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.
Tobi: Welcome everybody to another episode of The Volunteer Nation Podcast! This week I have Beth Steinhorn and Jerome Tennille to talk about their new book that has just popped. You’re gonna want to get your hands on this book.
Before we get started, I’m just going to give you a little bit of info on Beth and Jerome and then we’re going to jump right into our interview. So welcome y’all.
Beth: Thanks! Good to be here.
Jerome: Thanks for having us.
Tobi: So Beth Steinhorn is the president of VQ Volunteer Strategies, where she partners with organizations and their leadership to increase their impact through strategic and innovative engagement.
Beth regularly participates in the national dialogue about volunteerism and engagement and is the co-editor of the new book, Transforming Disruption to Impact: Rethinking Volunteer Engagement for a Rapidly Changing World. And that is the book we’re going to talk about today. So welcome, Beth!
And Jerome Tennille is a corporate social responsibility or CSR and social impact consultant and the co-author and co-editor of this book.
Through his work as a consultant, he is responsible for leading corporate clients through social impact and environmental, social and governance, ESG strategy, design, and implementation to address their current and unique challenges while identifying opportunities.
So that’s just a little bit about each of you, but I thought maybe you’d be able to introduce us a little bit more to your work. So let’s start with Beth. Tell us a little bit about yourself and the work you do.
Beth: Thanks, Tobi. As you said, I consult with organizations throughout the US and Canada on volunteer engagement strategy. Basically, I help organizations increase their impact by tapping into volunteer talent. And I do that through training, assessments, strategic planning, coaching.
I started my career in museums working as an anthropologist and an educator, and I, well, many friends and former colleagues think I’ve made a big pivot in the last 15, 20 years to this work.
The truth is I apply some of that experience every day, since so much of what I do is about culture change. At its heart though, now the focus is on organizational culture.
Tobi: Yeah, absolutely. And Beth and I know each other from years and years of doing similar work and serving leaders of volunteers in volunteer driven organizations. So it’s great to have you, Beth, finally on the podcast. And Jerome, tell us a little bit about you.
Jerome: Yeah, of course. Well first, it’s certainly nice to be here with you today. So, you know, the idea or the term, corporate responsibility consultant, right? There’s a lot that sort of fits within there.
But when I talk about the work that I do with companies on that spectrum of social impact, it’s really some of those more traditional ideas of corporate responsibility. Your corporate employee volunteer programming, your corporate philanthropy, diversity, equity and inclusion.
Uh, these are other elements that might sort of orbit things like equity and human rights. But of course, you know, over the last five years, one of those focus areas has certainly been corporate volunteer.
I also like to talk about this other unique perspective that I bring to the work, in that I’ve also worked in a non-profit sector, so I’ve had the opportunity to see volunteerism sort of on both sides of the coin.
Tobi: Mm-hmm. Yeah, absolutely. I also worked in the sector for a long time before hanging my shingle out about a decade ago, but absolutely been on the end of working with corporations and really partnering with all kinds of people out in the community to strengthen our nonprofits.
So this is going to be a fantastic conversation, I can tell already. And just to kick it off, you both worked with a couple of other editors that I want to also mention for the book, Doug Bolton and Craig Young, who are also co-eds on the book.
So you had four folks editing this compendium of fantastic thought leadership in the midst of a pandemic, which really brought some, I think, vulnerabilities to light in our sector, but also spark some innovation in spite of the challenges that nonprofits were facing due to lockdowns, et cetera.
So I’m excited to talk about both the challenges and the opportunities and how we might move forward. Congratulations are in order of course, to get us kicked off with this book, Transforming Disruption to Impact: Rethinking Volunteer Engagement in a Rapidly Changing World.
So it really is about how folks have pivoted. What made you decide to write this book at this time? And either one of you can start.
Beth: Well, why don’t I jump in to start that? I had been considering writing a book for a while, and of course in fall 2020, that outline in my head began to evolve, given the rapidly changing circumstances in which we found ourselves and had mentioned it in passing to some colleagues.
And then I published, to be perfectly frank, I published a blog in 2021 about service days, and a colleague Craig Young reached out to ask a little more about that blog post and book ideas.
And we then spent a series of Fridays for months on end researching, brainstorming, starting to piece together some ideas to take some of my former ideas and, and evolve them about how we could pull together a collection like this to address emerging needs in the field, given all the disruptions we were facing.
And pretty quickly, we realized that while Craig and I were a good team, we needed to round out our team and bring in more voices, which really led to the invitation, the cajoling, the praying that Doug and Jerome would accept our invitation to join our little cohort.
And in the end, we’re very grateful that they said yes. And I don’t know if anyone else finds this funny, but I like to talk about it as our spin on a proverbial joke. Instead of a rabbi, priest, and an imam walked into a bar, we had a funder, a consultant, a corporate engagement leader, and an executive director walk into a Zoom meeting and started talking. And 16 months later, we have a book.
Tobi: Yeah. Awesome. Awesome. And Jerome, what were you thinking when you were thinking, you know what, Yeah, I’m going to jump in and start working on a book.
Jerome: It was a great opportunity. You know, what I’ll also share is, while I was brought into the conversation a little bit later, a book has been something that’s been on my mind for years prior to that, and writing more specifically about corporate engagement, corporate volunteer engagement, and some of the disconnect that you often see there.
