In January, the director of a volunteer center in England posted a message to UKVPMs (an online discussion forum for volunteer managers in the UK, but open to colleagues everywhere), attempting to neatly summarize the importance of his organization to his community. He wrote:
Our system automatically follows up Do-It [the British equivalent of the American site VolunteerMatch] applications by emailing recruiters and volunteers 4 months after referral. We now have some figures on placement rates and have worked out our annual "value" in cash terms:
- Numbers of applications via Do-It: 1473
- Placement rate: 19%
- Volunteers placed: 280
- Assumed hours/week: 3
- Assumed weeks volunteered: 52
- Total volunteer hours: 43660
- Nominal hourly rate: £11.51
- VALUE: £502,523
I'm sure other VCs are quite valuable too :)
This sparked an interesting online discussion, especially when I suggested that this particular calculation was based on shaky assumptions, not facts. Further, this director seemed unaware that the members of UKVPMs might resent the volunteer center “taking credit” for the full-wage replacement cost of volunteers with whom it had no further contact beyond a referral!
For as long as I have been in the volunteering field, those who run organizations created to increase volunteering in a community have struggled to find funding and even to get vocal support from those they exist to help. Such “connector” services include what we generically call “volunteer centers” and also government agencies at all levels tasked with stimulating civic participation in their region. In theory, there should be a direct and mutually supportive relationship between those working to engage volunteers in individual organizations (of any type) and the people working to stimulate community-wide volunteering. In practice, however, there can be more competition than partnership.
In this Hot Topic, I want to make the case for clearly delineating the role of individual volunteer-involving agencies and the role of connector agencies. While both deal with trends and issues in volunteering, each side has – or should have – a very different perspective, including different measures of success.
Focus on One – Focus on All
Each volunteer-involving organization must prioritize its own specific mission and goals. While it naturally has a stake in the well-being of the community in which it operates, its focus is on the needs or interests of its service recipients. Each agency determines what volunteers will do within its services, finds/selects the right applicants, trains and supports them, and makes the relationship work. Volunteers therefore become part of the organization to which they give their time and success is measured by whether service goals are reached.
In contrast, volunteer centers and other connectors think community wide, support all the causes that matter in their geographic area, and generally do not deliver direct services. They may refer members of the public to individual agencies to become volunteers at those sites, but most volunteers have no continuing relationship with the volunteer center after that.
In the United States, the merger of Points of Light and HandsOn Network has created a hybrid organization in which the role of former volunteer centers operating as connectors melded with HandsOn affiliates that recruit their own volunteers and then deploy them into direct-service activities run on-site by different agencies. Whose volunteers are these? It’s not that the “temp agency” concept doesn’t work, it’s just that most often the local HandsOn organization puts greater emphasis on growing its own volunteer corps, with far less attention to strengthening all kinds of volunteering no matter where the volunteers’ loyalties lie.
Connector agencies should be about much more than mobilizing volunteers to do direct service. They exist to expand the amount and diversity of volunteer participation throughout the community. To do this, volunteer centers must reach out to organizations that do not already have a volunteer engagement strategy, not just those that already do. Specifically, connector agencies should:
- Identify organizations that presently do not welcome volunteers and advocate for them to open their doors. This includes helping government services (local and beyond) to be more effective in integrating citizen participation, as volunteering is so much more than service in nonprofit agencies. The goal: develop more solid volunteer opportunities for more people.
- Uncover and work with potential sources of prospective volunteers with potential to help many community groups. This can be for-profit businesses of all sizes, colleges and universities, faith communities, and more. It can also mean focusing on under-engaged populations such as the unemployed, those with disabilities, new immigrants, and more. The goal: increase the pool of available volunteers.
- Engage all-volunteer groups in collaboration with nonprofit and public agencies (and vice versa). Too often attention is only directed at how volunteers can “help” paid workers. A huge part of the volunteerism world often overlooked by those of us in formal volunteer management roles are the literally thousands of civic clubs, social/hobby associations, sports leagues, faith communities, and other membership groups that often have no idea our two worlds exist side by side. The goal: recognize the entire spectrum of volunteering and enable alliances for the greater good.
