The good news is that this is National Volunteer Appreciation Week, and organizations all over the country are acknowledging the contributions of their volunteers and honoring them for their service. There’s a lot to celebrate! According to the National Corporation for Volunteerism and Service, 25.4% of the population, or more than 62 million Americans, volunteered their time last year. And have you seen the Richmond Times-Dispatch National Volunteer Week supplement that was published this past Saturday? Based on the diversity of causes and organizations represented, volunteerism in our own community seems to be a thriving enterprise. Individuals, families, and groups across our region are rolling their sleeves up and engaging in every kind of service….from hunger, homelessness, and poverty to low school performance, chronic illness, and the arts. And we, more than anyone, know what an impact they are making and how much they deserve to be appreciated and thanked.
But the news is not all good.
According to an article just published in the April issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy (http://philanthropy.com/article/Despite-Attempts-to-Boost/145697/), the rate of volunteerism in this country actually hit a new low in 2013, and 2 million fewer Americans volunteered last year than in the year before. The article goes on to speculate that the recent economic downturn seems to have been a major factor. Indeed, many nonprofits are still struggling to recover and the consequences – especially for volunteer programs – have been disastrous in more ways than one.
Greg Baldwin, president of VolunteerMatch, sums the situation up this way. “The reality is, volunteer engagement is a reflection of nonprofit capacity, its leadership, its resources, and [its] ability to engage them.” The article goes on to say, “Nonprofits must spend money to recruit, train, supervise, and recognize volunteers – and that takes cash. Until nonprofits can find that money…‘we’re not going to see major traction.’ In fact, studies show that many nonprofits lack the resources – like paid coordinators – to manage volunteers well, and even those that do a good job may not want more bodies.”
Does any of this describe you, your program, or your organization? I know that at my organization, my program budget is a fraction of the budgets in every other department and when resources are needed, the response is often….“Can you find a sponsor?” or “Can’t you get them donated?” I doubt I’m alone here. Under the best of circumstances, volunteer engagement just is not typically given top strategic priority, financially or any other way. Maybe we just have to accept that this is the way it is and always will be. Or do we??
While GRAVA can’t do much about the cash situation, we can do something about capacity and “this is just the way it is.” The research is clear. Organizations with well-trained volunteer managers who apply best practices are able to accommodate greater numbers of volunteers and maximize the potential of their programs. Programs that can demonstrate impact are more likely to receive the resources they need. And volunteer managers who exhibit leadership skills and are able to advocate for the value of volunteer engagement are more likely to have a say in the discussions that matter.
Yes, there is a lot to celebrate this week, and hopefully your ED and senior leadership will play important roles in those celebrations. But the conversation about value shouldn’t end when the week’s over. It’s up to us to keep it going, and keep it focused on excellence and professionalism in volunteer engagement as significant pathways to increased capacity. You can do it, and GRAVA can help you get there!
See you in May!