Why Volunteers and a Spiderman Theory

October 31, 2016

Filed under: Advocacy,Human Resources,Leadership,Volunteers — jonathanpoisner @ 1:22 pm

Why Volunteers and a Spiderman Theory of Volunteer Responsibility

Most organizations with whom I consult make some effort to involve volunteers.

Some are wildly successful.  Others are not.

There are many factors that lead some to be more successful than others, but two stand out that I want to explore in this article.

First, most successful programs are crystal clear about why they’re mobilizing volunteers and they design their program accordingly.

Second, most successful programs find the right balance between asking volunteers to take responsibility and giving them power.   That gives rise to my Spiderman theory of volunteer management.

Why Volunteers?

Before we can get to Spiderman, it’s important to first ask the question: why volunteers?  There are dozens of potential answers, but in general they tend to fit into three big categories:

  1. Getting more stuff done
  2. Building power
  3. Generating leaders

Getting more stuff done

If I’m a staff person for an organization, I can spend an hour doing an activity.  1 person x 1 hour = 1 unit of activity.

If instead I spend that hour recruiting volunteers and find one volunteer who’ll show up and do the activity for 3 hours, then I’ve magically transformed my 1 hour into 3 units of activity.

Of course, there are many assumptions here, such as the assumption of 1 hour = 1 volunteer recruited, that the volunteer can do the activity as effectively as the staff person, that it won’t take even more staff time overseeing the volunteer, etc.

Each organization needs to unpack the various activities for which it’s looking to use volunteers and run the math (using the best estimates you can for your rate of volunteer recruitment, how much training and oversight time will be needed).  Then it can answer the question:  will a volunteer recruitment focus lead to more bang for the buck than just doing the work without volunteers.

Building power

Organizations also use volunteers to build power.  To the extent our organizations are trying to impact public decision-making, perceptions of political power matter.  And in general, organizations who appear to be backed by lots of people have more power than those backed by fewer.  And volunteer activity can be harnessed to be visible to public officials.

Beyond this general maxim, it’s also the case that public officials are more likely to respond to the pleas of their constituents than they are to paid staff for organizations.  Of course, that assumes the constituents are on-message, well trained, etc.  And not all constituents are equal – as much as we wish they were.  Some constituents will be especially appealing to some elected officials based on their role in the community (e.g. business owner, clergy, neighborhood leader, etc.).

Generating leaders

Beyond building power and getting more stuff done, we also use volunteers to generate leaders.

Within our organizations, we’re always looking for the next set of board members and those willing to take on higher-level responsibilities.  If we don’t involve volunteers at the more basic level, it will be harder to identify organizational leaders or take potential board members out for a “test drive” in some other role.

In addition, to the extent our organizations are part of movements, we are hoping to generate movement-leadership as well.   In training a volunteer, they may wind up taking on leadership for an allied organization.  At OLCV, I always took pride when our volunteers wound up serving as staff for other organizations after going through our training program.  Since our organization’s vision was explicitly to serve a network/movement, we saw that as a clearly positive outcome.

Matching your volunteer program to your primary reason

It would be easy to just say: “we want all three of the above” as the reason for a volunteer program.  But in my experience, especially when organizations are first really investing in their volunteer program, it’s important to decide their primary objective among the three, and then design their program accordingly.

  • A getting more stuff done emphasis may lead to a focus on clear, simple-to-do tasks and urgent campaigns around which to motivate lots of volunteers.
  • A building power emphasis may mean a focus not on the overall number of volunteers, but rather identifying volunteers from key audiences (the constituency being served, influential within the community, etc.).
  • A generating leaders emphasis may lead to a focus on a smaller number of volunteers recruited to take on higher-level tasks with a lot of training and relationship-building baked into the program.

Matching power and responsibility

That gives rise to the second point I want to make about effective volunteer programs – they find the right balance between asking people to take responsibility and giving them power.

That’s where Spiderman comes in.  Spidey’s catchphrase is: “With great power comes great responsibility.”  My volunteer corollary for that is:  “If you want your volunteers to take on real responsibility, you must give them real power.”

Many organizations vest real power in their board and zero power in their other volunteers and then wonder why those other volunteers won’t take on more responsibility.  This becomes particularly challenging if the organization’s plan relies on creating a core group of “mid-level” volunteers who’re there to do more than take on tasks, but less than the obligations of board service.

In my experience, the solution lies in providing zones of authority for these mid-level volunteers.  These are areas where they have responsibility and with it, some power to make decisions – whether on organizational policy or allocation of organizational resources.

This can be scary for some boards because it means these mid-level volunteers can make mistakes.  In my experience, though, as long as appropriate side boards are put in place, giving these mid-level volunteers (working through committees, task forces, work groups, etc.) authority can vastly expand their commitment to the organization – and from it the level of work they take on.

During my time at OLCV, this played out with multiple straight election cycles where our campaigns involved more than 1000 volunteers, heavily fueled by chapter steering committees recruiting their friends and families to volunteer.

Of course, your mileage may vary.  The devil’s in the details.

Each organization needs to find the right balance given their organizational culture, lay of the land, and priorities.  But better to think this through explicitly rather than leave it to chance.

Ideas for Donor Involvement

April 17, 2014

Filed under: Fundraising,Volunteers — jonathanpoisner @ 12:36 pm

I once talked to an Executive Director who resisted inviting major donors to volunteer or become more involved because “I don’t want to seem like I’m bothering them. Their gift should be enough.”

I thought that was backwards. Of course, you could make the ask poorly in a way that’s bothersome. But as a general rule, inviting people to get involved is a key way to enhance the commitment of your donors to the organization.

Here are 6 ideas for how to engage current/potential donors, in no particular order.