So, while that has sort of been on the shelf and is still on the shelf and maybe that’ll come to life someday, when the opportunity to provide value to a book like this was brought before me, it was a no-brainer for me to say yes.
And I’ll tell you why. Because I think, you know, over the past 10 years as a social impact professional who has focused quite some time on volunteer engagement, I’ll be the first to share that I actually don’t read a whole lot of volunteer engagement books.
And the reason being is because most of them, in my opinion, haven’t provided the value that I’ve been looking for as a professional. So when Beth and Craig reached out to me, and they asked me if I wanted to be a part of this, I said, what a fantastic opportunity to be involved in a book that I absolutely believe is important for the profession to grow in advance.
Tobi: Yeah. You know, I think folks have been saying it for a while now. We need to really get over the old school and move into the new brave new world. I mean, there’s been innovations going, I talk a lot about technology and how to engage volunteers using technology.
We have new generations coming up. We have folks who have a different relationship to work and its value in their life, and whether or not it’s going to take priority over their families, et cetera. You know, pandemic epiphanies really blossomed, and people are really reconsidering, which impacts our nonprofits.
So tell us a little bit about the book’s organization. It’s split into four sections. Tell us a little bit about how it’s split up, and why it’s split up that way.
Beth: Sure. Happy to dive into that. The book is split into four sections that starts with the landscape of disruptions. Obviously Covid 19, the pandemic created a number of disruptions to volunteering, but in a lot of different ways, not just restricting volunteering, but for some areas like field of food insecurity, there was a dramatic increase in demand for services.
So it also pushed an increase in, and the need to innovate in different ways to deliver services. But there were other disruptions, an increased spotlight on racial equity and inequitable access to volunteerism.
Ageism was on the rise due to varied cross-generational blaming. Older generations blaming younger generations for spreading the virus. Younger generations blaming older generations for the lockdowns, and shifting expectations of volunteers from transactional experiences to seeking transformational experiences.
So the first section is simply on the landscape of these disruptions. Then the following three sections are on all the different rethinking that has to be done. Rethinking strategy, big picture. How do funders look at volunteer engagement? How do organizations look at volunteer engagement as a strategy rather than as a program in the corporate arena and elsewhere?
Rethinking engagement is the third section that’s much more on specific practices. How do we nurture community in a hybrid world? How do we rethink service days, et cetera.
And then rethinking impact. So rethinking strategies, one thing. Rethinking engagement is another, but we wrap up with a few compelling chapters on how have all of these shifts continued to drive change in our goals for impacts and outcomes of engagement.
How we talk about it and communicate the work that volunteers bring, and then how we think about the investments and infrastructure to drive impact.
Tobi: And it’s a collective of essays, of chapters, which is really a true collaborative effort. You’ve got a group of editors, you’ve got a group of writers. Some of the editors are writing. How was it to bring together all these voices and to work collaboratively?
Jerome: You know, I think there were great opportunities and also some challenges, right? I think in the normal volunteer engagement perspective, it’s like cat wrangling, right? And I think there’s a bit of that when you have 20-plus contributing practitioners who are lending their voice to this, which I think of course is difficult.
But one of the things that I always share about this book is I don’t talk about the book as being my book. It’s a collection of voices across a social impact space, right? From nonprofit, governmental, and from the corporate voice as well.
And the collection of voices together are, in my opinion, more important than any singular voice, including my own. And so that’s the opportunity. Of course, there’s challenges bringing all these different voices together in a cohesive manner to create what we did. But to me, there’s obviously that great opportunity that comes as a result.
Tobi: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think it’s important to showcase different points of view around volunteerism. Certainly at VolunteerPro, we work a lot with leaders of volunteers, but we’re also, this podcast for example, the audience is larger than that.
It’s more, anybody interested in community engagement and engaging volunteers for impact. The book, I found it it based on the assumption that the way we approach volunteer engagement is in need of an overhaul.
We’ve kind of hinted it that so far, and I think we all can agree. And the Covid pandemic absolutely brought it in high relief. Whether you were overwhelmed and needed a huge influx of volunteer talent to come help you deliver services, or you were saying, you know what? We can’t have any volunteers on site at all.
Some people we’ve heard anecdotally, and we’re probably going to find out in our Volunteer Management Progress Report this year more about how it has impacted folks. But we, we know that anecdotally, some organizations decided, you know what, we’re not going to do volunteerism anymore at all.
Or we’re going to let go of our volunteer manager, or we’re going to retask that person to another position. And now they’re wearing, instead of wearing 25 hats, now they’re wearing 35 hats, and still expected to get results.
So it’s been really, I think, a pressure for a lot of folks. Even before the pandemic happened though, thinking back to 2019, what are some of the areas you felt were in need of change even before we had this massive global trauma happen to us?
Beth: Well, I’ll share a few and then I’m sure Jerome will want to weigh in. I think that many of the areas that we were seeing coming to light, and really separating certain organizations from others in terms of their sustainability and adaptability were how they viewed volunteer engagement.
So when you have organizations that say that volunteers are part of a program and they need to be served and they are placed on one little area of an org chart, then you’re pitting volunteers against other program beneficiaries for resources.
That was something we’d been talking about many of us at, on local levels and national levels for many years leading up to 2020. So where volunteer engagement is seen as an organizational strategy versus program, that was a big piece.
