Universal Declaration of Volunteering

I remember reading the Universal Declaration of Volunteering back in 2004 (almost 10 years ago!) when I started by first volunteer coordinator job at a large social service agency. I was so excited to be engaging and working with volunteers in this role, and yet everything I read in the ‘volunteer management’ field was so operational and boring (I wrote a paper on this topic way back then that was published in the Nonprofit Quarterly – http://www.nonprofitquarterly.org/management/1029-volunteer-management-once-more-with-meaning.html). I remember reading the Universal Declaration of Volunteering and it felt like my mission statement – http://www.iave.org/content/universal-declaration-volunteering. I wanted to put it on a big poster on my wall in my office, memorize it, bring it to all the volunteer management meetings that I went to and quote from it, etc, etc.

I just re-read it and I feel exactly the same. And I feel frustrated that the practice of volunteer management continues to be so far from the ideals in this declaration. This declaration really points out the power of volunteering as a community development strategy, as fostering connection across difference, fostering opportunities for community leadership and development, learning new skills etc.

I am still asking the same questions 10 years later. What would non-profit organizations look like and what would volunteering look like, if we took these points seriously? If organization leaders took seriously their responsibility to foster volunteerism as a social inclusion and a citizen engagement practice, rather than just a way to fill gaps and keep services going in the short-term? 

I continue to see that the majority of discussion in volunteer management forums, blogs, conferences etc is very operational in nature – short-term focussed, questions about operational strategies of recruitment and tracking and having fun parties to thank volunteers. I’m not saying that these questions aren’t important, and as someone who has been a volunteer manager, these questions are very important in a day-to-day context. BUT, I feel (and have felt for 10 years now) that the dialogue needs to move to the bigger picture, and context of non-profit leadership. Perhaps the issue is that volunteer managers/coordinators are usually positioned at the operational level in an organization, and then whoever the executive leader who is responsible for the volunteer area knows very little (or cares little or both) about volunteers. Volunteer managers are usually in either HR or in fundraising, and both executives feel that volunteers aren’t the highest priority (HR – paid staff are highest priority and Fundraising – donors/making money is highest priority). So maybe it is a structural issue, why the dialogue is not at this deeper level.

I don’t want to end this post on a downer note. I think I need to seriously memorize this Universal Declaration and spend some time dissecting the points – I feel like each point is SO important in its own right. As Ghandi said – “You must be the change that you wish to see in the world.”, so if I hope that even in my little blog here, I can make some kind of change on this dialogue.

Volunteers – as agents of innovation…

I just read the book “The Power of Why” by Amanda Lang, which was a very accessible read about innovation. I have been interested in the topic of innovation for awhile now, especially as it relates to the non-profit sector. Of course, in this book, all of the examples of innovation was within the for-profit sector, where companies are investing time and resources into improving their business to make more money. The examples are fascinating and it is an excellent read.
Lang investigates the question: what are the factors that make someone innovative? One of the key factors, that Lang points out to in her book and I have read in other books, is having an ‘outsiders perspective’. The advantage of the ‘outsider’ is that they see with ‘fresh eyes’, and they are not afraid to ask new questions or try out new ideas. The ‘outsider’ is more likely to be a risk-taker and therefore an innovator, because they aren’t personally invested in keeping the status quo. They aren’t afraid of change.
When I think about this in the non-profit context, volunteers are the perfect ‘outsiders’ and potential innovators. They are often more outsiders to an organization than the paid staff, and they aren’t as invested in keeping the status quo. Volunteers come to volunteering from different backgrounds and experiences, and volunteering is usually a small (but critical) part of their life, integrated with their other elements of life. The fact that volunteers aren’t on payroll is critical and an opportunity for innovation – they are not afraid of change in the way that paid staff may be. Paid staff rely on their jobs for their livelihood, and therefore, there is good reason to be afraid of change.
My questions that I am grappling with are: what role can volunteers play in non-profit organizations, as agents of innovation? What practices do non-profit organizations need to adopt in order to allow for innovation to happen? What examples of innovation exist in the non-profit sector (I’m especially interested in Toronto, Canada, because I understand the structural context that non-profits are in here) and what are the conditions that made this innovation possible?
I would love to find and document an example (or even examples) of a volunteer who was critical in innovative change within the non-profit sector. Innovation doesn’t need to be a major overhaul, but often the most innovative change is a small but critical change, that makes a major impact.

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 – http://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2013/04/01/can-we-get-some-volunteers-please/. 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.