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Thoughts & Musings

Who Will Pay For The American Spirit of Volunteerism?

Thoughts by our CEO, Rubin Singh, on the intersection of volunteerism and the philanthropic community. Originally published on on LinkedIn (9/10/18)

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Years ago I served as a volunteer coordinator for a humanitarian food aid nonprofit that assembled dry ingredient meal packages to be shipped overseas to countries suffering from a natural disaster. Over the course of a few hours during our meal packaging events, dozens of volunteers would come together and package 20-30,000 meals...it was impressive. One time at an event, a volunteer said to me that we could probably hire workers at a reasonable rate to significantly increase the number of meals we packaged, or better yet, partner with a local factory that could assemble twice the meal packages in the same amount of time using their machinery, and not have to bother with volunteers at all. As I reflected on the work we did and the suggestions he was offering, I realized that perhaps there was more to what we were doing.

The volunteers who showed up each morning were of all ages, races, cultures, religions and socio-economic backgrounds. As they arrived, they were randomly assigned to teams and put to work. Walking around the room during a meal packaging event, even with the music playing, you could hear the the playful banter, the deep conversations, the laughing, the dancing - it dawned on me that our work was more than just packaging meals, we were bringing together people who may never would've exchanged in dialogue otherwise, we were breaking down stereotypes, we were forging bonds and creating a sense of community...all revolving around the simple act of helping those in need. And it was just as important as anything else we did.

So I was happy to read Susan Dreyfrus’ article in the Stanford Social Innovation Reviewon Volunteerism and US Civil Society, and the “intangible” benefits it offers. I've seen first hand the “recognition of humanity in one another” Dreyfus speaks of when describing what volunteerism brings to civil society. And honestly, I never even thought of the mental health benefits or the advantages it brings to marginalized communities that the article mentions. 

Yet with all these benefits, volunteerism is on the decline. Frankly, I’m surprised by many of the nonprofits I’ve worked with over the years that do not have any structured volunteer program. Some EDs I’ve spoke to said that the idea of a volunteer program “sounds” great, but it’s a tremendous amount of work, and when it comes to defining the hard impact (hours logged, projects completed, tasks achieved), not everyone sees the return on investment.

As much as I wish nonprofits would value the “softer” measures of volunteerism more, I can understand their hesitation. As a volunteer coordinator, I found there were many volunteers who wanted to help, but not always the way we needed it. Most could only volunteer on nights and weekends (when we were closed), or could only volunteer with small children or wanted to volunteer as a team outing with their colleagues, when our projects weren’t always equipped for that. Many of the fraternity and sorority volunteers were more interested in the “fun jobs” they could work with that were more conducive to social media posts, rather than mopping up after an event or transporting boxes to the truck. In short, volunteers were looking for opportunities that catered to their specific needs, not always ours. For our back office work, we often found ourselves with a ton of volunteers to work with where no one had the skill set we needed. But rather than turn them away, you make do with what you have and deal with repercussions later. Even with professional pro-bono volunteers who do have the right skill set, they have a fixed time to work with us and specific outcomes they wanted to achieve, sometimes we had to create a project for them to take advantage of their services, even if it wasn’t our greatest need. This is not meant to be a criticism of volunteers. At the end of the day, they are volunteering their time where they could have spent it elsewhere, but all of this is to say, that running a volunteer program at a nonprofit is not easy and takes a lot of resources.

That said, I have rarely come across a foundation or grant application that was interested in funding a volunteer program where the impact is fuzzy and the ROI is largely intangible. Furthermore, donors and philanthropists are becoming more restrictive as to where their dollars go, ensuring it only goes to “direct programmatic work” (i.e. no overhead). So while I support Dreyfus’ call to action for leaders to “nourish the American spirit of volunteerism” it begs the question, who is going to pay for it?

We’re living in a time where we need all the goodness that volunteerism brings - understanding, empathy, and compassion to name a few - but for us to fully realize it, there needs to be a shift...across the board. Nonprofits need to create a diverse set of opportunities for their volunteers, volunteers need to be ready to perform “the work to be done”, while donors and the philanthropic community not only need to loosen their restrictions on grants and donations, but encourage and support nonprofits to build out robust volunteer programs, even if it does not meet the “traditional” metrics of impact.

So just like those volunteers who would take turns assembling their part of the meal package, let’s recognize that we’re all in this together, and we each have a part to play.