Reimagining Service: Is Corporate HR Management What We See?

By Susan J. Ellis

We are at a new stage of the "Reimagining Service" initiative in the United States and some red warning lights are blazing. If you have not yet read the 12-page "final report" released last year titled, Reimagining Service: Turning Good Intentions into Greater Impact, I urge you to look at it now.* It remains exactly the same a year later, with no evidence of any refinement or additions, but it is driving new activity right now.

The report presents the state of volunteering in nonprofit organizations from the perspective of a cadre of specially invited, high-ranking corporate executives, funders, government officials, and advocates of full-time national service. Many of their conclusions, while not new (such as noting that "volunteers are not free"), are completely valid. They draw attention to the lack of resources and expertise supporting volunteer engagement in too many nonprofit organizations. And some of their proposed solutions make a lot of sense.

But there is one glaring problem: Somehow they never discovered the profession of volunteer resources management, with its courses, books, journals, conferences, and experienced practitioners. Instead, they focus on corporate human resources professionals as the solution to increasing the capacity of nonprofits to recruit and work with more volunteers.

In her April 6, 2010 blog post, Jayne Cravens of Coyote Communications issued the challenge, "Don't let them equate volunteer management with HR management."

If you see volunteer management as just HR management, then you will love Reimagining Service, which promotes the idea of applying private sector human resources practices to nonprofit organizations. It's all about "there's a lot of work to be done; let's get volunteers to do it!" It ignores emerging trends regarding volunteer management and takes us several steps back.

Also this April, an “Update” appeared on the Reimagining Service site. It thanked all the 450 people who had submitted comments – without identifying who they were, what they said, or any impact they may have had. There have been more invitation-only bigwig summits, including one at the White House. There is also now an “HR Action Team” led by staff at the Taproot Foundation (dedicated to corporate pro bono work) and Gap Inc. (yes, the retailer). Among the Team’s reported activities:

  • Corporate Volunteer Management research, being led by CommonGood Careers. This will examine current volunteer management practices among corporations.
  • Mapping Corporate HR Resources, being conducted by the Society of HR Management (SHRM). This is the first of two phases of research to identify expertise, techniques and other resources in the profession that could be leveraged to meet nonprofit needs.
  • Inventory of HR Resources Available to Nonprofits, being conducted by Gap Inc. This will identify the resources already available so we don't reinvent the wheel.

Don’t you wonder what they’ll find, if no one points them towards volunteer management-specific resources?

Want to Read More?

Of course there are similarities between volunteer management and human resources (after all, volunteers are both human and a resource). Both functions recruit and place workers into an organization. Both require policies and guidelines to clarify expectations of paid and volunteer personnel. So collaboration between these functions is the key. But there are critical differences, too. Among them:

  • Human resources staff can’t hire anyone unless there is money for a salary. Money is not the key factor in volunteer management.
  • In the majority of nonprofit organizations, volunteers far outnumber the paid staff. Even though each volunteer works far fewer hours than a single employee, the volunteer manager still needs to recruit, interview, place, orient, and coordinate every volunteer.
  • Human resources staff recruit for the qualifications to do a job. Volunteer resources managers do that too, but can also be creative in finding people with the potential to evolve expertise, engaging talent offered by those under 18 and over 65, and creating roles for people who unexpectedly offer useful skills. Not to mention accommodating all sorts of short-term, single-day, and virtual service options.
  • Human resources staff do not have any service delivery responsibilities; they assist other departments. But the director of volunteer involvement is much more involved in day-to-day agency activities and may supervise some program volunteers directly.

In terms of Reimagining Service’s goals, the other big issue is that human resources professionals in the business world face a huge learning curve to understand how nonprofits operate, let alone volunteers in nonprofits.

There is some irony in all this, too. Human resources folks often feel unappreciated in the same way volunteer program managers do. HR has the same struggles in the corporate world as VPMs have in the nonprofit world. How about if we just starting respecting both roles more and let each do their unique work to the fullest of their capacity?

Here’s Your Chance…

On June 29th, at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service, the 90-minute “Re-Imagining Service Forum” is making attendees this offer:

Learn how you can apply ideas generated by Reimagining Service to your organization's work. We are a multi-sector effort, made up of representatives from government, nonprofits, and corporations that are seeking to increase the impact of volunteerism.

Go to the session and speak up. If there is no chance to give input on site (quite likely), follow up with e-mails or letters to the panelists.

One reason that volunteer management is not at the Reimagining Service table is that we’re largely invisible at the national decision-making, political level. We have been marginalized at the National Conference and are still struggling to form an effective national professional association. But we have some strong state associations and we have the Web. Online we can make our opinions known. You can start here and I promise that I will publicize your responses to any leader I can access.

  • What do you think of this self-directed volunteer idea?
  • Are you already providing services in this way? Please tell us about it.
  • What do you see as the role of leaders of volunteer involvement in designing and running this kind of volunteer service?


*Full disclosure: I was asked by Michelle Nunn to review the Reimagining Service report just days before it was published last year and attempted to get the authors to avoid the most egregious issues. Mostly I failed (partly because it was just too late), but did manage to get the volunteer management profession at least mentioned in the final text, as the version I read never used the term while extolling the corporate human resources profession as the magic cure for nonprofit volunteer engagement. This bit of service is why I am acknowledged on the last page of the report, but since that time I have not been asked to give any other input or participate in the process in any way.

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