Episode #011: Is Your Org Ready for More Inclusive Volunteering

Welcome to the Volunteer Nation Podcast, bringing you practical tips and big ideas 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, membership, or movement, I made this podcast just for you.  

One of my very first real jobs out of college was to conduct outreach into Chicago’s Latino community. It may surprise people when you look at me, if you see me in person, I certainly don’t look Latino. I certainly don’t come from a Latino family, but I was involved in the community on a number of levels at that point in time.  

I was part of a collective, an artists collective I’d been invited to be part of. I was going salsa dancing with my friends during the week and weekends, I was working at a Latino art gallery that was mainly showing works by Latino artists. And I spoke pretty passable Spanish and was improving my Spanish every week by taking classes through the Mexican consulate.  

So I was pretty involved, had a lot of friends in the community. And so, when I was hired for this job, the organization took a chance on me and said, “You know what? We’ll see if you can do this work.” I set out to try to see if we could work with communities to engage youth that might take advantage of the program that was on offer.  

It was an employment and training program. It was a residential program, and there really weren’t a lot of Latino youth taking advantage. So folks really wanted to make sure that the community had access, that youth and young adults who were interested in employment and training would be able to enter the program, learn what they needed to learn and get some meaningful work afterwards.  

And after a few months of doing this work and understanding and traveling around and going to all of these different centers where this employment and training was happening, I started to have a sneaking suspicion that the organization was not ready for what it was asking for.  

And the company I worked for was a contractor. The organization was a federally funded program, was a program of the federal government actually. And after a while, I really had a hard time thinking that I was going to send any kids to these programs. Partly there were no English as a Second Language programs in any of these residential environments. There were no people there that looked like the young people that might be interested in. There were no initiatives that I could see around sensitivity, cultural competence, et cetera.  

And so, at the ripe age of, I think I was in my mid-twenties at that time, I just graduated from college. I had to tell my boss that, “You know what? I don’t think this is the right thing. I don’t think I can ethically encourage young Latinos to go to this program because they’re just not ready.” 

And it was a tough call, but, you know, as I think back on it, it was the right call. It was the right call for me. I just didn’t think that, you know, I just didn’t think that it was the right thing.  

So fast forward to nowadays, I’m hearing very similar types of conversations going on now in the volunteer sector where organizations are hoping to build out opportunities for more inclusive volunteering, in welcoming volunteers from all walks of life.  

And the impetus and the heart behind it is all in the right place. But I believe that in some cases, some organizations haven’t done the internal work needed to really be ready. And so that’s what this podcast episode is all about.  

I want to ask some probing questions. Some of these are going to be a little bit provocative, I think, but they’re questions about the way that things are run in your organization and whether or not that makes it a place that inclusive volunteering can really foster.  

Now, this conversation makes no assumptions about the future potential of your organization, of the people working in it. It makes no assumptions about what your intentions are, about whether or not you are fully committed to making diversity, equity, and inclusion happen in your organization.  

It makes no assumptions whatsoever. I am simply going to ask some questions, some provocative questions. Diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, justice, access, and more. There’s one thing they all have in common. And that thing they have in common is power.  

One group has power over another. And if your organization is not ready to question some of those power imbalances, it makes inclusive volunteerism really hard to pull off. To foster truly inclusive volunteering, we need to look far beyond simply diversifying our volunteer teams to ensure that they represent the communities they serve.  

Those are absolutely honorable goals and aims for a DEI initiative. However, we’ve got to do much more. If we remain unaware or unable to admit to the ways that our organizational structures might oppress people, we are doomed to failure and perpetuating harm, however unintended.  

And if you think back to my very first job, real job out of college, was actually to do DEI work before it was even called that. It was an attempt – and very well-meaning I believe – to ensure that this community, the Latino community in Chicago, community of young people had equal access to this program. 

However, it just wasn’t, the program wasn’t ready for them yet. So power in the nonprofit sector today is wielded mightily. I think, you know, we have to be real about this. If I’m one thing, I’m real, gang! So I’m going to keep it real in this podcast. But it is wielded mightily in our sector. Sometimes for the good, but often at the expense of its own people. 

