Sunday, December 12, 2010

Inviting Involvement

“An overwhelming majority of Americans say it’s important for them to be involved in their community amid concern that technological gadgets and harried schedules are fraying human connections,” USA Today reported last Thursday, citing a poll conducted in conjunction with Gallup from October 21-24. The strength of those feelings , USA Today reported, was consistent across “educational, gender and regional lines.”

That’s good news for American philanthropy, an unparalleled and unprecedented force for social good that grew out of highly interdependent communities. Our earliest settlers realized that collaboration was essential to their survival, then to social stability and prosperity. They worked side by side to raise homes and barns, to construct churches, roads and bridges, to bring in harvests and lay in food for winter, and to extinguish fires and provide for their common defense. “We the people” existed as a model organizing principle long before the phrase was coined in the preamble of the Constitution.

It is no wonder, then, that Americans still yearn for and seek fulfillment in community involvement. The simple fact is that we need each other and are at our happiest when working together toward common ends and aspirations. Yet too many philanthropy-seeking organizations fail to either fully grasp the importance of this phenomenon or open themselves sufficiently to benefit from it.

Yes, many organizations invite and encourage volunteer participation. Yet too many do it solely as a pretext for fund raising. Volunteers are recruited for no other purpose but to raise money or to serve on boards with little real purpose if they agree to give or get money as a condition of joining. “Make work” activities are orchestrated for boards to induce members to give. Board members soon sense this and begin to complain about being asked to do nothing more than sit through “dog and pony” presentations and write checks.

Far greater opportunities and rewards await organizations that more genuinely seek to put the times and talents of volunteers to their highest and best use. To attract and benefit from the talents of the most substantive volunteers, enlightened organizations must:

Truly believe that they need, and will be far more strategically adaptive if they complement internal staff strengths with external volunteer capabilities;

Integrate volunteers into the fabric of the institution, including in the deliberation of sensitive issues, including crises and controversies;

Guide their efforts without exerting undo control over them;

Make it clear, in word and deed, that volunteers are not there to serve the organization but help the organization better serve others;

Involve them early on in the design of specific service outcomes associated with major initiatives;

Seek to provide a rich emotional return on their investment by sharing struggles and credit for successes;

The organizations that master the art of selective, strategic, substantive volunteer engagement in the context of service-oriented initiatives will secure the greatest amounts of private support in the decades ahead. And, in the process, they will build stronger communities which in turn will create a stronger nation and a more vibrant democracy. That’s how “we the people” did it in the first place. That’s how we can and will do it again.

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