Organizational structure for volunteer engagement – HR or Donor development? Two models to consider:

Through my 10 years of doing volunteer management, I have been curious about how volunteer management is structured within organizations – who plays this role and where is the role placed within an organization. I have seen that usually the role is either grouped with HR or with donor development. In my mind, the choice of one or the other is significant, and has consequences in terms of how we view volunteers in that organization.

In the HR grouping, the organization is viewing volunteers as comparable to employees, as ‘unpaid employees’ per se. There are strong advantages to this perspective – ideally, this would mean that volunteers are considered to receive all of the benefits that paid employees receive (outside of pay)- including for example, budget for holiday parties, enough resources like space and computers for volunteers to work, professional development opportunities (and this I have not seen in practice ever – a PD budget for volunteers – wouldn’t that be wonderful!). Beyond benefits, if volunteers are considered equal to employees (just not paid), then they can do any of the work that paid employees can do (so they don’t just get the crappy jobs, which is usually what happens) and they receive the same communications and are asked for feedback in the same way as paid employed. If this happens, then volunteers would be as or more engaged than paid employees (without a paycheck, their passion for the cause as well as other benefits like feeling meaningfully involved, is what keeps them retained). The downside of this, I see, is that volunteers would need to be evaluated in similar ways to employees, especially if there are budget implications to benefits such as a PD budget. What if a volunteer isn’t as strong as another volunteer or as a paid staff? Would there be competition and a feeling of judgement? I’m not sure if this makes sense in my view of volunteer engagement being accessible and an opportunity for citizen engagement.

In the donor development group, volunteers are considered as donors, but instead of donating their time, they are donating their money. From this perspective, volunteers time donation is top of mind for all employees, and therefore time can never be taken for granted. From this perspective, volunteers are completely different than employees and external ‘stakeholders’ of the organization. The engagement strategy including for example communication and recognition would be tailored to each group of volunteers. From this perspective, ideally volunteers experience volunteering would be excellent and transformative and would inspire them to keep volunteer and encourage their friends to volunteer. They would become ambassadors of their organization and volunteers for life. When they have extra time, they would give their extra time to volunteer. They would not be embroiled with the inside politics or difficult dynamics happening internally, but they would ALWAYS see the best side of the organization.

I think I believe in number 2 – the donor development grouping. I love that this perspective means that the ‘donation of time’ is front and centre, and because of this, our engagement and the experience of volunteers is critical. Time is so precious, when we have someone willing to give of their time, we need to hold it near and dear and we need to look critically at how our organization works with volunteers.


Covenantal relationship with volunteers

“Volunteers do not need contracts, they need covenants. Covenantal relationships enable corporations and institutions to be hospitable to the unusual person and to unusual ideas. Covenantal relationships enable participation to be practiced and inclusive groups to be formed.” – Max De Pree, Leadership Is An Art

I love this quote. I did volunteer management / coordination for over 10 years, and so much time was spent on the logistical elements of matching volunteers to specific tasks that needed to be completed. But if volunteering really is working (without pay) then we need to make sure that volunteers experience a covenant with the organization where they work. What would this convenant look like? How would volunteers feel if they were in a covenantal relationship with the organization? Deep work is meaningful and engaging. I think about the statistics of volunteerism declining – see the Forbes article on baby boomers deciding not to volunteer – I believe that everyone is looking for this kind of covenantal relationship with their work – whether this work is paid or unpaid. If we started to think about our organizations as sites for covenants, how would this change our organizational structure, dynamics, communication strategies, interpersonal relationships etc? Who would lead this charge for deep organizational change and who would take this risk?

Engagement vs Development – Semantics Matter

I just changed my tag line to “Reflections on volunteer and community development in the nonprofit landscape”. I wrestled with the word ‘development’ – should I say ‘reflections on volunteer and community development in the non-profit landscape’ or ‘reflections on volunteer and community engagement in the non-profit landscape’? Engagement vs development? Why did I choose development? In the ‘volunteer management’ world (and volunteer management is the most dominant term used) the word ‘engagement’ has become popular – thinking beyond ‘managing’ volunteers (the operational nuts and bolts of running and volunteer program – recruitment, screening, recognition, evaluation etc) to engaging volunteers where they have a rewarding and meaningful experience through volunteering. I am totally behind this concept, and I believe that volunteer management and engagement are not mutually exclusive but integrated, and that volunteer management is 101 while volunteer engagement is 2.0. Volunteers can’t have a meaningful experience if you don’t have the volunteer ‘management’ nuts and bolts in place – for example, if they show up to volunteer and don’t have a job to do or they don’t ever receive feedback.
However, as I say all this, ‘engagement’ to me is an act in the moment. I think about an ‘engaging movie’ or ‘engaging someone in a discussion’ – its instantaneous, it happens and then the engagement is over. What is left is a feeling. The term ‘development’ to me, is a longer-term ‘work in progress’ with a concrete end result in mind. Development is about improvement, not just an instantaneous experience. I googled development and the free dictionary defines it as “progression from a simpler or lower to a more advanced, mature, or complex form or stage: the development of an idea into reality; the evolution of a plant from a seed; attempts made to foster social progress.” I love this – work that is complex, behind the scenes, and could take awhile. But with patience, beauty is born. That is why I chose to use ‘development’ in my tagline.

Why “The Ignition Condition”?

When I have been thinking about what I want to blog about, the questions that have been stirring in my mind for many years now are about how and why people are moved to volunteer and/or get involved in helping their community. What are the conditions that ignite that passion, where people move beyond their day-to-day realities towards wanting to make a difference in the world? And on the opposite end, what are the conditions that curtail this desire to make a difference? If I think about the metaphor of starting a car and driving, when and why does the ignition light go on and you know that your passion is losing momentum? I write from a personal place, where I have been passionate about making a difference in the world. I was brought up writing holiday cards to prisoners of conscience for Amnesty International, inspired by my amazing grandparents who lived to help their community, both locally and globally. I started our Greenpeace student group in highschool and then volunteered as a crisis counselor at the Sexual Assault Centre during my undergrad. I have always been trying to live my life authentically and wanting to make a mark in improving this world.
Personally, it has become more and more difficult and the complex. I now have two kids and when considering my children, work can’t be just about making a difference in the world. I am considering salary as well as time commitment for work, wanting my children to be well taken care of and for me to have valuable time with them. Beyond work, it is hard to volunteer – where is the time? I am currently volunteering on a board of directors, but it is challenging. I am seeking an integrated life, where I feel happy with my balance of time divided between my paid work, volunteer work, family/kids and community/friends. I grapple on a daily basis with where I should focus my time and energy – what is the authentic decision, where can I make a difference.
I am committing myself to blogging a minimum of twice a week. I will be looking for interesting articles in the area of community and volunteer development, and I will ask a lot of questions. I hope I can find others through my blog who are thinking about these issues, and I hope this blogging will give me a structure to discipline myself to write and continue writing. I am excited and a little nervous about this new project!