Individual volunteer-involving agencies, deeply involved in working for their cause, cannot affect public attitudes about volunteering in general. Yet they need such public awareness and understanding in order to mobilize volunteers. They cannot – one agency at a time – increase the willingness of a university or a corporation to promote volunteering by its students or employees or convince a major funder to pay for what it really costs to support unpaid staff. That’s far more effectively done by a single, community-focused organization speaking on behalf of all the unfilled volunteer opportunities in the area.
This is also reflected in the role of volunteer centers in offering volunteer management training – currently termed “capacity building” – as a way to help organizations to be more effective with volunteers. Not because the center staff knows more about volunteer management than those on the front line do, but because they can connect their community to information and resources available in the wider field. And, capacity building means educating more than volunteer resources managers who already have access to professional development in various ways. It might include executive seminars for decision makers and funders, separating myth from fact about volunteer engagement. Or urging university professors to include mention of volunteerism in the professional education of students in fields as diverse as nursing, teaching, and public administration.
Our colleague in the British volunteer center shortsightedly promotes the importance of his agency by the effort accomplished by others. But connector organizations gain their strength when they promote the collective – never themselves. It may seem harder to quantify or prove how connector organizations are making a difference through their own efforts, but there is potential in thinking about the way that highly-compensated advertising firms provide value. Advertising companies:
- Never claim to make the product, deliver the services, or handle the sales for what they promote.
- Determine what information or feeling will lead consumers to make a purchase (awareness, status, feeling of want or need).
- Craft the message and figure out where to place it so that the most potential buyers will see it.
- Measure their success in the growth and depth of sales.
Advertising companies do, however, need to start with a product or service that will be attractive to consumers once the ad firm has made them aware of it – and to stick with the product for continuing purchases. Even the best ad agency in the world ultimately cannot sustain a product that does not deliver the result or satisfaction promised.
It may help to look at volunteer recognition as an example. It is the role of each volunteer-involving organization to thank its own volunteers, while connecting agencies should be shining a light on the cumulative effect of many successful volunteer activities in the area. So bestowing a city (or state or national) “volunteer of the year” award simply duplicates – even creates a hierarchy – of recognition. Why not instead organize a parade down Main Street in which the volunteer center shows the public, the media, government officials, and funders how large and diverse a combined force local volunteers really are?
The connector deserves and should take credit for such accomplishments as:
- The amount of publicity and media stories showing the diversity and power of volunteering
- The number of consultations with organizations, businesses, schools and other entities that resulted in new efforts to create volunteer opportunities or to inform new audiences about volunteering
- Advocacy with legislators and funding sources to increase tangible support for all volunteers in the community (expense reimbursement, tax credits, etc.)
- Collaborative projects that began with invitations from the volunteer center to community groups who would otherwise not have met one another
- The evaluations and outcomes of volunteer management training delivered
The worth of connector agencies is in softening the playing field: making it easier for organizations and volunteers to find one another, stimulating more types of players to join the game, and getting the crowd to cheer.
- If you are in a volunteer-involving organization, how are you helped by a volunteer center or other connector agency? What can such resources do for many organizations together that you cannot do alone? When you do feel they instead compete with your individual efforts?
- If you are in a volunteer center or other connector agency, how do you demonstrate the value of your services? How do you know you are helping your stakeholders? What frustrates you about being “in the middle”?
For more information:
In April 2014, e-Volunteerism: The Electronic Journal of the Volunteer Community devoted its entire issue to the subject of volunteer centers. To my knowledge, no other publication in our field has even done this and we had contributors from around the world, since the situation seems to reinvent itself all over. For that issue, Rob Jackson and I wrote a Points of View essay, The Competitive Edge: Tension between Volunteer Centers and Volunteer Resources Managers and How to Change It [click for free access], in which we spoke honestly about this problem.