AmeriCorps and Senior Corps Targeting Volunteer Management

By Susan J. Ellis

It’s taken a while, but it has started. And we need to see it as a call to action.

In 2004, the Urban Institute released what arguably remains the most important study ever produced for our field, Volunteer Management Capacity in America's Charities and Congregations: A Briefing Report. Exactly six years ago, I wrote a Hot Topic about it, “A Great New Report to Praise, Criticize, and Use.” I praised the good, mentioned the bad, but warned about the ugly in the report. Specifically, I had great concerns about this puzzling statement on page 3:

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.

Which was expanded upon later with comments such as this one on page 31:

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.

All this emphasis on the need for a true commitment to volunteer management and the answer is a one-year newcomer to the field?

I have been waiting for some implementation of this new AmeriCorps role. For six years nothing emerged – until now. In the last month, I have seen three different initiatives in three different states, all with the common denominator of seeking to apply federal funding to projects in which national service participants will be placed into local agencies as volunteer coordinators. These not only involve AmeriCorps members, but also propose new Senior Corps projects for the same purpose.

The Bright Side

AmeriCorps members, just as so many VISTAs before them, certainly can be enormously helpful in building agency capacity to involve volunteers – though they are not the solution to the problem of lack of commitment to volunteer management. However, because I do not want readers to dismiss this essay as another one of “Susan’s rants,” I’m going to start by giving two big reasons why this initiative has potential and should be supported:

  • Suddenly we may have a critical mass of people actually talking about volunteer management! When project leaders try to interest local agencies in accepting a national service placement for the purpose of strengthening volunteer involvement, one result has to be new awareness of the possibilities this offer holds. And recruiting volunteers to take on the challenge of developing volunteer engagement for these agencies, and then offering some training in how to do this right, also has to bode well for introducing new people to the profession. Maybe we’ll gain a new generation of young leaders of volunteer involvement who will commit to this career for the long term.
  • If (and it's a big "if") the national service members are indeed given solid training in volunteer management – as well as ongoing support throughout their term of service – organizations may actually begin to see changes for the better in how much volunteers can contribute. Ideally, this should lead at least some of the host organizations to re-examine their attitudes and make a commitment to designating a permanent staff position for volunteer leadership.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that, in the late 1970s, I designed the curriculum for a full week of volunteer management training for VISTAs in the Middle Atlantic states. We delivered that intensive course several times and it seemed to work to prepare the VISTAs for their community organizing assignments. So this concept is hardly new. However, for today’s AmeriCorps, it’s a departure from its approach of direct service assignments only. The idea of involving Senior Corps members is an even newer development.

Practical Concerns

So the potential is there, but the methodology has some problems. One is the issue of scattered initiatives. Right now new projects seem to be springing up in different places with all sorts of approaches and participants. It’s fine to experiment, but is this diversity being planned, monitored, and studied to reach some conclusion eventually about which works best?

A lot of money is being spent on a granting infrastructure. The Corporation for National and Community Service (The Corporation) is looking for intermediary organizations that, in turn, can find agencies seeking volunteer management staffing and recruit the prospective stipended volunteers to do the work. Again, each project is doing this differently, so there will be a lot of energy put into reinventing an application and start-up process even before a single new local volunteer engagement activity is carried out.

Back in 2004, I wondered about the fundamental philosophy of the deployment of national service members as volunteer leaders:

  • 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?

There needs to be a push to get receiving agencies to commit to long-term volunteer involvement goals, which would get off the ground by the efforts of the national service member. Dropping a newbie volunteer coordinator into a setting that has a take-it-or-leave-it attitude about community volunteers seems like a bad idea for both the national service member and for any volunteers she or he will recruit. Further, given the low cash cost to the host site for a stipended volunteer, what will this offer teach organizations about the need to commit appropriate resources to consistent, quality leadership of volunteers?

The Opportunity to Do It Right

Filling volunteer management positions with short-term national service volunteers is happening now and without any real engagement of those of us who already understand the principles of volunteer leadership. It is absolutely critical that we, as professionals in volunteer management, monitor these developments and get involved early, rather than too late.

Let’s make sure this plan happens with us, not without us. How? Here are a few ideas – and I am eager to hear more from you all:

  • Every state association of volunteer administrators should contact both their state’s Corporation office and their national service commission to offer a collaboration. For example, give national service members assigned to volunteer management roles access to existing resources in the state: membership in the association, discount registration at state conferences, the chance to be mentored by an experienced volunteer administrator.
  • The same can be done locally by any volunteer center, HandsOn affiliate, DOVIA, or professional network of volunteer administrators. The point is to find out who is doing the placements and ask for the national service member to be told about what’s available for ongoing education and exchange in that area.
  • If you hear of a project in your area, ask how you can help. Can you or some other experienced leader of volunteer involvement be part of the training program for the new service members? Help connect them to local resources?
  • We need to advocate for national data collection and evaluation of all the different projects so that the outcomes can be assessed comprehensively. What does all of this mean in the long term to agencies, volunteers, and our profession?

Collectively, we can assure that the potential of this initiative overcomes the obstacles. And, after a while, we may have taught a whole lot of people to value the skills and impact of a full-time, designated director of volunteer involvement.

  • Have you seen this plan emerge yet in your area?
  • What can you add to my lists of potentials and concerns?
  • What else can we in the profession of volunteer administration do?

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