There were lots of practices that had been around for a long time that many organizations were still resisting. Things like virtual volunteering, which you know, we’re all still shaking our heads and rolling our eyes going, how was that seen as something new and how were people resistant to it?
But there were many organizations that did it regularly and others who said, no, how can we possibly hold volunteers who are working remotely accountable? You asked about pre-2020, so I won’t steal the thunder that we all know played out in 2020, 2021, and 2022.
Those were some of the things. And then, maybe I’ll take the ball around service days and lob that over to you, Jerome, because that’s one of the areas where you and I have had a couple passionate conversations or, you know, energetic conversations around challenges around service days because we both recognized those limitations before 2020.
Jerome: Yeah. So it’s a yes and yes to everything Beth shared. And when we think about these things, and I’ll use service days as one example, like the idea of tethering a day of volunteerism around a very specific date in history or time, and the transactional nature of that.
And, you know, what does that actually either perpetuate in terms of negative behaviors in society that we’re actually trying to solve, but then also, what real impact does that have beyond the quantitative numbers that really don’t share the idea of impact or they’re just more sort of a calculation of the amount of time spent with people doing something.
So there’s that aspect of it. The singular date in history of it’s a one-and-done volunteerism, very transactional, but then even practices that go beyond that.
For example, how we show up in the community to volunteer, whether or not the mechanisms that we have created that engage people in service, whether those are equitable or whether they’re only perpetuating this idea of colonialism, right?
The idea that they can’t do for themselves, so we must do for them, right? That’s something that had to change for quite some time now that I think people are now only becoming open to.
Obviously, I’m not going to talk about virtual volunteerism. The practice itself isn’t necessarily innovative. It’s been around for as long as I’ve been on this earth, to put that in perspective.
But then the other thing too is really reimagining how do we measure and evaluate impact in our programming? Everything, in my opinion, everything about volunteer engagement, the way that we have done it, even pre Covid19 in many ways, had to change. Like all of it.
Tobi: Yeah, absolutely. I could not agree more. I mean, when you think about volunteerism, when folks come to me and we talk about, and they ask, how can I diversify my volunteer core? I will ask, well, what does your volunteer core look like right now?
And obviously it has been, and people will say, well, it’s a lot of retiree folks who are white. And I’ll say, mm-hmm, yep. And often women, right? And it’s been sort of a paradigm of people of means who actually have resources in retirement to give.
And of course, we want everybody who has the opportunity to participate if they can. And it’s easier for folks who, for example, have a pension or have more than their social security check here.
But I’ve often argued that service beneficiaries, folks who are benefiting from the organization’s work can be some of the best volunteers ever. You know, they have the direct experience, they have the lived experience, they have the advice, they are champions often for change, and advocates from within the organization.
So either in a volunteer role as an advocate inside the organization, as an advisor, a strategic advisor, or in a role of direct service, you know? And folks go, well wait a minute! And I’m like, what do you mean, wait a minute? If your job is to empower people and to have them live their full self, wouldn’t this be part of living your fullest self?
Beth: And I think the disruptions of the last few years enabled many organizations, organizational leaders, community leaders, to take some leaps and embrace some of that spirit of what you’re saying, Tobi. Borrowing a page from the book of mutual aid societies, where people are not deemed a volunteer and a beneficiary.
Everyone is respected as an individual who has the potential to have needs that can be met by others, and be someone who can help fill other people’s needs and help other people. And so that’s where we get in the volunteer engagement arena or corporate engagement arena. Not just mutual aid societies, but a lot more openness to connecting with informal volunteerism.
So everything, uh, as Jerome said, it’s a yes-and, Tobi. We can be recruiting from within people who are often receiving services, but also we can be connecting with informal networks of volunteers. And that really happened in very profound ways in Spring 2020.
But also, you know, that also wasn’t new. It was about helping the field be ready to say, there are people who can help us and we don’t need to engage in turf wars about whose data, who’s out, who gets to record the hours, who gets the names and emails.
There are people willing to sign up to help and deliver meals and check in with isolated adults. Let’s connect with those individuals and why not?
Tobi: And we had a ton of people just starting up their own initiatives. Oh, let’s help people connect and find vaccines. Oh, let’s help people get home delivered groceries, whatever it was in. I know the UN State of volunteerism report for this year showed, some of their data showed a real boost in informal volunteering globally.
People have an inherent..I think we have DNA. I mean we are definitely a group type of animal as a human species. We work in best in clans, and social capital has really taken a hit because we haven’t been able to be in our groups, but then people find a way anyway.
Jerome, when you said really about thinking about connection and anti-colonialism, and what about the transformation of the volunteer themselves in their service? When I think of being a white woman, and if I’m volunteering, and I’ve worked 25-30 years in nonprofits during my career before consulting.
So, I worked in a lot of diverse communities, and working in those diverse communities helped me grow as a human and understand. And the diverse teams I hired helped me understand better my inherent bias, the lessons I needed to learn as a white woman.
So, I think there’s that part of volunteerism that never hardly ever gets talked about. In direct service, we think about volunteers giving and transforming communities and impacting communities, but it’s also impacting on the volunteer as well. What were you going to say, Beth?
