The Three Roads to Building Volunteer Value

Tuesday, July 16, 2013
by Nur Ibrahim, Executive Coordinator, Philanthropy New York
In early 2012, Philanthropy New York began working with Reimagining Service to bring its core mission and principles to our members, a mix of traditional grantmakers and corporate philanthropists. As stated in a blog post by Gail Gershon of Gap Inc., that initial session generated robust conversations on the value of foundations investing in nonprofit volunteer capacity. Our subsequent meetings continue to focus on the importance of developing that capacity and engaging volunteers strategically. These meetings have highlighted three themes of successful volunteerism: 1) Empowerment, 2) Flexibility and 3) Connection.
Empowering your employees through volunteerism can build leadership and add value to their jobs. At Gap Inc., these individuals are called Community Leaders. These employees take the lead on volunteer coordination and receive continual company recognition. Autonomy, authority and recognition generate interest and incentivize participation in overall volunteer efforts.
Empowering your nonprofit partner is another way to guarantee success. We’ve all heard of the volunteer group that needs a specific project, immediately, for hundreds of volunteers, with no budget, that must happen regardless of a nonprofit’s needs. If you’re not familiar, the San Francisco Volunteer Center has a must-watch video that perfectly captures this dilemma. Ultimately, by allowing your nonprofit partners the flexibility to say “NO” you’ll receive the best volunteer experience that suits community needs, is well managed and appropriate for your group’s needs.
Flexibility in defining success is also key to elevating volunteerism as a company priority. Volunteer managers want to evaluate and quantify value but aren’t sure if it’s represented through increased brand loyalty from customers, employee retention or community impact. Flexibility allows managers to discover really well-designed programs that are able to deliver value to the community and to foundations or corporations. And being flexible defining success allows you to not miss the numerous positive outcomes of volunteerism.
Likewise, companies strive to provide meaningful opportunities for their staff but note a difficulty identifying meaning. Some volunteers, exhausted by their sixty-hour work weeks, need hands-on projects. Others want to use unutilized skills. Nonprofit volunteer managers suggest generating a list of skills or talents in order to take advantage of opportunities that may not intuitively seem to fill that void. For instance, after Hurricane Sandy, a volunteer group acted as Russian interpreters at Brighton Beach, not previously realizing that their second language could be categorized as a skill. Be flexible in your definitions of meaningful volunteerism in order to offer activities that appeal to everyone.
Finally, connecting through the Service for Impact working group can greatly enhance volunteerism efforts. The addition of CECP to the working group has bought more voices, including corporate volunteer managers, into the conversation. We’ve increased the value of the conversation by pulling together both the volunteer coordinator and grantmaking staff. It ultimately makes a deeper impact in the community by connecting these two resources through the use of both financial and volunteer talent.
Through these convenings, funders are able to learn about valuable resources relating to software, pro bono work or market projects. For instance, it is often difficult to do pro bono work because nonprofits don’t always have experience scoping such projects, which makes it difficult to set clear expectations on the work involved and desired outcomes at the start of the project. At one of the working group meetings, a number of partners learned about the Taproot Foundation’s expertise in this area. The Service for Impact working group itself became a pivotal resource to others struggling with procedural questions.
We’re excited about the continuing direction of the Service for Impact group, and how it’s demonstrated that having funders connect and be thoughtful about skills-based volunteerism generates real results for grantees and our communities.
This post first appeared on the Reimagining Service blog on July 12, 2013 and is reprinted with permission.
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