1. Hold a conference call briefing for them. New technology allows opportunities for people to be on the call and ask questions, without it being disruptive.

2. Invite them to volunteer on tasks that could be done by staff or board members, but don’t have to be done by staff. This will vary wildly by the type of organization, but could include everything from having them help out in the office, to assist with an event, to lead a hike or tour.

3. Hold a “focus group.” Whether as part of strategic planning or otherwise, pick some topic where input from those beyond the board/staff would be helpful and invite enough donors to have 8-10 participate and lead them through a conversation.

4. Hold a “Salon.” Pick a book, article, or even a TedTalk video for them to read/watch and have them join a board member at their home to discuss it over a glass of wine. Obviously, you’d want to pick a topic that’s relevant for the organization.

5. Participate in a committee. This could be an ongoing committee or it could be a short-term committee charged with answering a specific question.

6. Send them an online member survey. Ask for their feedback on how the organization is doing and priorities for the future.

I’m always looking for more ideas, so let me know what else your organization has done to make donors feel involved.

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A fascinating video about motivation

November 20, 2012

Filed under: Board Development,Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning,Volunteers — jonathanpoisner @ 5:39 pm

The question I keep asking myself after repeatedly re-watching this video is: what are the implications for nonprofit organizations?

Some implications are fairly straightforward:

For example, with very few exceptions, nonprofits tend to eschew the use of financial performance bonuses as a means to spur better future results. The video suggests nonprofits are right to avoid financial bonuses.

Also, nonprofits have an inherent advantage over for-profit entities, in that their “purpose” is hard-wired into their reason for existence, unlike the “purpose” examples Pink cites from the for-profit world.

But how about mastery and autonomy? I think one of the deeper meanings of the video is that nonprofits can’t simply play the “purpose” trump card as a way to motivate volunteers and staff, if there is no effort to take into account the other two motivators.

If purpose, mastery, and autonomy are three legs of a stool, the nonprofit can’t survive on just one leg.

Another way of putting it is: if you strip away autonomy and mastery as a way to motivate your nonprofit team, what will result?

A nonprofit I’ve known for some time recently changed its decision-making structure to remove a great deal of authority (e.g. autonomy) from volunteers, even as the nonprofit continues to tout volunteers as a critical part of its strategy. Over time, what will that mean for the nonprofit’s ability to attract high quality volunteers? My prediction (which hasn’t yet had time to be born out) is that it will have a significant negative impact.

Aside from giving decision-making control to volunteers, are there other ways to meet their needs for autonomy and mastery?

What about employees? Are there lessons for how to engage them beyond the usual generalities about not micromanaging them?

Your feedback is encouraged.

Why volunteers before how volunteers

December 20, 2011

Filed under: Strategic Planning,Volunteers — Tags: — jonathanpoisner @ 3:26 pm

It’s an age-old question in virtually any social impact organization – how we do get volunteers?

In my experience, if you start by answering that question, you’re getting off on the wrong foot.

Instead, you should first ask the question: why volunteers?

How you go about getting volunteers will greatly impact what types of volunteers you secure.    You may recruit lots in raw numbers, but not meet your needs.

So before designing the how, start with the why.

And to answer the why, I generally counsel asking two other questions in combination:

First, what do you most want out of your volunteers?

Second, what level of volunteer do you need?

Let’s take those questions in turn.

What do you most want out of your volunteers?

Here are four potential reasons I’ve experienced first-hand:

1. To do the work staff just can’t get around to doing (either back-end administration/fundraising or programmatic).   62.8 million adults volunteered almost 8.1 billion hours to local and national organizations in 2010 (Source: VolunteeringinAmerica.gov).  A well-designed volunteer program should get more work done than could be done with the staff time necessary to recruit the volunteers.

2. To be authentic voices.   Whether in fundraising or program, volunteers can speak authentically in ways that staff simply can’t.

3. As sources of local knowledge.  Particularly if your organization is trying to make a difference over a relatively large geography, volunteers are uniquely positioned to become your eyes and ears on the ground to help you make sure you deploy your resources in their geography in ways that will work.

4. As sources of specialized expertise.  Whether it be graphic design, accounting, information technology, or a dozen other areas, organizations can sometimes meet their needs for technical expertise through high-level volunteers that save them money.

If this is what you most want out of your volunteers, the second question is: what level of volunteer do you need?

My very crude short-hand is that there are three levels of volunteerism: participants, activity leaders, and organizational leaders.

Participants show up and do something for you.   Often just once, but sometimes repeatedly.   This is the bread and butter of many volunteer programs, particularly if they aim to generate lots of activity – tree plantings, stream cleanups, canvassing door-to-door, phone banks, and mailing parties are just a few  of the potential activities for which you need participants.

Activity leaders are the next level up: these volunteers are willing to lead all or part of some activity.  They may provide the training for participants, they may provide food for the fundraiser, or they may take responsibility to find 10 people for a phone bank, to cite just a few examples.

Organizational leaders take ownership for the long-term health of the group, overseeing either a series of activities or overall organizational health.  Board members are inherently organizational leaders if they’re doing their job.  But social impact organizations shouldn’t assume that only board members will fulfill organizational leadership roles.  Other volunteers can be cultivated and given non-board authority in ways that allow them to take on organizational leadership volunteering.

After answering these questions, it’s now appropriate to go back and set up a program that answers the how of volunteer recruitment.

If what you most need is local knowledge from people who’ll take organizational leadership, it argues for a very different volunteer program than if what you need most are activity participants who’ll do basic grunt work.

In a future blog entry or article, I’ll write more about effective volunteer recruitment programs that match up with the different why’s.

But no matter your skill-set at recruitment, you’ll go further in setting up your program if you start by answering the question why.

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