Foundation Friday: Volunteerism a la The Taproot Foundation

In a white paper issued last month, the Taproot Foundation argued that a commitment to pro bono services by the strategic planning profession could unleash $1.5 billion worth of high-impact free advice to nonprofits, and offered its own system for organizing and dispensing that advice to the agencies most in need.  Its emphasis on donated services puts the Foundation in the thick of a task otherwise left to Executive Directors, Program Directors and Volunteer Coordinators: finding roles for volunteers that are simultaneously meaningful to individuals and useful to the nonprofits they seek to serve.

The Nonprofiteer, a strategic planner herself, thinks more nonprofits should indeed have access to strategic planning services, and likes the idea of bringing volunteers in as professionals rather than grunt laborers.  Here are her concerns with the Taproot formulation–bearing in mind that it’s always easier to nitpick a project than start one:

  • Taproot’s approach to strategic planning seems to bear the fingerprints of its funder Deloitte, emphasizing the ideas that nonprofits’ central strategic planning task is to determine whether they should merge with other nonprofits.  This is a drumbeat that the charitable sector has heard from the business sector for years, and we should be concerned about a widely-distributed strategic planning template that argues from a stance of expertise that there are too many nonprofits and the essential question is how to make them fewer, bigger and more efficient.  In fact, if we’re going to go on having social services delivered by private nonprofits instead of by government agencies, the main reason is a belief in the value of localized, community-based, small-scale interventions as against nationalized, standardized and massive efforts.  So let’s pause before we export to thousands of nonprofits the idea that their job is to go out of business.
  • Taproot’s idea of putting volunteers on site briefly–a single meeting with the client, a 6-9 month overall commitment–may work for some volunteers whose main concern is getting a resume credit or honing their preexisting skills; but most people are looking for a volunteering home.  The Nonprofiteer can only speak for herself (as usual) when she differentiates between what she does for a living–parachuting into agencies to offer an outsider’s perspective–and what she does, or hopes to do, for love: being a long-term unpaid staff member.  There’s a reason to keep these two activities separate: strategic planning requires asking hard questions while long-term volunteering requires implementing the answers.  Strategic planning requires a willingness to be unpopular to the point of exile while long-term volunteering requires figuring out how to work with people whose ideas and motives are very different from one’s own–a skill without which nothing important or lasting can ever get done.  To put it another way: charities need expert external perspective far less than they need enhanced internal capacity–the kind that comes from long-term volunteers.

Unless we can figure out a way to turn skilled outsiders into committed insiders, we’re just churning: roiling the water without moving the ship forward.  Lest we forget: the point of volunteering is not to provide free labor to charities but to connect people within communities to the broader work of those communities.

Glad to see, though, that someone is thinking seriously about the problem of making voluntary work satisfactory to the volunteers–without that, there’s no chance for the long-term relationships the Nonprofiteer considers so essential.  Maybe Taproot’s next project could be to help volunteer managers think about their work from the perspective of capable volunteers, and foster a longer-term commitment between volunteer and institution.

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2 Responses to “Foundation Friday: Volunteerism a la The Taproot Foundation”

  1. Miriam Young Says:

    From Miriam at the Taproot Foundation:

    Dear Nonprofiteer,

    Thanks for your observations! I’m actually an Americorps volunteer currently serving at the Taproot Foundation in Chicago as a Volunteer Relations Fellow. I’m a fan of your blog, so it’s interesting to read your comments on our Strategy Management White Paper. It’s always
    valuable to get an outside perspective on our process. Excuse the lengthy response, but you had a lot of thought-provoking ideas that inspired me to reflect. I’m new to the nonprofit sector myself, so I’m certainly no expert and welcome your comments!

    First, I just wanted to clarify a few points about our new Strategy Management Practice. Our mission is to strengthen nonprofits by engaging business professionals in service. Instead of awarding monetary grants, we award Service Grants to nonprofits by providing a team of business professionals to do the work pro bono. We provide the process; the volunteers and nonprofits provide the expertise.

