bikinis; they reveal what is interesting and conceal what is essential. I'll outline some of the items I found to praise and to criticize here, and then invite you to do the same. Even more important, the Urban Institute is asking for comments directly. As of March 1 they are opening a Web site for this purpose: www.volunteerinput.org. I sincerely hope that those of us with a stake in the profession of volunteer management will make our voices heard.

The Good

Above anything else, we should praise the study's sponsors for asking these questions about infrastructure. Bravo that the study knew about, accepted, and built on best volunteer management practices and attempted to learn whether these were widely adopted. The formula to measure an organization's Investment in Volunteer Management is an indicator that can be replicated.

There is no finding that will surprise any Energize site visitor, but perhaps it had to be said by those with more power and influence. As research, the statistical samples and sources seem strong, and it's wonderful to see someone use the IRS Form 990 database on this subject. Including faith communities alongside nonprofit charities is fascinating, too.

Here are a few statements that really caught my eye. I hope we all quote these in hundreds of places!

  • The greatest challenges that charities and congregations face is an inability to dedicate staff resources to and adopt best practices in volunteer management. (p. 2)

  • Three out of five charities and only one out of three congregations with social service outreach activities reported having a paid staff person who worked on volunteer coordination. However, among these paid volunteer coordinators, one in three have not received any training in volunteer management, and half spend less than 30 percent of their time on volunteer coordination. (p. 3)

  • Less than half of charities and congregations that manage volunteers have adopted most volunteer management practices advocated by the field. (p. 3)

  • Of charities with a paid staff volunteer manager, only one in eight have someone who devotes 100 percent of his or her time to volunteer management. Only one congregation in our study said it has a full-time volunteer coordinator. (p. 8)

  • Taken together, the findings regarding paid staff support for management of volunteers point to low professionalization and capitalization of volunteer administration in the United States . The fact that many coordinators are getting some training suggests that many are interested in learning about how to manage volunteers. However, the small amount of time spent on volunteer administration suggests that charities and congregations do not have the resources to allocate to volunteer management or that they devote their organizational resources primarily to other efforts. (p. 10)

  • Recruiting volunteers with the right kinds of skills is a big problem for 18 percent and a small problem for 44 percent of charities. However, the greater the percentage of time a paid staff person spends on volunteer administration, the less likely a charity is to report problems with recruiting. (p. 12)

Let's also credit the researchers for asking comparative questions about resources put into fundraising (55% of agencies have a paid fundraiser while only 39% have a paid coordinator of volunteers) and for adding strong statements about the value of volunteer centers to connect organizations and potential volunteers.

The Bad

While the broader professional field of volunteer administration is certainly implied, there is no evidence that the study involved any representative of it. The absence of references at the end of the report, whether to organizations such as AVA or Points of Light, to Web sites such as this one, or to books and journals in the field, continues the usual practice of keeping such resources invisible or inaccessible to people who read the study and want to learn more.

Some other things troubled me:

  • Boards of directors are not included . Not one word was said in the report to link volunteers who serve on nonprofit boards of directors to the direct service volunteering studied. This perpetuates the traditional and counterproductive separation of such volunteers as somehow inherently different, although the principles of good volunteer management apply equally to gaining the best and most diverse board (a need that many organizations have). It's interesting that the report says: Before undertaking this study, we did not know the proportion of public charities in the United States that involve volunteers in their operations (p. 6). We actually did know that 100% of them have a board comprised mainly of volunteers, which makes the finding of f our in five charities use volunteers (p. 6) open to debate.

  • Who's a volunteer? There is no way to know whether respondents included student interns, stipended volunteers (such as AmeriCorps), workfare participants, etc. in any of their answers, nor if they use a varied vocabulary to attract new volunteers. For example, have those organizations reporting low numbers of highly-skilled volunteer ever recruited for donated professional services or pro bono contributions, rather than sticking with the V word?

