Editor’s Note: This NPQ article suggests that many nonprofits have their priorities dead wrong where volunteers are concerned. It provides a guide of sorts to rethink your own practices, which may be wasting one of your most important capital, intellectual, and connectivity resources.
Volunteering is widely recognized as a key strategy of community engagement and participation. Providing much-needed support and services at a community level, volunteering also delivers on civic and philanthropic values within society at large. Volunteering has been widely highlighted in “big picture” discussions about community development, social inclusion, social capital, and community health. It is also frequently cited as a key expression of civic engagement and participation generally in society, and rates of volunteering have been used to measure overall community health.1 Volunteering is recognized as a key activity in national and international circles that promotes social inclusion and social justice, beginning at the grassroots level but extending to societal changes at local, national, and international levels. The United Nations Development Programme articulates the benefits this way: “Volunteering brings benefits to both society at large and the individual volunteer. It makes important contributions, economically as well as socially. It contributes to a more cohesive society by building trust and reciprocity among citizens.”2
And for many, volunteering opens the door to new opportunities for personal and professional development. For example, in a study on volunteerism, newcomers to Canada report benefits that include acquiring professional experience and contacts in a new country, reducing social isolation, gaining an opportunity to practice English, and getting a chance to learn more about social-service work and Canadian society in general.3 Volunteering offers a unique strategy for social change, providing support to society and to those who volunteer.4
Volunteering can play a critical role in fostering social inclusion. But how do those who make decisions about volunteer recruitment think about these questions—indeed, do they think about these questions at all?
I come to this discussion from a personal perspective. After years of doing front-line community work in an organization with strong community development principles, I applied to work as a volunteer coordinator. I had done research on the role of volunteering in fostering social inclusion and social justice, and I wanted to play my part in the vision.
But soon after, I developed the sinking feeling that I was in the wrong job. New to a volunteer management role (though I had worked with volunteers for years), I wanted to learn everything to do my job well. I jumped headfirst into a new world: I read voraciously about management practices, joined the local Association for Volunteer Administration, and connected with other managers. I learned about topics of interest for volunteer managers, such as recruiting, screening, evaluation, risk management, and so on. My big-picture questions about how voluntarism connects to community development, civic engagement, and social inclusion were never discussed in these resources, however, or in meetings with other volunteer managers. I felt as though I had landed in a completely different profession, perhaps as a factory manager of sorts, churning out well-oiled volunteers as efficiently as possible. I began to wonder what was going on.
I realized that volunteering suffered from a serious disconnect. While theoretical discussions of volunteerism recognize it as a powerful tool for civic engagement and community development, these ideas have not translated into volunteer management practice on the ground. Under increasing pressure to professionalize volunteer management, there has been little reflection on practice and, in particular, how “best practices” limit opportunities for citizen engagement and social inclusion. I believe that the underlying principles of endorsed best practices are the principles of efficiency, resource development, and control and that social exclusion is an inevitable result of using these principles at the center of volunteer management practice. This discussion challenges traditional practices and suggests how to make social inclusion a central goal of volunteer management.
Traditional Volunteer Management
Linda Graff and Paul Reed report an estimated 2 percent annual decline in volunteerism, amounting to a 20 percent decline over the next decade.5 While the decrease is disconcerting, these numbers beg a question: how many people try to volunteer but aren’t successful? We assume that volunteerism is declining because fewer people want to volunteer. But could there be a more complex story underlying this decline? Do prospective volunteers face barriers that discourage participation? Do some face more barriers than others?
In fact, social exclusion is an inevitable result of conducting volunteer management based on the principles of efficiency, resource development, and control. These principles are all interrelated and work to support one another. Efficiency is about finding volunteers as quickly as possible who will do the job as quickly as possible. In our sector, efficiency is an epidemic that ultimately values quantity over quality of connection. Efficiency justifies turning a prospective volunteer away because he doesn’t fit neatly into an organization’s predetermined needs.
The principle of resource development views volunteers—much like money—as resources or assets. You can see this principle at work by identifying where volunteer management lives within an organizational structure. Often volunteer management is housed with administrative and fundraising functions. This principle underlies the trend to measure volunteering and calculate hours worked, people employed, and placing dollar values on the value of a resource. Again, quantity rules over quality, because a numerical value cannot express relationships developed or the ability to cultivate passion in another’s work. This principle of resource development allows an organization to deem a prospective volunteer “not worth the effort” after conducting a quick cost-benefit analysis. But if a volunteer is poorly educated or he has a disability, traditional management principles don’t view him as a valuable resource.
The principle of control plays out in all volunteer management practices, which enforce top-down systems with clear rules of accountability and responsibility. A controlled system doesn’t allow for gray areas, and communication is top-down. Volunteer managers decide how volunteers can be involved, and volunteers decide only whether they like the mode of involvement. If not, they have to go elsewhere. There is no flexibility or reciprocity in a controlled system.
The principles of efficiency, resource development, and control direct volunteer management practices, where the focus is on finding people to do the work as quickly and easily as possible. So while volunteering can be a win-win strategy for both organizations and volunteers, it cannot meet this potential when the scales are tipped to benefit organizations at the expense of citizen engagement and inclusion.
There is a disconnection between volunteer management practices and the broader goals of the social-service sector—ostensibly to support people as they make progress in their lives. Indeed, consider these scenarios, where organizations’ ostensible goal to promote volunteerism is discouraged in practice. When an organization has a program that theoretically supports newcomers but rejects them as volunteers, for example, there is a disconn