    Our new Strategy Management Practice includes 4 Service Grants that give nonprofit organizations the opportunity to receive 500 hours of expert research and analysis—more than $70,000 worth of services in each project—at no cost to them:
    -Strategic Planning Prep
    -Competitor/Collaborator Analysis
    -Financial Analysis
    -Strategic Scorecard
    http://www.taprootfoundation.org/npo/catalog/strategy.php

    Taproot Foundation does not do strategic planning. As outlined in the White Paper, we believe there are 4 basic steps in the strategic planning cycle of a nonprofit:
    -Mission/Vision
    -Research and Build Support
    -Strategic Planning
    -Implement and Monitor
    http://www.taprootfoundation.org/npo/catalog/strategy.php

    The two areas in which we felt our model would be most effective are: “Research and Build Support” and “Implement and Monitor.” Essentially, our volunteer teams gather data relevant to the specific Service Grant and provide that analysis to the client. Our teams do not tell the nonprofit what to do nor make recommendations—they simply provide the nonprofit with the data it needs to make an informed decision about its own strategic
    plan. As the White Paper outlines, these Service Grants were developed in response to our research illustrating the challenges nonprofits encounter in making data-driven decisions.

    I’m not sure what section of the White Paper led you to conclude that we believe a “nonprofits’ central strategic planning task is to determine whether they should merge with other nonprofits.” Our Competitor/Collaborator Analysis provides a nonprofit with a wide scan of their organization’s competitive landscape as well as a detailed threats and opportunities report. For example, this could allow a nonprofit to identify potential areas for collaboration or have a better understanding of what needs are not currently being filled in the community by its sister nonprofits and what it uniquely has to offer.

    Our intention is certainly not to provide a “widely-distributed strategic planning template that argues from a stance of expertise that there are too many nonprofits and the essential question is how to make them fewer, bigger and more efficient.” Again, our mission is to strengthen nonprofits, not to consolidate them.

    Finally, to clarify, although Deloitte did sponsor the writing of the Strategy Management White Paper, Wells Fargo is in fact the presenting sponsor of our Strategy Management Practice.

    To address your second point, I’d like to first correct some details:

    “Taproot’s idea of putting volunteers on site briefly–a single meeting with the client, a 6-9 month overall commitment–may work for some volunteers whose main concern is getting a resume credit or honing their preexisting skills; but most people are looking for a volunteering home. “

    Our volunteer teams actually meet in person with the client monthly and are in regular communication with the client to ensure a quality deliverable. Secondly, the motivations of our volunteers certainly does include building resumes and honing skills, but as the Volunteer Relations Fellow at Taproot Foundation Chicago, my personal observation has been
    that volunteers join because they have been looking for a path to become engaged in the community in a meaningful way. Some are looking to switch sectors, but most are just looking for a way to use their skills to give back. Taproot Foundation’s model has been successful because we identified a need among business professionals looking to donate their
    talents and a need among nonprofits to have access to capacity building services like Marketing, IT, Strategy Management, and Leadership Development: http://www.taprootfoundation.org/npo/catalog/.

    Certainly there may be volunteers looking for a “volunteering home” as you say. Our volunteers, for the most part, have demanding, full-time jobs, families and outside commitments. Our “currency” for our grants is not dollars, but volunteer time. We are dedicated to ensuring that our volunteers’ time is used wisely and have found that our volunteers are able to give an average of 5 hours per week over the course of 6-9 months. It’s a formula that works, producing consistent quality pro-bono deliverables to our clients. Still, we have seen cases of volunteers who go above and beyond, continuing to volunteer with their client nonprofit after a project completes, join their client’s board, or switch sectors entirely. Although these are not our explicit goals, I feel if a volunteer is looking for a “volunteering home,” a Taproot Foundation project is an excellent way to find one. (Of course, we would also hope that our volunteers view us as a “volunteer home” too.) As you say, “the point of volunteering is not to provide free labor to charities but to connect people within communities to the broader work of those communities.” I think (and obviously I’m a bit biased) our Service Grant model is an effective way to connect community members to local causes in well-defined, well-scoped projects that make a sustainable impact on nonprofits.

    “To put it another way: charities need expert external perspective far less than they need enhanced internal capacity–the kind that comes from long-term volunteers.” You raise a valid question here, though I find it interesting you view our Service Grants as short-term volunteering while others may view our model as long-term. I suppose it’s all relative. In
    fact, I would argue there’s a need to provide shorter-term pro bono volunteer opportunities to business professionals. For those whose schedules don’t allow them to volunteer over the course of a few months, but could do a high intensity project over a weekend, for example. I
    don’t know that you can necessarily argue “long-term” volunteering is better than “short-term.” Again, long-term and short-term are relative concepts and each have positives and negatives. Perhaps a combination of both is really what’s needed.

    I would also argue that we do provide “enhanced internal capacity” through our Service Grants and our, as you say, “short-term” approach. Of course you are correct in observing that longer-term volunteers increase capacity as well by providing sustained support. Still, is long-term individual volunteering really the only long-term solution? What about the long-term, collective impact of our 2895 volunteers nationwide?