  • Recruitment was studied without correlation to the vital question of volunteer work design . Problems of recruitment were presented as due to lack of information and staff time, although many of us feel that a large part of the problem is lack of skill in creating meaningful and attractive roles for a diverse audience of prospective volunteers to do. This is why, for example, the study says: We excluded the challenge of too many volunteers' because we believe it to be different from the other kinds of challenges considered (p. 13). To me, any organization claiming too many volunteers has no idea how to put them to work!

  • Though separated statistically, the report implies that the responses of faith communities can be compared to nonprofit organizations . This seems to show a lack of understanding about how congregations operate, particularly the widespread resistance to management vocabulary and theory of any kind as non-spiritual and out of place in a religious group.

  • Missing entirely are government management practices in their involvement of volunteers . Although volunteers work by the thousands in every level of government (just think schools, parks, prisons, libraries, veterans hospitals, etc.), the public setting is absent from this study. Once again, government tells us what to do without applying the same principles to itself. How many paid and trained volunteer program managers are in government agencies? Will government commit more funds to building its own volunteer infrastructure? You won't learn any of the answers from this study.

As you might expect, I am concerned about the emphasis on volunteers as an alternative to adequate funding:

A volunteer's time is an important resource for many charities and congregations, especially those that do not have the money to hire labor to carry out certain tasks. Volunteer time is comparable to a monetary donation. (p. 29)

The assumptions inherent in this section of the report could be a Hot Topic in itself.

The Ugly

It's hard for me not to question the political reasons for this study and its conclusions. It seems integrally connected to, as stated, President Bush's Call to Service and his mandate that national and community service programs optimize program design and serve as engines of volunteer mobilization (p. 5). That would be fine if the findings were not so self-serving to benefit both the Corporation for National and Community Service and the press for more faith-based initiatives.

Most troubling is the conclusion that:

The most popular capacity building option among both charities and congregations with social service outreach activities is the addition of a one-year, full-time volunteer with a living stipend (like an AmeriCorps member), with responsibility for volunteer recruitment and management. (p. 3)

All this emphasis on the need for a true commitment to volunteer management and the answer is a one-year volunteer? I guess this proves the adage of If all you have is a hammer, you see everything as a nail. AmeriCorps just as so many VISTAs before them certainly can be enormously helpful in building agency capacity to involve volunteers. But they are not the best solution, even with the recognition that they need training in the subject:

After being trained in volunteer management practices, AmeriCorps members can be placed in organizations where they can help address a number of volunteer management challenges. We found that AmeriCorps-type volunteers could be particularly useful in charities that are challenged in recruiting enough and the right kinds of volunteers, as well as in those charities that do not have time or money to train and supervise volunteers. (p. 31)

Just a few reactions:

  • Why let agencies off the hook from making a long-term commitment (of funds and attention) to volunteer management?

  • Why imply that someone fresh out of minimal training in volunteerism can be effective if no one else in the organization gets additional training to support them?

  • Who is going to give this training in volunteer management practices? The Corporation? And who is going to train them ?

  • Will we really give religious congregations an AmeriCorps placement to increase their recruiting?

Connection to religiously-affiliated groups was the only external variable studied in depth, clearly because of the Bush Administration's emphasis on faith-based service. The findings are presented without explanation or justification of these questions, and with unsupported optimism:

although charities with ties to religious organizations have greater investment in volunteer management, they also report more challenges. However, we expect that their adoption of a greater number and variety of management practices gives them greater potential for overcoming these challenges. (p. 22)

Using the Report

There is so much good in this report that it should have an impact beyond its political uses. How can we quibble with the statement:

We conclude that the belief that volunteers are beneficial leads charities to invest in their management of volunteers, and that investing in the management of volunteers leads them to value the benefits of their volunteers more. (p. 20)

Is this not ammunition with which to approach Executive Directors? Funders? Faculty of nonprofit management courses? Anyone who is resistant to spending money on or paying attention to volunteer involvement? It is up to us, collectively and individually, to disseminate the highlights of this study as widely as possible.

What do you think about the findings?

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