Beth: I was thinking about the fact that, when you were talking about so much of the world’s volunteering, and informal volunteering being on the rise. Informal volunteering has been the majority of volunteering around the world for so long throughout history.
We certainly recognize that the term volunteering is not universal, but the act of volunteering is. And I think what we saw by collecting these essays in our virtual round table, so to speak, of, of having all these different thought leaders come together and share their experiences and strategies, is that these disruptions and the forced need to rethink the rules that we were living by and working by.
It gave permission to be open to engaging with people who don’t fit whatever criteria or definition of a volunteer prior to 2020 and say, oh, people are willing to help. And that’s universal.
Tobi: Yep, absolutely. Well, hey, let’s take a quick break and when we come back, we’ll talk more about how some non-profits are managing volunteer disruption and transforming it into something of value with Beth Steinhorn and Jerome Tennille.
It’s all about silver linings, I think, isn’t it lately? So don’t go anywhere and we’ll be right back.
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Tobi: Okay, we’re back with our discussion with Beth Steinhorn and Jerome Tennille around volunteer disruption and innovation in our sector. It’s a fascinating conversation so far, so I’m looking forward to digging in further.
Before the break, we were talking about what was happening up til 2019 or into 2019, right before the pandemic.
You know, in our annual Volunteer Management Progress Report, state-of-the-industry survey, organizational buy-in and understanding around how we support volunteer engagement initiatives continues to be a top concern for leaders of volunteers year in year out.
Aside from volunteer recruitment, which is, except for last year, the number one top challenge, this is usually in the top three. Why do you think it’s so difficult for organizations to fully embrace volunteerism as an impact strategy that’s deserving of full investment?
Jerome: I think there might be two different answers here. This is something I think I feel fairly passionate about. I think we all have recognized, especially in the field of volunteer engagement, volunteer engagement as a practice, as a mechanism for change, is oftentimes either the least funded or not funded at all.
$0. She got a big donut, right? I’m curious to hear the answer to this. I have a slightly different take on this. I think people, they undervalue it because people volunteer in their own lives individually, and so they assume that the mechanisms themselves are free or don’t necessarily need to have a whole lot of capacity in terms of funding.
And I’ll use one example here. Most of us have social media accounts. I’ll use myself as an example. I have my own LinkedIn, I have my own Twitter, I have my own Instagram, and I use that in my own personal capacity. I am not dumb enough to think that I could for one second manage the enterprise social media account for any major big brand.
That’s not what I specialize in. Having said that, I think there are folks who say, Well, I can volunteer in my own personal capacity and it’s easy and it’s little expense on my part.
I just go out and give my time. So how hard could it possibly be? What money or investment do I need to put into that mechanism for this large institution who’s engaging volunteers?
So that’s sort of like a, maybe a fairly different take or different answer than Beth. It’s this idea that, well, I can do it. It’s easy for me to manage my own volunteer engagement, so how hard could it possibly be?
Why should I give that organization any additional funding when they could probably just figure it out, right? Like, volunteer engagement is free. There are all these different myths and all these preconceived ideas of how easy it is. So if it’s easy, why do you need to put money behind it?
Tobi: Absolutely. Beth, what do you think?
Beth: I would say I agree wholeheartedly. That is something, I don’t think we differ. You as always, Jerome, you have an interesting and slightly different lens to approach the issue. But I think the biggest barrier to organizations fully embracing volunteerism as an impact strategy is this myth that volunteer engagement is free.
And that is evidenced by the number of volunteer engagement professionals whose positions were cut or cut back, or were relegated to one of 37 new responsibilities in light of the pandemic and reductions in force, et cetera.
Again, it has to do with something I mentioned before. If volunteer involvement is viewed as a program, then volunteers are pitted in competition with other beneficiaries for resources, and of course that volunteer piece would be cut if they’re in competition with the people being served by the mission of the organization or the community being served. But when you treat them as partners, then it’s a strategy to help achieve other goals.
That’s the evidence that so many people were cut back or cut entirely. One of the challenges is the way that we talk about, or one of the unfortunate practices that have sustained that myth, is the very limited way that we in the industry continue to talk about the impact that volunteers have when all we do is count hours and worse yet equate those hours to some dollar amount that is often higher than many of the staff paid staff members are making.
We are not doing a lot of justice to advance the idea that volunteer engagement is a strategy and volunteers are partners in the work. Instead, people say, oh well, you know, it doesn’t take any investment and they just bring a value-add and we can use them as a match on funding.
That whole limited way of tracking and measuring impact, unfortunately perpetuates this myth. That said, there have been great strides and there are wonderful leading thinkers and practitioners who continue to work to evolve that, and I am hopeful that this will continue and in five years and 10 years, we will be having a different conversation.
Tobi: Yeah, absolutely. I think with budgets, there are costs to volunteer engagement. Of course you have staff, you know, paid staff salaries, benefits, et cetera.
You have software they’re using. You have shared space. You know, I sometimes think, and I really advocate like, look, you need to have a dedicated budget so that those costs aren’t hidden. Because folks will say, Well, I don’t control my budget.
I go, well, do you have input into your budget? You know, we teach in VolunteerPro, we teach how to build your budget, your line item budget for volunteerism. And they’ll say, Well, I don’t have control over that budget. I go, Well, you should develop the budget anyway so that you can, wherever your line items are embedded in whatever departments throughout your organization.
