Fired up to volunteer

The Nonprofiteer first learned of the work of catchafire.org several months ago through our mutual colleagues at Mission Research.  She’s been getting around to writing about Catchafire’s work placing high-skill volunteers at New York nonprofits.  Now that founder Rachael Chong has been interviewed on NPR’s Marketplace, the Nonprofiteer realizes that time waits for no blogger.

Rachael describes her organization as “Match.com for volunteers and nonprofits.”  A nonprofit pays a low fee to have Catchafire figure out its needs (“scope its projects,” in site jargon) and find a volunteer with the right skills to accomplish the task.  (At the moment the group operates only in New York, which mysteriously has one of the lowest volunteering rates in the country, but it hopes to expand to other communities in fairly short order.)  Volunteer in, do project, volunteer out, bada-bing, bada-boom—the whole thing happens in a New York  minute.

The Nonprofiteer applauds Catchafire’s mission and part of its approach–the part about helping nonprofits figure out what they can actually do with high-skill volunteers other than asking them to stuff envelopes.  But for every volunteer who wants to root, shoot and leave she knows two who are looking for a long-term volunteer home, and though obviously a Catchafire volunteer isn’t precluded from becoming a permanent volunteer, s/he comes in branded as a person who will, and therefore probably only can, do one thing.

The Nonprofiteer is also concerned about sending a single volunteer to do a project, even if it seems apparent that a single pair of hands is all that’s required.  Many people volunteer to alleviate their loneliness (or, more positively, to connect with others) and a single-person project—even in the midst of an agency with lots of people—is likely to be isolated, and isolating.

The Taproot Foundation, which likewise uses a project-based model of providing assistance to nonprofits, addresses the isolation concern by assembling a team to complete each project.  The good news is, each volunteer gets to know and work with other high-skill volunteers.  The bad news is, teams of volunteers are to nonprofits as hairballs are to cats: tolerable on a temporary basis but unlikely to be integrated permanently into the system.  High-skill volunteers searching for a cause about which to stay passionate and a home in which to express that passion instead find the opportunity to be coughed up.

The Nonprofiteer’s theory is that both groups are treating the symptom [failure to use high-skill volunteers] rather than the cause [staff hostility to the use of volunteers].  It may be that only the symptom can be treated; but in her own practice, the Nonprofiteer works to help organizations identify and overcome the sources of staff resistance, so they can make use of high-skill volunteers on an extensive and long-term basis rather than a restricted and short-term one.  We all know that staff turnover is expensive because every new person has to be trained; the same must be true of volunteer turnover, and therefore solutions requiring constant orientation of new people create problems of their own.

But may the best model win!  And if nonprofits use some high-skill volunteers better as a result of any of these approaches, we’ll all win.

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4 Responses to “Fired up to volunteer”

  1. Vicki Says:

    I’m tempted to object to this post based on how it “blames” staff, as if staffmembers of nonprofits cross their arms, stomp their feet and, like the spoiled children they must be, refuse to cooperate with effective use of high-skill volunteers. But really I’m concerned about the underlying assumptions. The Nonprofiteer seems to suggest that the problem to be solved is high-skill volunteers who can’t find an issue about which to be passionate in their lives and staff is standing in the way (although she allows there might be a reason for this). I would suggest that the central issue should be the good of the organization and its work. As the person responsible for the smooth running of a church, I have no use for volunteers of any skill level whose object is to connect with me personally or the organization as a method of solving life issues (loneliness, passion direction, etc.). Like most staffmembers of nonprofits, I don’t have time to connect with each and every volunteer. I need the work done. If a volunteer is the best way to do that, bring ’em on. But that is often not the case.

    To be sure, high-skill volunteers who take on a project and make it their own, run it independently over the LONG-TERM, bring THEIR OWN COMMUNITY to the organization (as opposed to expecting the organization to give them a community) are worth their weight in platinum. But alas and unfortunately, those are the exception.

    A lengthy debate could be held on this subject, and this comment section is not a sufficient forum. But it is a perfect place to point out that traditional ways of matching volunteers to organizations have failed to discover the reasons for its difficulty. This is an area where failure to examine our assumptions about the central issue contributes to lack of resolution and solution.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      It’s absolutely true that the primary objective has to be the good of the organization, and equally true that we need to be clear about the assumptions we make as we try to solve the problem–which, from my standpoint, is “nonprofits’ inability to make use of an available asset.” I don’t at all expect staff members or organizations or causes to provide meaning to volunteers’ lives. I merely recognize that a volunteer’s desire to contribute (money as well as time) can be easily destroyed by misguided use of his/her time. (I’m a lawyer: ask me to stuff envelopes and I’m gone.) The key is the two meanings of the word ‘meaningful’: no agency is responsible for providing meaningful relationships or a life purpose to volunteers; every agency [that wishes to use them] is responsible for providing volunteers with an opportunity to serve that is meaningful to the volunteer. That may be direct service of clients; that may be administrative work; that may be facilities planning; that may be straightening out three years’ worth of unbalanced books. But unless the agency has thought about all the ways in which it might use volunteers, it won’t be able to provide that menu of opportunities from which a volunteer can make meaning of his/her own.

      I also recognize that staff resistance to the use of volunteers is as common as it is because it’s based on the reality you cite: that volunteers can be a pain in the ass, and more trouble to supervise than they’re worth. But I continue to think that our job–as people whose primary concern is the good of the organization–is to identify projects and activities that can be done by this surplus labor, and then organize those projects and activities so that surplus labor is willing to do them. That’s not a suggestion for an on-the-ground administrator or volunteer manager–it’s directed at the Executive Director (or equivalent) and the Board of Directors. “We have an asset we’re not using; how can we make it usable without interfering with the important work we’re already doing?” is a discussion for strategic planning or a Board meeting; it’s not a decision to be made if and as volunteers walk in the door. I think most agencies’ omission of this conversation renders them unable to use volunteers effectively, to the detriment of the agency and the volunteer alike.

  2. Anita Bernstein Says:

    Interesting discussion. Like Vicki and the Nonprofiteer, I have been on both sides of this difficulty. Some days I’m a frustrated volunteer who doesn’t get meaningful work to do. Other days I’m an employee of a nonprofit who has to fend off various efforts to “give back” that interfere with my job.

    What do we know about the value of high-skills volunteering? Has someone tried to measure it? I think I’ve suggested in this blogspace that maybe our culture needs to stop telling people they’re bad if they don’t have a good-doing gig.

    If high-skills volunteers are here to stay, then I would emphasize another point: It’s important for nonprofit staff to avoid discriminating against volunteers on the basis of their sex and race. Obviously a nonprofit’s mission can make these categories pertinent–but so much of the sexism and racism that I’ve seen burden volunteers is hurtful to the mission of nonprofits.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      To my knowledge the value of high-skills volunteering has not been measured. My approach is a fairly simple-minded one: more people=more results. Obviously, this is only true if we’re using people wisely, but I have yet to encounter a nonprofit who couldn’t use another pair of hands attached to a brain. There’s always more to do than nonprofits have time or money to pursue.

      On your second point: it’s sad that we even have to keep considering this issue, but of course you’re right. Life is too short for volunteers to tolerate being shunted aside because they’re female or people of color or transgender or whatever it may be. And virtually every nonprofit contains some vestiges of this kind of discrimination: women are given menial tasks that we wouldn’t think of offering men; people of color are asked to represent their entire communities in a way that would be obviously ludicrous if applied to a white man. But the only solution I know to this is to add more women and more people of color to every Board and volunteer program, until there are so many of us that we’re un-dismissable.

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