How to make volunteer engagement more than a program, and what it means to give back.
“How can I get involved?”
This is a question that’s asked often in the nonprofit sector. When people encounter an organization that serves a cause they are passionate about, they want to know how they can have a positive impact. As consultants for many mission-driven organizations, ZIM is often tasked with finding an answer to this question. Volunteers are a powerful resource to showcase in any grant proposal, and depending on a client’s organizational needs, culture, infrastructure, evaluation, and goals, the way organizations build volunteers into their fabric can take a mission and its impact from average to extraordinary.
Volunteer management vs. volunteer engagement
I sat down with Beth Steinhorn, President of VQ Volunteer Strategies, a Denver-based consulting firm focused on helping organizations (not just nonprofits, but also for-profits and municipalities) leverage the talent and commitment that volunteers wield. With years of experience discussing, writing, and consulting on strategic volunteer engagement, Beth helped us understand a significant distinction; volunteer management and volunteer engagement are not the same. Instead of seeing these as synonymous, organizations should recognize that volunteer management only requires action, like packing boxes of food or collecting donations, whereas volunteer engagement requires a relationship to and an investment in those actions, such as a community connection or a personal relationship to the cause. This kind of investment in a mission fosters sustainability, empowerment, and deepens impact. Now, hear us out; we’re not saying that action alone is not significant, helpful, or meaningful. However, when volunteers are deeply engaged in the work at hand, that commitment not only packs a punch, but creates a ripple effect too.
A program vs. a strategy
Another important shift that organizations should consider is viewing volunteers as a strategy to implement and invest in, not just a program to fund. Beth shared firsthand observations of how prioritizing volunteer engagement can take an organization’s impact, objectives, and goals to the next level. She has seen companies, nonprofits, and local governmental agencies utilize volunteers to free up staff time and redirect resources to new programs, partnerships, and communities. She has seen a change in attitude around quantity versus quality within organizations and a shift in understanding that what matters is who continues to come back to volunteer, donate, and inform, not how many. Most importantly, she has witnessed the intersection between engaging volunteers and engaging donors. Through this lens, organizations should recognize that human capital is just as important as financial capital, because ultimately, if organizations fund services as strategies and volunteers as programs, they can end up pitting the people served against the people who serve.
This is a critical time
Historically, Americans want to help. In times of crisis, we meet the challenge head on; we come together, and we get it done. During the peak of the pandemic, and in the ongoing fight against COVID-19, many folks have been overhauling their lives – careers, relationships, community – and redefining themselves with more meaningful opportunities to learn, connect, and give back. A contrast that Beth has witnessed since March 2020 is the fact that people were wanting to engage in service to help their neighbor, but there were limitations, both personal and mandated, that prevented them from engaging. As those limitations evolved, and in some cases disappeared, Americans now have the opportunity to serve family, community, and country, as we recover. Service at a national, state, and local level has the ability to build empathy and compassion, but reaching even further than that, it has the ability to equip people with marketable skills and financial resources to fill employment gaps, obtain degrees, and make society more accessible and inclusive as a whole. Through programs like AmeriCorps, public service with municipalities, and the military, volunteerism takes many forms and offers diverse opportunities to engage with community, tackle challenges, and make a difference.
At ZIM, many of our clients have a strong and established approach to volunteer engagement that ensures a lasting impact on their communities and organizational sustainability. Perhaps you’re interested in supporting older adults through community connection or you’d like to help improve community health and well-being through environmental change. Jewish Family Service’s Friendly Visitors program allows volunteers to connect with an older adult in the community, helping decrease loneliness and isolation, and at Groundwork Denver, volunteers can conduct community outreach on issues like water quality or energy efficiency, plant trees and build gardens, and collect data on local pedestrian safety and housing conditions. Blue Sky Bridge, Breakthrough, Rocky Mountain Down Syndrome Association, and A Little Help are other ZIM clients who have a robust and engaged volunteer base working to provide services, break cycles, and create opportunities in communities statewide. We encourage our readers to sign up for newsletters, volunteer calendars, attend panels and events, and connect with organizations on social media to learn about volunteer opportunities, and sign up to give back.
If you do choose to volunteer, please respect and follow all COVID-19 mask and vaccine mandates established by organizations. They are looking out for everyone’s health and safety as we continue to move forward and recover from the pandemic.
Beth Steinhorn is President of VQ Volunteer Strategies, where she partners with organizations and their leadership to increase impact through strategic and innovative engagement. The author of multiple books and articles on strategic volunteer engagement, her consultations have included developing engagement strategies for Save the Children USA, Special Olympics of Southern California, Best Friends Animal Society, Repair the World, and American Red Cross. Prior to consulting, Beth worked as an Executive Director and Marketing Director with education and faith-based organizations and spent years working with museums as an Educator, Manager, and Anthropologist. Beth has an undergraduate degree from Harvard University and studied anthropology and museology at the University of Washington. As a contractor with ZIM, we’d like to recognize and thank Beth for generously sharing her insight and resources for this post. Connect with Beth on LinkedIn or email VQ Strategies at info@VQStrategies.com.