It should be clear what this cost is, and what it’s getting your organization in terms of impact, et cetera. It’s very rare for there to be clear understanding of volunteers as donors, which we know from the research that volunteers are donors and donors or volunteers.
There’s a huge crossover and most people will donate where they volunteer if they’re asked. So there’s so much, there’s economic value there as well. There’s talent, there’s community capital that’s brought to the organization that is very hard to calculate.
I think that’s one of the challenges, it’s hard to calculate community capital. You know, we’re not economists and the easiest is the per hour average. And I’m always like, use everything at your disposal to explain to the right stakeholder what you’re doing.
I think those are some of the challenges, but I agreed on both points that you’ve both made about why it might be difficult. We talked a lot about challenges. I thought maybe we could switch gears and talk about innovation, and what are some of the bright spots out in our field.
You know, your book is really about challenging us to think innovatively, talking about disruption despite the odds. What were some of your favorite stories in the book?
Jerome: There are so many. There are a lot. And I think that’s probably the vanilla answer, but I think there are a few that certainly stick out to me as favorites.
There’s Racial Equity and Volunteerism, which is written by Wendy Vang-Roberts, which really talks about the disruption that we’ve seen in the landscape of volunteer engagement because of a handful of very catalytic moments.
Where it was racial injustice after racial injustice that unlocked the door, I think in most people’s minds, that started making people think more about equity, but equity applied to everything, including volunteer engagement.
There were a lot of different stories like that, but I think the one that I think I really, truly resonates with me is Volunteering as a Mechanism to Develop Empathy. And that’s written by Chris Jarvis and Angela Parker at Realized Worth.
And this is something I think you touched on earlier, Tobi. You talked about what happened to the volunteer when they go out into the community and is serving. I happen to believe that service volunteer engagement, it can be a vessel for multicultural understanding and also removing implicit bias and thus, building empathy.
And the folks at Realized Worth, they do a fantastic job at really capturing what that looks like and engaging people in this conversation around your person or a person going out to volunteer and over time, becoming a better citizen, becoming a better employee, becoming a better person because they are being exposed to new things socially and environmentally.
That over time they start to build empathy for others who otherwise be considered the outgroup. That you might not necessarily care about if you hadn’t built that empathy for them.
And so, I think these two chapters to me are tied and the ones that I like the most and resonate with me. But I think that, for me, the story about empathy, it rings true to me because I think we need so much more of that in this world right now.
Tobi: Could not agree more. I mean, whether we’ve been taught a certain point of view, we’re seeing it on the media. In the media, whether our family, our community, our family, whatever.
If you’re a self-reflective person of any kind, and usually people who volunteer have some idea that there’s a need in a community, they have some level of self-reflection and self-awareness. That when a myth is busted in your brain, the thing I call these moments are “things that make you go hmm.”
This person is not like I thought they’d be. Or this situation is not what I thought it was. You know, I think there’s myths galore around poverty and why people are in poverty and there’s myths galore about why people aren’t out of homelessness, for example. I used to work with homeless youth in San Francisco and lots of myths about it, about homeless youth.
So, you know, whether it’s the cause itself, why people are in need, or people themselves who are just different than you and not just the people that you’re serving or your causes hoping to improve in the world, the situation, but also your fellow volunteers.
I mean, in my volunteer team, we’re very different humans on this planet, extremely different.And in any other situation, we would not be friends. We would not be in social circles together, but we’ve been able to form a very tight team.
I mean, we just had lunch at my house on our deck yesterday. We had everybody come over and we just had a good time hanging out just as, as collegial friends who volunteer together. I think there’s so much value in that.
Bridging social capital that we can build through volunteerism. Beth, what do you think? What were some of your favorites from the book?
Beth: I’m glad Jerome mentioned those two. Those are certainly top of my list and a few others. Like the chapter by Rena Cohen from UJA Federation of New York. She brought the philanthropic, the funder perspective. And UJA is really leading the way in redefining how funders view volunteer engagement.
Her chapter really looks at how the foundation was recognizing volunteer engagement as a solution to organizational challenges, particularly with a group of food pantries that were trying to implement digital technology and realized they needed new, they needed more and different volunteers in order to do that.
That program started a few months before March of 2020, and then of course in March of 2020 everything shifted. And what UJA recognized was that these food pantries were only able to meet the dramatic increase in demand for services because of the heightened food insecurity, because they had been building a foundation of volunteer engagement.
As a result a few months later, they were listening to their grantees and realized that they were hearing from grantees who ran employment services that said, Oh my gosh, we are being overrun due to the high unemployment rate by individuals whom we placed in positions 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, who are now on the job hunt again.
And UJA said, We will help fund training and coaching and staffing to help you engage volunteers with this. A few months later, the next ripple effect became clear: senior services. And tragically now, they’re looking at their fourth wave of investment in volunteer engagement for grantees
Seeing the fourth ripple of impacts and challenges due to the pandemic, which is around organizations that serve victims of domestic violence and also protecting LGBTQ youth.
And so, UJA is saying to grantees and to organizations, we see engaging volunteers as a solution, not a free match of in-kind hours on the grant we’re going to give you, but actually a line item in your grant application so we can then fund your need to get to build capacity through volunteers.
