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

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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

  • Colleen Kelly

    Yes, it DOES take courage to change your complete structure to engage all the people well. Most organizations include primarily “hands” volunteers. When you move to significantly engaging “heads” as knowledge philanthropists, you must have the courage to change the internal structure of your organization to focus first on people – those you pay with money, AND those you pay in other ways. Very few organizations have done that. Rather they continue to look for money in order to pay most of the people. So what would you call it if it isn’t courage? Maybe adaptability? Brilliance? True understanding of people-involvement? Whatever it is, few organizations are doing it!

  • ruth

    I am a big believer in the value of volunteers and have spent a lot of time being one and helping to build strong diverse volunteer pools and I would call the optimization of volunteerism a major component of our jobs as nonprofit managers and leaders. This is one major strategic advantage that nonprofits have and ignoring it is something akin to dereliction of duty. In other words, it is not at all courageous but good strong management.

  • Tobi Johnson

    The “courage” doesn’t lie in engaging volunteers, per se. I thinks it’s more about having the courage to use them in leadership roles. In my experience helping nonprofits make the best use of volunteers, many nonprofit leaders are still nervous about expanding the roles of volunteers beyond merely the menial. They cite issues of risk management, but I think it may be deeper than that. Is there a subtle turf battle at play? Do they fear a reduction in program performance? Are they afraid of letting go of power? It bears careful scrutiny to be sure. It may be for the same reasons for-profit business managers resist delegation — maybe they simply don’t know how to do it and won’t admit it. It’s too bad. In my mind we haven’t yet even scratched the surface of what volunteers can do for our communities.

  • ruth

    agreed. I have been spoiled by having volunteered in any number of nonprofits who were only too happy to have volunteers take on leadership roles and to good stead. What seems like a funny blip in the thinking of many in the sector is that boards are usually volunteer and they, theoretically, have the most decision making power in the organization. If organizations think systematically about their engagement practices and provide the proper supports they can integrate their board recruitment techniques into a broader volunteer strategy and end up with a better board as well.

  • Chris Lawrence

    Rick, I’m not sure that you understood the message that you’re critiquing.

    Nonprofits can be judged quite harshly by funders when they deviate from standard practices. So, if a nonprofit shows the “courage”to use a new strategy – employing volunteers in an innovative, impactful manner – then it does take some courage. I’m not sure what else you’d call it.

  • rick cohen

    Hi Chris: We have a difference of opinion! Funders of all stripes love creative use of volunteers, it’s a cause that the public sector in the form of the Obama Administration through the Kennedy/Hatch expansion of AmeriCorps and the Social Innovation Fund with partnerships with foundations across the country. What Billings-Burford talked about was simply good management practice in using volunteers and nothing in my mind that was so bold and risky that they risked the sanction of funders. Sound management practice is laudatory (though again I didn’t see the pathbreaking aspects of volunteer management in the Fast Company article), but I would be judicious about the use of the word courage in this context.