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Taking Sides in the Volunteerism Debate

By Virginia Brown
Follow me on Twitter: @3manypuppies

There’s a debate happening in the world of volunteerism. My previous job put me right in the middle of it.

My last employer—Vantage Point, a organization in Vancouver, British Columbia—sought to build the capacity of organizations in the nonprofit sector through people. That means I spent a lot of time talking about how people–both paid and unpaid–could help you fulfill your mission. If you want to get me on a rant, hand me a beer and ask me about volunteering. Or, just read the rest of this post.

Vantage Point has been a student of volunteerism and the voluntary sector for more than 60 years. And in that time, they’ve dramatically changed the way they look at volunteer engagement. And completely convinced me to look at it in the same way.

Specifically, they’ve changed the way they approach improving and inspiring volunteer engagement. They start with the organizations and not the volunteers. Think of this as supply and demand. If volunteers are the supply, many, including President Obama, seem to think we're lacking. "There aren't enough people volunteering" = "there aren't enough volunteers". Vantage Point sits firmly on the other side—the problem is demand. "There aren't enough people volunteering" = "there aren't enough organizations offering volunteer roles that interest today's volunteer". What side are you on?

In the last year, there has been a lot of discussion on volunteering. An old friend at the Information and Volunteer Centre for Strathcona County talks about episodic volunteering in his blog. Aaron Hurst of Taproot fame talks about defining the different ways in which organizations engage volunteers. And a debate in major media (CNN, New York Times and the Chronicle of Philanthropy) erupted over the innovative idea of micro volunteering and whether it's a good or bad thing.

Following the online conversations on volunteerism is time consuming. So many great ideas and EVEN BETTER, so much attention on volunteerism! But then I got a bit miffed. In my opinion, the conversations are happening at such an academic level. And I'm just as guilty of it. But the reality is that until we figure out a way to make increased volunteer engagement at the small nonprofit organization easier, I am just not sure things are going to change.

And so I'd like to propose my own Pay it Forward-esque action item to you. Go to the first nonprofit in your community that pops into your head. Ask them how they currently involve volunteers. My guess is that more often than not, you'll get answers like board members, advisory committee, fundraising, serving meals, filing, data entry, etc. Now ask them how long they've been creating this type of volunteer work at their organization. If the answer is "forever" or "as long as I've worked here" or anything in that genre, then ask them this next: Would you be willing to sit down over coffee and brainstorm two new ways to involve volunteers at your organization?

Just two. And that's in a different way than they've engaged volunteers in the past. Big Brothers recruiting two more Bigs doesn't count. Let's see what we can actually get done while the academics and the theorists ponder these issues for the next umpteen years.

*A version of this post originally “aired” on the Vantage Point Blog. Check out Vantage Point to see what our Canadian neighbors are doing in the world of sector capacity building.

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Tags: Volunteering

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