So that’s a huge favorite of mine because I think it’s changing the conversation in the philanthropic world, which is really vital. I’ll also share briefly, I love the chapter by Cindy Zagieboylo and Lauren Spero from National MS Society, where they really very quickly put a mandate from the CEO’s office that everyone’s responsibility across the nation, across the whole society was to work to stay connected until we can be together again.
And that wasn’t just a platitude. They actually supported staff members in taking time simply to build community and stay connected and find new or sustained connecting opportunities, volunteer opportunities, other opportunities for the thousands of event volunteers whose events were canceled or on hold.
That was one thing I really loved around that community piece. And. I also love some of the innovations and the self-organizing in Carme Bowman’s chapter on informal volunteering and Amay Agarwal and Mary’s chapter on Developed For Good, a student developed initiative to help college students who lost their internships and has really evolved into a whole kind of intergenerational tech support.
Amazing organization that’s helping thousands of nonprofits now with tech focused students to help with that whole technology piece of volunteer engagement.
Tobi: I think it’s really become clear that volunteers are a key to resilience and sustainability. We found in our VolunteerPro community and in some of our Time + Talent podcast interviews for season four, which will be dropping soon, and I’ll post a link to that podcast in the show notes.
But we found that organizations that, even arts and culture organizations that had to shut down, if when they maintained their relationship with volunteers, they were able to bounce back a lot faster because when the time came to open the doors back or just to invite people for a few events, those would be filled with people who wanted to help.
And then other organizations who, you know, stopped full-stop ad did nothing to maintain that relationship. I mean, what do you expect when two years later you’re asking. You know, people have moved on with their lives.
Rather than other folks who decided, you know what, We’re going to continue to have a relationship with these important stakeholders in our mission. They are reaping the rewards of that, of a different type of paradigm in the way they think about their support network and their community network.
So I think there’s real relationships there. I also think it’s interesting to think about, you know, there’s been a debate in philanthropy for a while, and I think it’s sort of the tail end of this debate now. The debate over non-profit overhead and whether or not people should be funding overhead and whether or not, how much overhead, et cetera, et cetera.
That was a big philanthropic debate for a while. I’m wondering now if this idea that volunteers aren’t free and then if we are going to fully support and lean into the sustainability of our organization, volunteers need to be a part of that and that requires funding and support, et cetera, if that might become one of the big debates of the day.
And I would love to see that and I hope that your book kind of sparks that conversation, that continuing conversation, and has a ripple effect outward. Because, you know, talent management is not easy. I’ll tell people, look, I have supervised paid stuff. And I’ve supervised unpaid staff.
And I can tell you that leading unpaid staff is harder. You have to have much more talent. And it’s not only the leader of volunteers that has to be the person leading. I mean, the whole organization has to understand how to work in partnership with people who have a myriad of talents to bring to the table.
And, you know, that volunteer position description doesn’t even begin to describe what people are bringing to the table. I just think it’s an interesting point in time to see if this builds momentum and that this debate, maybe this will become the debate in philanthropic circles.
You know, is volunteerism part of our sustainability? And if so, how are we going to support it? Great conversation so far. Let’s talk about tech and evolutions in technology and volunteer engagement. How do you think technology and are folks in the book talking a bit about technology and volunteerism?
Beth: Absolutely. It’s a theme that weaves its way through a lot of different chapters, some in a more explicit way, others more implicitly. But technology absolutely plays a role in the evolution of volunteer engagement.
We already touched on virtual volunteering, which is not solely tech driven, but often fueled or connected or facilitated through technology. And that again, was not an innovation, but the stay at home orders, the now very hybrid workforce with many staff members working at home.
You know, that accelerated the breaking down of any remaining resistance to engaging volunteers. But technology doesn’t only enable volunteers to serve remotely. It allows us to think about new ways to define community and connect powerfully regardless of where individuals are tuning in, so to speak.
It also allows us to think about volunteers in far more multifaceted roles. You mentioned before, Tobi, that people give their time where they give their money and people give their money where they give their time, that there’s tremendous overlap between donors and volunteers.
We can now, if we equip volunteers to do so, we can really deputize them to be talent scouts on behalf of our organization, to leverage their networks, to help us reach new audiences. To be ambassadors and advocates to share our mission.
And then of course, there’s the whole how do individuals find opportunities to volunteer? And it has become, over many years now, a consumer driven market to find volunteer opportunities because volunteers can just pick up their phone and apply to volunteer or sign up to volunteer at just a few swipes and taps.
That said, I’d purport that it’s still important for organizational leaders to remember that while technology facilitates connecting people to acts of service and support for your mission, the personal ask still reigns supreme. It’s just that we have many different ways of making that personal ask thanks to technology.
It doesn’t have to be a conversation at the water cooler. It can be over text, over email, and social media, all sorts of different ways. But I suspect Jerome has a lot to add, too.
Jerome: Yeah, it’s a yes and right, like yes to everything you said. But I think the other part of this too is there’s this growing expectation that non-profits do have virtual volunteer opportunities.
So just as regular access to broadband in your home for children to attend school has become the expectation of normal, there is this growing and sort of normal expectation now that virtual volunteering is a part of the toolkit for all non-profits.
And so, you know, what does that mean for the non-profit and what does it mean for upskilling their staff and transforming their own program service delivery model to now effectively adapt this growing expectation?
