Reimagining Service: Helping Grantees Increase Volunteer Capacity to Maximize Program Impact

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

By Gail Gershon, Senior Director, Gap Inc.

Every foundation wants its grantees to fully utilize the resources available to them. As funding from all sources becomes increasingly scarce, more foundations are thinking creatively about how to leverage their dollars to increase impact. They are building into their RFPs and grantmaking processes specifics about communication, advocacy, and other activities that used to be an afterthought.

At Philanthropy New York’s January 10th program “Reimagining Service and Cities of Service: A Funder’s Guide to Driving Change through Volunteerism,” the program’s panel argued that foundations should incorporate into their grantmaking specific strategies to help nonprofits more effectively engage volunteers and made a strong case for the return on philanthropic investments in volunteers.

As moderator, I opened the session by noting that the speakers were particularly well placed to make the case for the value of foundations thinking about combining grantmaking and volunteering, and I encouraged grantmakers not to think about funding and volunteers in isolation. In this economic era, grantmakers don’t have the luxury of thinking only about financial support when they’re aiming to make an impact in the community. Coupled with financial support, volunteerism and service can be an effective way to drive social change. And to maximize the impact, we should incorporate the field’s best practices and make sure we are focused on impact, not volume.

One of the early points the speakers made was that “Impact Volunteering” isn’t about the raw numbers of volunteers but rather about training, placing, and supporting volunteers in roles that will maximize their impact. For nonprofits to do this, they must have systems and human resource operations that are up to the task. According to the Urban Institute, “the most effective volunteer programs are those that dedicate a substantial portion of their time to the management of volunteers.”

But the investment in those human resource systems pays off. According to the National Council on Aging, for every dollar invested in volunteer management, nonprofits receive almost three dollars of benefit—a return on investment of 166%.

James Anderson of Bloomberg Philanthropies gave an overview of the goals and accomplishments of Cities of Service, a coalition that aims to create a network of municipal governments that effectively leverage citizen service as a “reliable, viable tool to achieve measurable impact on pressing local challenges.” The initiative, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies, has awarded 20 grants to cities across the nation that have, in turn, hired Chief Service Officers to develop and implement high-impact service plans over two years. The progenitor of that initiative, NYC Service, has been named one of six finalists for this year’s Innovation in American Government Award from the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Gail Nayowith of SCO Family of Services reviewed her work advancing Reimagining Service, a multi-sector coalition including nonprofits, for-profits, government, faith-based organizations, and schools that is working to increase the impact of volunteerism. It promotes “the fundamental integration of volunteers into organizations in a strategic way, designed to make a difference in service delivery and social outcomes.” It also aims to convince funders to recognize that “volunteerism and civic engagement are cost-effective strategies that help organizations and community groups accomplish their missions.” Nayowith said that the initiative revolves around the following principles:

  1. The volunteer ecosystem is more effective when all sectors participate in its evolution.
  2. Volunteering should be a core strategic function, not an add-on.
  3. Volunteer engagement should be focused on true community needs.
  4. For foundations to get a return, they must invest in building capacity.

Peter York of TCC Group provided valuable data from their Core Capacity Assessment Tool (CCAT), documenting the importance of investments in citizen service. He started by defining a “Service Enterprise” as an organization that successfully leverages volunteers and their skills to successfully deliver on the social mission of the organization. His research shows that nonprofits with 50+ volunteers and a stronger volunteer management model rated significantly higher and markedly stronger on all other indicators of organizational capacity.

York said that the research shows that Service Enterprises not only lead and manage better than similar organizations that do not utilize volunteers effectively, but also they are significantly more adaptable, sustainable, and capable of “going to scale.” Providing greater substance to the Urban Institute’s findings mentioned above, York said that his data shows that “to be a Service Enterprise requires strong and well-developed human resources management practices.” His research also indicates that organizations that engage at least 10 volunteers are equally as effective as their peers with no volunteers, but at almost half the median budget.

He stressed, however, that “it is important to acknowledge the tension about the perception that if nonprofits are maximizing volunteer resources they don’t need as much financial support. That is problematic. In fact, most organizations need support to make the changes that will help them make the most of their potential volunteer resources.”

The group discussion, which included voices from corporate, family, and private as well as community foundations, focused on what the philanthropic community could do to advance volunteerism. As a field, the speakers suggested that foundations could focus their attention on ways that the effective engagement of volunteers helps achieve their—and their grantees’—mission and is core to a nonprofit’s strategy, rather than an after-thought. Several ideas surfaced for individual funders who want to help the nonprofits they support make better use of potential volunteer resources, including:

  • Funding a “volunteer management audit” to understand a nonprofit’s current practices.
  • Funding volunteer management positions.
  • Supporting training for capacity building and to improve volunteer management practices.
  • Providing funding to evaluate the results of volunteers’ activities, and to activate recommendations for improvement.
  • Making volunteer investment, and demonstrated effective volunteer management, a condition for larger funding.

Many of the individuals who participated in the session’s Q&A are already deeply involved in efforts to increase citizen service, but several concluded at the end that there is a great deal more to learn about advancing volunteerism. I look forward to future learning opportunities with these and other colleagues, and to foundations devoting more time, energy, and thought to the impact of effective service.

Gail Gershon is the Executive Director of Community Leadership at Gap Inc. Previously, she worked at the Florence V. Burden Foundation, the Metropolitan Life Foundation, and the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers (now Philanthropy New York). She has also served with the Domestic Abuse Awareness Project, the Institute of International Studies, and as founding Board Chair for Materials for the Arts. Gail currently serves as a Board member of the TS Alliance, which focuses on families affected by tuberous sclerosis.


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