Foundations wield power over non-profits, boards wield power over executives, superiors wield power over subordinates, paid staff over unpaid volunteers. It’s happening all the time. And we have to be honest about it. If we really truly want to make inroads into inclusive volunteering, we have to be willing to ask the hard questions.  

So for me, the best place to seek answers are the places where the power dynamic is at play. And then to ask questions that can surface deep rooted assumptions and habits. It’s all about changing habits, y’all.  

So in this episode of Volunteer Nation, I want to get specific about the questions you might ask and see how they might be used. The answers to these questions might be used to assess where you’re at now, and what steps you might take to gain traction into the future, and where you may need to evolve.  

A warning…I do want to warn folks. These are provocative questions. They question nearly every long-held assumption about how the non-profit sector functions when it comes to volunteers. But if we don’t do something differently, we are bound to continue the same mistakes.  

So we need to be brave. We need to be willing to grapple with these challenging issues and make change when we can and where we can. Is this work hard? Yes, it is. Is it worth doing? Yes, it is. So let’s do this.  

So here are some questions that I want to pose that you might ask at your organization to determine if more inclusive volunteering is your next step. Is it about bringing on more diverse volunteers at this moment? Or is it about working on the inside, work getting your own house in order before you bring people in? And that’s a tough call. 

I know it’s a very tough call. It takes some, there’s some art to this type of decision-making. But my goal today is to just get you thinking about all the ways that power dynamics are at play at your organization in ways that may be harmful to people you’re bringing in, and are probably harmful to people who are there now.  

So, some of these questions will resonate with you. Some of them won’t. Just choose the ones that work for you best and leave the rest. So let’s start with setting the DEI “agenda” for your organization. I have “agenda” in quotes. Here’s some questions around setting that quote-unquote agenda. 

Question for you: who defines and drives your organization’s approach to DEI. Is it your board? Is it your executive, or are people at the grassroots and frontline asked to give their opinions as well? If it’s a committee who has the final say in your initiatives and how you’re going to move forward as an organization to become more inclusive? 

Who has that final say? Is it your executives, your board, et cetera, or is it the committee itself? Who sets the timeframe and pace of your initiatives? Are they considered urgent? Not so urgent? Who decides?  

And you know, gang, some of these questions are tough. We don’t know the answer a lot of times. The answer hasn’t been decided yet. And so, I know these are challenging and provocative questions, but we have to start asking these difficult questions, which is what this podcast is all about. 

Leadership. Let’s move on to leadership. It’s another area of questions, provocative questions. So leadership, just a question for you: who gets listed and featured on your webpage as team members, as people who make a difference, et cetera? Who’s listed on your webpage and your “about” page? In your team staff page, who gets listed? Who is pictured on the webpage and in publications about your organization like your annual report? Who is featured, whose work is featured, whose position is featured, et cetera?  

It’s an interesting question. Another one: who can speak on behalf of your organization? I’ve worked in organizations where nobody gets to talk to anybody except the communications department or the executive director. So, it’s an interesting question. Who can speak on behalf of your organization? Leadership. We’re talking about leadership in that list of questions.  

Let’s move on and talk about decision-making. I think decision-making is a real area where there are power dynamics at play. And again, these questions don’t necessarily have a right or wrong answer for your organization, but it is important that they have an answer, that they are discussed.  

So let’s talk about decision-making. Who can make which decisions and on what level? Who decides which decision-making process or style will be used? For example, consensus decision-making, democratic vote, autocratic decision-making, you name it.  

Who gets to decide what style or what process is used? Who is consulted when changes are proposed or required in terms of your program operations, your policies and procedures, or your decision making process? Who has access to the ear of key decision makers?  

So who gets to get in that room and make an ask? Who gets to provide direct feedback? This is a big question, and it’s not always an easy one.  

Accountability. This is another area where there’s great questions to be asked. Who gets credit for successes, the organization successes, a team’s successes? Who takes responsibility for failures on the other side of the coin? So who gets credit for successes? Who takes responsibility for failures, and who helps everyone keep their eye on the prize?  

So when we think about power dynamics and changing up power dynamics, it’s not necessarily that no one is accountable. It’s not that we’re removing accountability. It just changes when we want to be more inclusive. Sometimes the answer is that we are changing who is accountable to whom. I probably don’t have the grammar right there, but who is accountable to whom?  