What sort of funding do they need in order to adapt to this this new expectation around technology? But then the other part of this too is I think technology still has a long way to go, but there is also this growing expectation that we’re using technology we can more effectively and accurately measure and evaluate the volunteer engagement programs.
So there is also that growing expectation of, through the use of technology, we should all be able to collect, track, measure, and report on these outputs and outcomes to a greater degree.
But at the end of the day, like technology, however you want to use it, requires money, right? There are some pretty high-tech, fast-moving, very capable technology platforms that exist. Unfortunately, they cost sometimes quite a bit of money.
Tobi: The days of free with tech, I mean, even most platforms now, you can get some free use of a platform. Like an email service provider, et cetera, starting at the most basic sort of text, somebody would need to build an audience and communicate with that audience.
It used to be, you know, you get a certain number of free contacts and you get all the functionality. Well, now you can get a certain number of contacts and get minimal functionality and it’s not even really helping you do the job of building a relationship.
And so I think about tech in a couple different ways. One is how it helps us become more efficient as a worker. Like if folks are still typing out volunteer names and hours and setting up shifts on Excel spreadsheets, when that could be done, volunteers could be signing up for shifts and that that software already is out there.
You know, what happens when we move some of those repetitive tasks online. And as AI grows, that stuff will be easier and easier. The computer will do it. Then it frees up staff and volunteer leaders. I’m not even going to leave volunteer leaders out of this story.
But really, you know, how does that free people’s time up to do what’s really important, which is the relationship management and relationship development. You know, management by walking around, whether it’s sending somebody a personal…you know, nowadays you can personalize all kinds of things.
You can send people individual videos with video, and emails with video embedded like, Hey, so-and-so, just wondering how your day’s going. It takes like literally 15 seconds to reach out individually.
But again, these, these technologies cost money and you have to decide whether or not you’re going to transition your folks from clerical duties to relationship management, which is so much more. Relationship development, which is so much more impactful I think in the long run.
So, you know, totally agree with both of you on the ways that we need to think about technology, and as people start to adopt new things, really highlighting what are those big wins for folks?
What about…I know folks are probably listening and wondering like, is there something I can take away that I can start using? So I want to begin to wrap up our conversation with maybe something really practical.
I know a lot of people ask this question, how do I track impact beyond volunteer hours? In the book, what are the ways that people are innovatively thinking about tracking impact in a way that’s beyond our volunteer hours and our value of the volunteer hours, et cetera?
I always think of volunteer hours as a capacity. It’s sort of a leading metric. It lets us know if we don’t have X number of volunteers doing that, certainly we can have people be more efficient. But it helps us predict whether or not we’re going to have those end results. What are people doing in these areas? Be curious to know.
Jerome: So, I have a couple different answers. I will say that I think as a field there is still quite a bit of challenge in how we define impact. There are different angles to what is defined as impact.
There’s the idea, and if we’re thinking about empathy, building empathy through volunteer engagement. While there is an impact on the volunteer themselves, how do you track that?
Well, you can’t track that through quantitative data. It’s qualitative surveying that oftentimes get to the root of somebody’s gradual change in their way of thinking based on the shift that they’ve had in their own mindset.
That’s really, really difficult to do. I suspect there are folks like the folks at Realized Worth who are working with their corporate clients and are putting in the mechanisms to track that type of stuff.
I would also say that I think across the field of social impact, people are thinking more deliberately now around the idea of theory of change. How do my inputs and activities translate into outputs and eventually, hopefully, crossing fingers, positive outcome.
The outcome itself is not, it’s not quantitative, it’s qualitative, so sometimes that is immediate in order in how you track that. It might be somebody’s experience from the moment that they start volunteering to the end of when they’re done volunteering. What is that immediate experience that they’re feeling?
But if you’re talking about these long-term outcomes, like sometimes these outcomes, it takes years of attributing the act of volunteer engagement, the individual tactical level actions over a set number of years to say this is the long-term outcome that we have achieved that we wouldn’t have otherwise achieved through volunteer engagement. That too is incredibly elusive.
The last thing I’ll share on this too is I think most volunteer engagement entities, whether they are corporations, non-profit institutions, governmental organizations or agencies or practitioners themselves are oftentimes stuck in the rut of just the quantitative itself. And in part because that’s the easiest to track.
And so it’s the low hanging fruit and it requires the least amount of effort for getting numbers that I think are more universally understood.
So that’s not a great answer, but I share all of it just to say that it’s a fairly big gray area, and it’s something that I think we’re all struggling with to varying degrees.
Tobi: Beth, what would you add to the impact conversation?
Beth: The one tactical or really practical piece I would add is really a challenge. Hopefully an inspirational call to action for those who lead volunteers and lead non-profits and government agencies that engage volunteers, which is to be advocates for diversifying the ways that we reveal and communicate the impacts and outcomes of volunteer involvement.
So, take the traditional retention metric. We’ve talked, we’ve really done our job of giving our views of hours and dollar value, but even just retention metrics. The end of 2020, I got countless calls and comments from people in the field saying, Beth, my retention metrics are just in the basement.
They totally took a hit this year, and that’s the kpi, that’s what I’m being held accountable for. I said, Okay, this is where we need to begin to be change leaders and recognize that retention. There is no industry accepted definition of retention. What would it look like if your goal was to sustain engagement at your organization in some way?
