Gimme a V

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on May 29th, 2009 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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Volunteer Graphic

More than several times on these pages (wait, do blogs have pages?) I have expressed my concern—no, let’s call it what it is, my fear—that nonprofits are so focused on surviving this economic downturn that they are paying no attention to the future:  in what condition will they arrive at the other end?  Surviving, unlike being pregnant, does come in degrees.  There is the degree of, “Phew!  Just made it!  We’ve got no staff, barely a program, a blind board, but we are still, technically, in existence,” all the way to “We have arrived where we knew we would all along!  We are a scaled down version of our former robust self, with smaller but mission-focused programs, a hard-working, dedicated staff and a board that has kept its eyes on the prize throughout it all.  We are poised to continue in control of our destiny.” 

Those organizations in the latter group have been both reactive and proactive, they have understood that it is not business as usual, but rather business without blinders on, business open to new ideas and new realities.  Or, as Andrea Bretting of the Claneil Foundation  said at a recent grantmaker panel of ours, “the new normal.”  This new normal is absolutely one that is going to involve—at least for a good number of years—less money flowing from others to nonprofits. 

But at least one group—corporations—are focusing on alternatives, and recognizing that they have resources beyond cash that they can share with nonprofits, and that is their personnel.  I am hearing again and again of corporations that are expanding—if not developing from scratch—their volunteer programs, from enlarging the number of work hours employees may use to volunteer with a nonprofit to starting such a program, or moving from a general volunteer program to adding a skilled-based component to their volunteer programs.  Fortunately, many corporations aren’t saying, “Oh, we don’t have dollars to give so we will no longer be good corporate citizens,” but are figuring out alternative ways to continue to be those good civic partners despite the economic downturn.  With both the expansion of hours available to employees to use work time to volunteer with nonprofits to providing both general and skilled-based volunteerism corporations are recognizing the sustained value-add that their employees can bring to a nonprofit.  There is not extra outlay of dollars by the corporation, but it does cost them, both in terms of employees being paid to do work for others, as well as the quite-often need to made changes to the department/individual which/who is responsible for managing these new and/or expanded programs. 

So, corporations are doing their part.  Are nonprofits?  What do I mean?  Of course, nonprofits welcome volunteers with open arms.  But do they welcome them with the right open arms?  This new volunteerism that many corporations are offering is not your once a year clean up the park, paint the hallways of the school or build a house.  This is the offer of a sustained relationship with a volunteer(s) who can take on on-going “job” that will provide support, extra hands, an extra brain, and, perhaps most valuable, an independent perspective.  To welcome this, nonprofits have to be ready to handle the volunteer.  Let me correct that:  they have to be ready to manage the volunteer.  

Again, what do I mean?  I mean are you volunteer ready?  Have you identified meaningful, serious work for a volunteer?  Are there job descriptions for the different jobs that you need/want a volunteer to fill?  Are you prepared to screen the volunteers, much as you would a job applicant, to make sure that you are getting the right fit—regardless of whether this is a skilled-based volunteer or not—between the volunteer and you?  Is there a person responsible for supervising this volunteer, willing to provide the same degree of supervision to the volunteer as to a paid staff member?  Does staff understand how they are to work and interact with this volunteer?  Do you have a system for rewarding (thanking/appreciating) the volunteer?  And I could go on and on.  Employee volunteers are a valuable “donation” that corporations are offering to nonprofits.  We must be sure that we are as good stewards with this resource as we are with their cash.  Is your nonprofit ready to maximize it? 

And let’s hope that this practice of truly supporting  employee volunteerism continues even after corporate portfolios rebound is the new normal. 

***The Nonprofit Center

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.