Using Volunteers a “Courageous” or Bold Act? Oh Please!

January 18, 2012; Source: Fast Company | The sub-headline for this Fast Company article from Diahann Billings-Burford, head of NYC Service, discusses the “courage and innovative spirit organizations must have to use volunteers to help expand their services.” That’s a pretty muscular statement about volunteerism, given the tens of millions of people who volunteer regularly and the hundreds of thousands of nonprofits that routinely utilize the energy of citizen volunteers. Is this just hyperbole, or can Billings-Burford point to something radically different about nonprofits using volunteers?

The author notes that the “usual models” of dealing with limited resources are cutting programs or focusing staff energies on fundraising, and her argument is this: For nonprofits to “avoid—or at least reduce—reliance on” those models, “nonprofits must develop and implement bold, innovative adaptations…[that] require immense courage.” She draws on Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s perspectives on two types of courage: “ intellectual courage, required to challenge conventional wisdom, and moral courage, required to stand up for a principle rather than stand on the sidelines.”

Billings-Burford starts with NYC Service’s philosophy of “engaging volunteers in unprecedented roles” such as the Shape Up NYC initiative of the Department of Parks and Recreation that recruits volunteer fitness instructors to teach free classes. For examples outside of New York, she cites the decision of 30 mayors to hire a chief service officer or to launch a “high-impact service plan.” To demonstrate that “it’s working,” she describes Nashville’s flood recovery efforts, which used “citizens to power recovery efforts and to help prevent future flooding,” via the volunteers’ planting of 800 trees and building of 100 rain gardens. 

As examples of intellectual courage, the author cites the nonprofits that recruit volunteers with industry-specific skills and intermediaries, such as Taproot’s Professional Services program and the Mentoring Partnership of New York, which links volunteer Web site developers and graphic designers with nonprofits needing their help. 

No offense to the author, but there’s nothing here that is outside of the ken of most nonprofits.  Looking at the literature and practice of volunteerism, all of these issues are being addressed by both nonprofits and volunteers themselves. A little more concerning is the slight misapplication of Kanter’s concepts. In her “Courage in the C-Suite,” Kanter details examples of courage: Howard Schultz of Starbucks standing up to politicians and demanding a moratorium on political contributions until federal legislators solved the nation’s economic crisis—or Deloitte’s Michael Cook resigning from a male-only social club frequented by corporate power-brokers in support of his firm’s women’s initiative.

The kind of intellectual and moral courage that Kanter describes goes far beyond volunteer recruitment and placement strategies. In our world today, we should be careful not to overuse and cheapen the meaning of “courage.”—Rick Cohen