    Our model is focused on having a well-defined project scope to prevent volunteer burnout and miscommunication between the client and volunteers. We have consistent client and volunteer satisfaction rates, with 97% of volunteers saying they want to volunteer again through Taproot Foundation and 97% of nonprofit clients saying they would recommend our projects to another organization. Coincidentally I just came across this blog post by one of volunteers today as well: http://mrpeacockstyle.blogspot.com/2008/11/taproot-foundationdo-it-pro-bono.html

    You raise an interesting question though about what the best approach is to build long-term capacity in the nonprofit sector. I think it’s important to have an understanding of a given volunteer pool’s demographics and needs. Our volunteers are business professionals with
    limited time who are looking to make an impact. I’m not saying that all volunteers are looking for this though. For example, my dad is a business professional and volunteers through his church at prison ministries and homeless shelters. I work at Taproot Foundation, yet I personally am trying to get involved at a local refugee organization and animal shelter. In both of our cases, we are looking for direct service, long-term opportunities. I don’t know that one type of volunteering is more useful than the other though—each has its own limitations on the type and scope of impact.

    Lastly, I’d like to address your assumption that our volunteers are “outsiders”: “Unless we can figure out a way to turn skilled outsiders into committed insiders, we’re just churning: roiling the water without moving the ship forward.” My personal feeling is that Taproot Foundation volunteers are very much insiders who work closely with the nonprofit’s management staff and learn about the nonprofit’s key internal organizational challenges. They definitely have an “insider’s” perspective, as opposed to a volunteer role more focused on direct service. Our volunteers work on inside issues at the heart of an organization in order to build its capacity.

    Furthermore, I have to say in general I disagree with this paradigm of “outsiders” versus “insiders.” Or the idea that there is an inherent separation between the “for profit” and “nonprofit” sector or a “them” and “us.” It’s Taproot Foundation’s goal that by 2020, all business professionals view pro bono work as an innate part of any successful career. We are trying to build a pro bono movement, instilling the pro bono work ethic among professionals in the U.S., partnering with corporations and consulting them on how to implement “in house” company pro bono programs. I would say this is an example of long-term, macro-level relationship building between the two sectors:
    http://www.taprootfoundation.org/corporate/

    “Maybe Taproot’s next project could be to help volunteer managers think about their work from the perspective of capable volunteers, and foster a longer-term commitment between volunteer and institution.” Fascinating idea—we are always looking for new ways to strengthen nonprofits.

    To conclude, I apologize for writing a short text book here as a “comment.” I myself am a young nonprofit professional, still learning about all these issues and love a good debate. 😉 I appreciate your thoughtful post and insights!

    ~Miriam Young
    Program & Fundraising Fellow
    Taproot Foundation
    miriam@taprootfoundation.org

    Case studies for Strategic Planning Prep:
    http://www.taprootfoundation.org/cs/hearing_speech.php
    http://www.taprootfoundation.org/cs/child_advocates.php

    P.S. Haha, and my French Major background requires me to point out that
    technically the title of your post should be “Volunteer a la Taproot
    Foundation” since “la” already means “the” in French. Okay, now I’m just
    being annoying, I know. 😉
    ************************************************

  2. Nonprofiteer Says:

    The idea that any individual volunteer will meet with a client only once comes directly from the Foundation’s own materials about the program. While I don’t dispute that people can do useful things in tiny chunks of time–serving Thanksgiving dinner takes only two hours once a year–I DO distinguish those sorts of hit-and-run activities from the longer-term commitment it takes to learn an agency’s needs and respond to them. As a volunteer manager, I found least useful volunteers who came in once, because I had to spend so much of their “volunteering” time explaining what they were supposed to do. The more time a volunteer could give, the more responsibility s/he could assume–and again, my bias is for a system that gives volunteers not just tasks but responsibilities.

    People who volunteer more frequently, or make more time for volunteering, are NOT just old folks with time on their hands; we’re people who’ve made volunteering as much of a priority as family or job or hobby. There’s a notion that the problem with volunteering is that it takes too much time or needs to be made more convenient, when in fact that formulation gets the notion of volunteering–which is that people benefit from making an actual gift or sacrifice of themselves for others–completely upside down.

    And yes, “la” means “the” in French; but the Anglicized French idiom “a la” means “after the style of,” making it appropriate to use with the Foundation’s full name. (Teach you to be pedantic with a fellow pedant!)

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