Monday, March 21, 2011

Volunteer Spirit Versus Volunteer Slots

I continue to maintain that organizations that take best advantage of America’s untapped volunteer potential will generate and sustain the most philanthropic support in the second decade of the 21st Century.

We know from research conducted by Fidelity Gift Fund and Volunteer Match that:

Seventy-two percent of Americans have volunteered at some point in their lives;

Seven in ten say that supporting a cause they care about is their major reason for volunteering;

The more years of formal education one has, the more likely one is to volunteer;

Active volunteers are “more likely” to increase their contributions;

Sixty-three percent cite a “renewed sense of the value and importance of community service within their network of friends and family.

Eighty-four percent say they expect nothing in return for the volunteer work;

Sixty-six percent believe “true philanthropy” includes the giving of both time and money, and

Volunteers’ charitable contributions are ten times that of non-volunteers.

So, why aren’t all philanthropy-seeking organizations tripping all over themselves to involve and engage these well-educated, civic-minded, altruistic volunteers? The major reason is that they are locked into three false and related assumptions.

The first false assumption is that boards are the best way to cultivate donors. Too often a board is created for the sole purpose of cultivation. Soon the lack of real work wears on both the volunteers and the staff that has to make up something for them to do. Both come to think of volunteer boards as superfluous or counter productive. The key is to give volunteers real work and to recruit for the purpose of bringing their specific skills to bear on an important issue, problem or opportunity. Give your volunteers specific assignments and tasks. Put them on task forces and blue ribbon panels. Give them finite work to do within a finite time, work that matches the time they think they can commit and the talents they would like to bring to bear, and watch what happens.

The second reason that most organizations fail to take advantage of the vast volunteer potential out there is that oxymoronic function we call risk management. Too often risk management involves grossly overstating the risk to avoid managing it all together. There is no more risk in incorporating volunteers in an organization that there is managing any group of intelligent, committed, conscientious people – which is next to nil.

The third false assumption is that the mere act of putting people on boards will cause them to become philanthropic. And that assumption has led many an organization and many an advancement professional to labor endlessly, and to lecture repeatedly on the philanthropic obligations of board members, with little or no effect. You must award your precious board slots, spend all your care and feeding on those already possessed of a true volunteer spirit, those who believe they have a debt to society, or an obligation to give back. When you put true volunteers into interesting volunteer slots, your investment of time will be rewarded many times over. Remember, even if you find those who have served on other boards or given to other organizations, it does not mean they are true volunteers. Be alert to pseudo-volunteers who may have given only a tiny percentage of their wealth or given for self-serving reasons. Don’t look for just wealth, or even evidence of giving elsewhere; look for those with strong value systems who have a record of acting on them.

Remember, time, talent and treasure is not just a nice alliteration; it’s a sequential strategy. When we find people of substance and offer a way to make good use of their time and their specific talents, they will give generously of their treasure over time. We just have to take the time to find the right people and find a way from them to make a real difference. The rest will take care of itself.

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