In an Op-Ed in the Chronicle of Philanthropy earlier this year, I outlined the challenge we face as a nonprofit sector in absorbing the influx of volunteers brought on by both the recession and the emphasis on service by the Obama administration. This past October, the challenge was expanded by the push of the Entertainment Industry Foundation to promote service across American media through a week-long campaign that featured volunteerism in the plots of America’s most popular television programs.
Earlier this year, a number of service leaders recognized the challenges presented by the influx of volunteers and formed a group called Reimagining Service to look at how the capacity of the nonprofit sector to engage Americans in service should be built. The members, including Taproot Foundation, meet again on December 9th at the White House to launch several campaigns to help the sector.
As I have been wrestling with the issues of volunteer engagement and underutilization, it has occurred to me that we need a better system to classify the ways nonprofits use volunteers. Creating this framework would enable us to characterize nonprofits based on how they engage volunteers, find appropriate strategies for each segment, and find paths for nonprofits to evolve their volunteer engagement methods. This system would also allow us to look more systemically and strategically at the role of volunteer service in the nonprofit sector.
Here is a potential framework for classifying nonprofits based on how they engage volunteers:
1) Ad Hoc Services Users
Ad Hoc Service Users are organizations that use volunteers whenever they find a need for extra hands or whenever an eager volunteer approaches them. They typically scramble to put these volunteers to use. This process rarely generates value and leaves both parties frustrated. It also creates a cycle where negative experiences lead to skepticism which leads to under investment which leads to more failure. This type of volunteer engagement is unreliable and offers little or no return on investment.
2) Centers of Service Excellence
These organizations have identified some regular volunteer needs and have built some infrastructure to set these engagements up for success. A typical example would be a nonprofit that hosts a big gala annually and has developed a reliable model for using volunteers to support the event. These organizations execute specific volunteer projects well, but do not have a greater infrastructure for using volunteers. This is an effective model and breaks the frustration cycle experienced by Ad Hoc Service Users but often only makes an incremental impact because effective volunteer engagement is siloed within the organization.
3) Service Enterprises
These organizations represent the Holy Grail of successful volunteer engagement with a high-impact on nonprofits (i.e. pay close attention). They have deeply been able to engage volunteers in their work and infrastructures and have thereby been able to radically reduce their cost structures and scale their work in new ways. For example, the Girl Scouts designed a program model that leverages volunteers (moms) to be scout leaders and thereby replaced the entire need for program line managers. Their model wouldn’t be economically viable otherwise. The Executive Service Corps in Chicago uses volunteers to reliably cover a wide range of administrative, fundraising and program functions. They too would go under if they had to pay for staff to do all these tasks. These models take years to develop and are often tied to strong program alumni programs. Most scout leaders were girl scouts as kids. Building a service enterprise may take a generation, but we could significantly cut the cost of the sector and/or achieve new scale if more organizations evolved to become service enterprises.
This segmentation can help us focus the conversation and efforts around engaging the recent influxes of volunteers. In doing so, we can focus on the important questions such as:
How do Ad Hoc Service Users become Centers for Service Excellence? How do Centers for Service Excellence become Service Enterprises? What investment spurs this evolution? How do we quantify the value for nonprofits of being Service Enterprises and then use this measurement to help us convince nonprofits of the ROI from building volunteer management infrastructure?
If we can answer these questions and execute against the conclusions, we might just be able to realize the potential of volunteer service in this country.