Episode #007: The Power of Volunteers as Community Capital

Welcome to the Volunteer Nation Podcast, bringing you practical tips and advice on how to build, grow, and scale volunteer talent. I’m your host, Tobi Johnson. And if you rely on volunteers to fuel your charity, cause, or movement, stay tuned. I made this podcast just for you.

Well, hey there and welcome to another episode of the Volunteer Nation Podcast. I’m your host, Tobi Johnson, and today we’re going to talk about the power of volunteers as valued community capital, as valued community capital.

You know, many of you are very interested in diversifying your volunteer corps. And sometimes you’re at a loss as to where to start. I think this lens of community capital, and I’m gonna explain it later in the podcast episode, this lens though helps us expand the way we think about what volunteers can do in our organizations, what they can contribute and how they can make change happen.

And when we do that, I think it also expands where we might look for volunteers. And I’ll explain a little bit later what I mean. I want to start though with a story.

Just the other day, I got a text from my neighbor. She wanted me to come across the street and pull a piece of mail out of her mailbox. She was out of town for a couple of days, and she was worried that a piece of mail was going to get bent. It was a print that was a wedding gift for a friend.

And so I agreed, went across the street and while I was over there, I saw that her trash bin was out as well. So I went ahead and pulled her trash bin in as well. These kinds of things happen all the time in our cul-de-sac.

It’s common for neighbors to help each other out in this way. In the decade I’ve lived here, we’ve had hundreds of these interactions with our neighbors. We drop bags of canned goods at the holidays; I’m always dropping off my canned salsa to my neighbors. We’ve sat with a frightened neighbor while tornadoes raged through our region in the dark of the night. We’ve brought over food when our neighbor came down with COVID. We helped chase a snake out of a neighbor’s garage.

All kinds of things are happening all the time in our neighborhood. While this doesn’t happen in every neighborhood, it happens in most. And it’s often the case that difference, or difference between people, doesn’t play into deciding the fact of whether help is offered or accepted.

It doesn’t matter if we agree or disagree on the politics of the day, whether we prepare dinner at the same time at night, whether we would send our kids to the same schools, we are simply neighborly. It’s part of what it is to be part of our community.

These acts, these tiny acts that we give of ourselves to one another, are the glue that binds our community together. They have tremendous value, and I think perhaps more than we’ve ever imagined, especially in today’s world.

In the very first episode of the Volunteer Nation Podcast, I shared eight reasons volunteers are important, if not essential, in today’s world. I looked at why volunteerism matters not only to organizations, but also to communities and society as a whole.

In this episode, I’d like to dig a little bit deeper into how volunteerism and volunteer services strengthen our communities. I’d like to take a look at how volunteers give of themselves from a community asset lens. It’s a little bit of a different lens. It’s not from the pair-of-hands necessarily lens, where volunteers are here to offer a pair of hands, to offer assistance.

There’s actually more to it than that. This is a fresh way, I think, to think about the true value of volunteers from all walks of life. Remember I talked about diversification earlier. It’s from all walks of life and all social circumstances. This lens may also help expand the ways we think about engaging volunteers, and helps call into question who we are leaving out of the picture and have neglected to extend the invitation to serve.

While I was conducting a literature review for a rural volunteer engagement curriculum I was developing for a client a couple of years ago, I came across a fascinating scholarly journal article. It’s called “An Asset- Based Approach to Volunteering: Exploring Benefits for Low-Income Volunteers.” It’s by Jodi Benenson and Allison Stagg. So if you’re listening, shout out to you both. Thank you so much for helping me expand my thinking around this.

It was printed in 2015, in late 2015 in the Nonprofit and Volunteer Sector Quarterly journal. I’m going to link to it in the show notes, so that you can take a read of the whole thing because it is a fantastic piece of scholarly work.

By the way, if you’re interested in the trends and impact of rural volunteerism, I also posted a blog post called “The Unique Challenges and Solutions for Rural Volunteers,” and I will link to it in the show notes. It’s on our tobijohnson.com website.

These scholars that I just mentioned argue that volunteerism can be a powerful support for community resilience. And I’ve got to tell you, I think most of our communities need some support for community resilience. They need support to be resilient.

They view volunteerism as a way to tap the latent community capital that already exists in our communities. This is important, I think, to understand: that community capital isn’t something we foster necessarily. I mean, we can bring it to the fore, but it’s not something we create through our organizations. It’s something that already exists.

If you think about the ways that our neighbors interact in my cul-de-sac, all the things we do to help each other out, that community capital is always there. It’s always latent because it isn’t always tapped by organizations.

In addition, they view low-income volunteers as assets. This is what’s most fascinating, I think, about this scholarly article is that low-income or moderate-income volunteers, working class volunteers are seen as assets rather than burdens or simply service beneficiaries. It is fascinating and empowering work, and I’m so excited to share some of these concepts with you.