Keeping people connected, even if they were engaged as ambassadors, as donors. And when you can reopen or reconnect with volunteers, actively engage them as volunteers. So I think we need to get beyond the more isn’t necessarily better. And the fallacy that success has only been measured by keeping the same person in the same role year over year.
But as Jerome talked about, to start revealing outcomes and worth of volunteer involvement and advocate for metrics that reveal those types of benefits of engaging volunteers.
Tobi: I also think..You know, I started in the arts and then quickly moved when I started my career into employment and training. And you know, back in the day, this was in the nineties you know, we had KPIs in that field.
You know, employment and training was probably the first sub-sector of the nonprofit space that really had very clear impact. How many people got jobs, what was their average wage? How long did they stay in their job?
And I think about all of the, especially direct service, but could even be sort of our arts and culture type organizations when there is an impact. For example, let’s use arts and culture for example. How many tickets were sold to an event? How many people showed up, et cetera.
You know, people are going to buy tickets to events, whether it’s a festival, whether it’s the opera, whatever. Lot of these organizations have volunteers as ushers, for example. If those experiences are good, they’re going to return, right?
I ask, who owns those impacts? Whether you are a volunteer who’s helping somebody get a job, or you’re a volunteer who’s taking tickets at the opera? You are still the workforce, the help force that’s making this happen.
And why, if we’re looking at volunteer impact, why don’t volunteers own those impacts, own those KPIs? And so sometimes I say the question, the answer is right in front of us. It’s the impacts of the programs where volunteers are part of the human resources that are making that happen.
They own part of that result, you know, so they should be given credit for that result rather than trying to find some. And then I think with the volunteer engagement, those are metrics that help us understand our capacity the level of our engagement. But in the end, if we’re looking at final results, it’s what happens in the program. Wherever it is, wherever volunteers are deployed.
Beth: And sometimes it’s even more indirect. Volunteers may be doing work behind the scenes that frees staff up to do the work for which they’re uniquely qualified, which might be helping to produce those programs. It’s part of the organization as a whole.
Tobi: And I think Jerome, you also made the point that sometimes these impacts in community are, they take years, they take decades.
If you think of volunteers working in advocacy or activist groups, I used to work in healthcare advocacy and I can tell you, we’re finally being able to negotiate drug prices with big pharma. I can tell you that was decades in the making of advocates working on the ground. Seriously! It’s finally happening, you know?
So, it’s interesting to think about impact and I’m glad we’re continuing to have the conversation. We should be. Volunteers are an investment and volunteers are investing themselves into our organization. Certainly they want to have meaningful work as well.
We’re at about an hour, so I think we’re going to wrap up and this has been such a fantastic conversation. I’m going to ask one more question before we go, but I want to remind people just to go ahead and grab this book, Transforming Disruption to Impact.Where can folks find the book?
Beth: It is available on Amazon, and Barnes and Noble, at Amplify Publishing. Anywhere that books are sold.
Tobi: And we will link to it in the show notes as well. So gang, if you want a dose of inspiration, a dose of “Tell it like it is,” let me make some change. Something you may want to show your leadership at your organization as well.
If you’re a leader of volunteers. If you are an organizational leader, maybe you just want to think differently about how volunteers are involved. Just get your hands on this book. I really recommend it.
One more question before we log off. What’s something you’re looking forward to in the year ahead? Jerome, let’s start with you. What, what’s one thing you’re looking forward to?
Jerome: I think continuing this conversation around the mindset shift. I think one of the things that I’ve seen over the last two years that has not stopped is that there’s this rapid accelerating change. But to go along with that, people have opened up their minds, like new ideas that pre covid19, they have never been open to before.
And so that’s it. It’s like this mindset shift that I’m excited for, and right now it’s a wave that going into the future. And right now it’s not stopping, which is great.
Tobi: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a crack. There’s a crack, the lights showing through. That’s fantastic. Awesome. What do you think, Beth, what are you excited about?
Beth: Well, no surprise. Similar to Jerome. It’s about continuing these conversations. For me, the book has been an opportunity to bring a thought exercise basically to light.
You know, the dream of what if we could get two dozen thought leaders around a table for a dinner party, having conversations around these issues and challenges we’ve all been living through in some cases for many decades that all came really to a heightened clarity starting in 2020.
And now I’m just excited every time we can bring other people into the conversation because the book is not intended to be a complete collection. It’s a snippet of conversations that we see continuing.
And that’s what I’ve been thrilled to be doing is keeping these conversations going virtually or in real life because each time I talk with folks about some of these ideas and more importantly listen to folks, I learn more about other innovations and adaptations, and that’s inspiring to me and I hope to others as well.
Tobi: Yes. Jerome, Beth, thank you so much for joining me today on The Volunteer Nation. Congratulations on the book. It is no small feat to publish a book. So hats off to you for bringing this group of talented authors together, and everybody is listening.
Thanks again for joining us for this episode of The Volunteer Nation. If you really liked it, I would love it if you would share this episode with a friend or colleague who might need a little extra inspiration.
And thank you so much. We appreciate every one of you as our listeners, and I hope you’ll join us next week. Same time, same place on the Volunteer Nation. Take care everybody.
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