So we question that when we think about creating a more level playing field between volunteers, staff, leaders in our organizations, our community members, et cetera. Who is accountable to whom? 

So let’s pause for a quick break. And after, I’m going to continue with these provocative questions to help you become more ready for inclusive volunteering,  

I am so excited that people are really leaning into this idea of welcoming more volunteers from different walks of life, different communities, et cetera. I also want organizations to take full responsibility for creating a place where everyone can thrive. So that’s what this episode is all about. I will see you on the other side of this break.  

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Okay, we’re back. Before the break, I asked a few questions about the dynamics of power in your organization and in nonprofits in general. And I have a few more questions that I’d like to ask and see what you think about. 

So here’s a few more areas of questions you might ask, to think about, is our organization ready for inclusive volunteerism? What are the dynamics of power that are at play in our organization and what might need to change? Here’s another area that I think is a very provocative area to think about in terms of volunteerism. And that is who volunteers and how, so here’s a question for you. 

Do people contribute their time of their own free will or are they coerced to volunteer? So you think about community service programs. Do people have a choice in what they’re doing? You think about we featured service learning and our interview with Brian Halderman at GivePulse here in this podcast, you talked about having students get real life experience in the world, but what about when it becomes a requirement for education? 

Is that coercive, or is it a benefit to the student, or is it both? So it’s a very interesting question to ask. Another question: do certain people get access to certain opportunities above others? So are certain kinds of people who come in your organization getting offered certain types of volunteer roles, while others are being offered other kinds of roles?  

This goes all the way from your board of directors to event volunteers, to administrative volunteers, to direct service volunteers, whatever kinds of volunteers you have engaged in your organization. It’s an interesting question to tease out.  

Let’s talk about background checks. I think this is an area that has a lot of ambivalence around power dynamics, because a background check, the results of a background check have the power to deny people access to volunteerism. 

Now, sometimes there are real reasons to include background checks. When people are working with vulnerable populations, you do need to protect people. But there’s some questions about this and how it’s being rolled out nowadays.  

So, first of all, first question: who decides what is considered “suitable” in terms of volunteer qualifications? This is a big one, I think. Who decides what is considered suitable in terms of volunteer qualifications? Is it the volunteer coordinator? Is it the executive director?  

Is it the board? Who decides? Or is it a group of volunteers that come to consensus on who they would like to work with? You can see those are very different approaches. Another question: is there only one way for a volunteer to demonstrate their suitability for a role? Does it have to be a background check? Are there alternatives to a background check?  

For example, could people get a list of references? Could people show some of the things they’ve done in life recently? There’s lots of different, interesting ways and alternative ways to background checks. So it’s just an interesting thing to ask.  

Here’s another question: are certain volunteers penalized for past behavior, for which they have already paid their debt to society? So this is for people who have a criminal background. If they have already paid their debts to society, then why are we continuing to punish them?  

Right, interesting question. I don’t have a hundred percent of the answer, but I’m posing the question anyway. All right. One more area. Another area of provocative questions around gatherings. When we get together who is included in which meetings for both information and decision making? 

You know, there’s different types of meetings in your organization, some are for information sharing or gathering, others or for decision-making. Sometimes decision-making doesn’t even happen in the meeting. So who is included? Who leads the meetings or the agenda items? What’s put on the agenda, who has an input or a say in that?  

Whose schedules and limitations are of primary consideration when meetings, events and trainings are planned? Now I have seen this firsthand where volunteers say, “You know what, I’m only available on the weekends” and staff say, “Well, we don’t work on the weekends and therefore we will not be scheduling the volunteer training on the weekends.” That is a power dynamic at play.  

Let’s talk about access to resources and space. We hear a lot of issues around resources and volunteer services and lack thereof, or inequities around resources. So here’s some questions: who has access to which resources and budgets? It’s pretty straightforward one. Who gets to use what space and when? In both physical and virtual. So who gets to have access to specific meeting rooms or virtual spaces, et cetera? Who has their own dedicated space? 