They, in their article, they identify four key types of valuable capital that all volunteers, regardless of circumstance, regardless of circumstance, bring to the table. All four of these asset types are already inherent in each volunteer.

This is another powerful concept, that people come to the table. Volunteers are not created by organizations; volunteers come fully ready with their set of assets to offer. It is up to organizations to explore and understand what talent interest is in front of them and how to match that talent with their organization’s needs.

By the same token, these volunteers and this community capital can be developed, grown, and strengthened through community volunteerism. Both benefit the individual, but also the whole. So there is something that when people bring their capital to the table, that capital becomes infinitely stronger when it’s combined with others’ capital. So it has a collective impact, which I think is fascinating to think about.

Let’s take a pause for a quick break. And after I’ll dive into four different kinds of capital volunteers bring to the table, and how they can strengthen the work of your good cause.

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Okay, we’re back with a discussion about volunteers as assets, beyond simply a pair of hands. So let’s get into the four types of capital I promised I would talk about.

Remember, all volunteers have this capital, these sets of capital, regardless of circumstance. They all bring these to the table, and these types of capital, community capital, help strengthen our work. So let’s go through them one by one.

First of all, human capital. And I think human capital is probably the most commonly understood. It is the economic value of a worker’s experience, skills, including their education, training, intelligence, skills, health, as well as “soft skills” like loyalty, compassion, interpersonal skills, et cetera.

When we think of volunteer skills and capabilities from a talent management perspective, human capital is what we hope to leverage for the greater good. I often say that older volunteers are like gold to organizations because they bring decades of work experience, learned experience from training, family interactions, the school of hard knocks, professional development, you name it.

Older volunteers bring a wealth of talent to the table. It’s an amazing amount of human capital. So that’s an example of human capital.

Let’s look at the second type of community capital: social capital. Social capital is the value of social networks, bonding similar people together and bridging between diverse people with norms of reciprocity. So social capital is really about giving and receiving.

If you think about our cul-de-sac in our neighborhood, there’s a tremendous amount of social capital going on, because people are helping each other out. It’s a group-based consciousness, identity, history, and tradition that can be deployed for, again, the benefit of individual or group capabilities.

I think this type of capital is often ignored and undervalued, but it’s amazingly powerful. I just started reading a book called “What Happened to You?” by Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce Perry. And they talk about the traditions in African American churches that have helped children faced with trauma become more resilient by actually remapping the neural networks in their brains and reducing their sense of anxiety.

This is cultural capital in action. Those connections in those communities are helping people’s brains heal. It is fascinating. So if you’re interested in that book, I’ll link to it in the show notes as well. It’s fascinating if you have any experience with trauma, whether in your life or in others, or you’re just curious about how the brain develops from childhood onward and what you can do to make it more resilient. It’s a fascinating read so check it out.

Fourth area of capital is political capital. This is the resources and power built through relationships, trust, goodwill, and influence that is used to ensure the responsiveness and accountability of the government and those elected officials and people who work in government organizations.

And so, political capital can be employed by the collective, by an individual, by a small group, by a neighborhood, by an interest group, you name it to apply pressure from the grassroots to the grass tops to advocate for change.

We see this in activist groups, political campaigns, and advocacy on the local, national, and global level. Political capital can be leveraged to help advocate for nonprofit-friendly legislation as well. It doesn’t necessarily have to be based on causes outside the nonprofit. It actually, there’s plenty of reason to be advocating for nonprofits as well.

So it could be used, this type of capital could be leveraged in support of nonprofit-friendly legislation in general, and the greater support for volunteers. It can also be used inside an organization to advocate for needed changes. It’s an interesting and powerful type of capital.

So as you can see from these four types of community capital, volunteers are much more than a pair of hands. They bring four powerful kinds of community capital to the table that nonprofits cannot manufacture on their own, nor can it be bought.

That’s what’s so fantastic about volunteerism. It’s one of the things in the world that can’t be bought or sold. it’s non-monetized, and these types of community capital, while you could put a number on them, there is so much that is yet to be understood about their value beyond simply numbers or a pair of hands.

Harnessing the power of volunteer talent, also consider the immense community capital they bring to the table and consider who might be currently left out of the picture because their value is vastly underestimated or misunderstood. I think that’s worth a little self-reflection.

So in closing, I just want to thank you for listening to the show this week. We will be back next week, same time, same place. And if you liked our show, would you do me a favor and share it with a friend, and also subscribe because I will be recording bonus episodes in the future and those will only go out to our subscribers across their platforms.

So I hope to see you next time for another episode of the Volunteer Nation!

Volunteer Nation is produced by Thick Skin Media. Be sure to rate, review, and follow the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. For more tips and notes from the show, check us out at Tobijohnson.com. We hope to see you next week for another episode of Volunteer Nation.