This is a very interesting conversation. So who has an office? Who has a dedicated cubicle or other dedicated room? Shared space. Who doesn’t have a desk? Who doesn’t have a place to put their stuff?  

If you ever want to see power at play in an organization, simply pay attention to how the architecture works or how the space is designed. Very interesting, will tell you a lot often about that organization. 

Okay, fourth question: who can request special accommodations to address their access needs? So who can do that? How do they do it? Is it easy? Is it easy? Access to resources and space – all kinds of areas where power dynamics are at play.  

Last group of questions I want to mention: feedback. So feedback, input, who is actively solicited for feedback and how often? Who can see the aggregate data collected from feedback surveys, focus groups, comment cards, et cetera? So if you think about when you run a volunteer satisfaction survey, are volunteers able to see the information? Do they get access to the final report?  

Now it doesn’t necessarily mean that people see every single answer, but do they know what happened with their feedback? Not only what the results were, but what actions are going to be taking place? Right, very interesting question.  

Another question: who can bring up issues and at what time, and can they do so safely and without recrimination? Can they do so safely and without recrimination? Who was “allowed” to bring issues around privilege, inequity and discrimination up? Who’s allowed to bring those issues up in your organization? 

It’s an interesting question. Who is required to change first when an issue is raised? So who gets the luxury of hanging out back and not having to make changes to their life or their workspace or their weekly workload or processes? Who has to change first and who gets to change later, right? Or who doesn’t have to change at all? Huge, interesting question. 

So these are only a few questions that I think really highlight intersections of power. And I’m certain as you’ve been listening to these questions, things have been popping up in your mind. Instances where you’ve seen this power dynamic at play.  

If the answer is to diversify our volunteer corps, welcome people from all walks of life, we’ve got to think about what is the place that we’re welcoming them into. Is it a place where they will feel like they belong? Is it a place where they will feel like their voice matters? Is it a place where people feel like they have a say? 

We really do need to think about this. I worked for years in the nonprofit sector and early in my years, sometimes I knew the right answer. Oftentimes I didn’t. And I fumbled my way through as a leader.  

We have to be willing to not know the answers. We have to be willing to make mistakes. We have to be willing to look at ourselves in the mirror and say, “Hey, maybe we need to get our own house in order first.”  

Changing power dynamics is not an easy process. We have a world, a system, a society, institutions that are decades, if not centuries old. We have a lot of pressure to keep the status quo up as it is.  

Lots of pressure, but I know that you out there, many of our listeners and I know our VolunteerPro Community members, I know that our students, I know the people that I come into contact with who care about volunteers and care about their communities really do want to make inroads around diversity, equity, inclusion, justice.  

But we’ve got to start, not only with ourselves as individuals, but also in the ways that power dynamics play out in our organizations. So I’m really hopeful that this episode has helped spark some healthy debate and hopefully movement forward around how to promote more inclusive volunteering by being a little more self-reflective.  

We need to be a little more self-reflective. It’s not about just finding different people from the community and inviting them to serve. It’s about changing how we go about supporting, engaging, valuing people who may not in a lot of respects in their regular life, in the community as a whole, that don’t really have a level playing field.  

We need to make sure that our organizations offer, actively offer a level playing field for all. So it’s a bit of a manifesto today. I hope you’re okay with me approaching this in a little bit different way. Little differently than the usual approach, but I know people are also looking for specifics.  

You know, they don’t want to just rubber stamp this. They want to take specific action. And sometimes the best way to identify an action that needs to be taken is to start by asking questions.  

So I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode. I know it probably brought up some really vivid images for you. Do not lose hope. Changing power is not easy, but having these kinds of conversations are important and really vital to taking your next steps.  

That’s our show for this week. Thank you for joining us for this episode of Volunteer Nation. And if you liked it, would you do me a favor and share this with a friend or a colleague who might also need a little inspiration around engaging volunteers? 

It will help us reach a larger audience, especially with this really important message. So I hope to see you next time. Next week, same time, same place for another episode of Volunteer Nation and take heart, continue to do the work. It’s never easy, but it is so worth it.  

The Volunteer Nation Podcast is produced by Thick Skin Media. Be sure to rate, review, and follow the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. For more tips and notes from each episode, check us out at TobiJohnson.com.