Mobilizing The Masses

April 1, 2009       Mark Hrywna      

Big Brothers Big Sisters of America set a record for volunteer inquiries during Mentoring Month in January. The Philadelphia-based mentoring organization credits the spike to President Barack Obama’s call for Americans to commit to public service, not just one day out of the year but for the long-term.

Almost 32,000 Americans inquired about becoming Big Brothers Big Sisters mentors in January compared to just more than 25,000 last year, an increase of 25 percent.

Teach for America in New York City has seen a 42-percent increase in applications for 2009, after a record 25,000 in 2008, even though they technically are not volunteers because they receive money to pay student loans or other educational expenses.

VolunteerMatch had its busiest period ever during the week of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the presidential inauguration. The organization, which has more than 62,000 registered nonprofits using its site, had nearly 250,000 unique visitors during the course of that week, after rolling out a new tool that combines Google Earth with its massive database. Users can zoom over a community and search geographically for volunteering opportunities.

"It makes it very fun and easy to understand what a nonprofit’s needs are," said Greg Baldwin, president of the San Francisco-based nonprofit.

"There is reason to believe that people are answering the call," said Michelle Nunn, president and CEO of the Points of Light Institute and its HandsOn Network in Atlanta. She also pointed to the excitement about President Obama’s call for passage of the Kennedy-Hatch bill during his televised remarks in February. The Serve America Act (S. 277) seeks to increase the number of AmeriCorps volunteers from 75,000 to 250,000 within four years, while providing funds to help recruit volunteers.

The bill, reintroduced in January at the start of the new Congressional session, was referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. A spokeswoman for Kennedy expected "swift action" on the measure, with a possible vote coming in April or May.

The federally-funded Peace Corps reported a 16-percent increase in applications this year, including a 175-percent spike around the time of President Obama’s inauguration.

meriCorps, which usually counts May and July as its busiest months for applications, has seen three times as many applications through January and February of this year (18,207) as it did in 2008 (4,341).

Points of Light and its HandsOn Network partnered with Starbucks to encourage people to pledge five hours of community service during 2009, which Nunn said generated more than 1 million pledged hours. Its Seattle affiliate, in particular, saw a significant increase, as much as 30 percent.

Volunteers flocking to the sector can be nothing but positive, right? After all, any nonprofit wants or needs more volunteers, doesn’t it?

Robert Egger, president and founder of the D.C. Central Kitchen (DCCK) in Washington, D.C., estimated that the paint on the walls of his facility near Capitol Hill is probably three inches thick as a result of the various service projects.

"The big question is, we’re going to get a lot volunteers and this is great, and we have 80 million already volunteering, that’s great, but what are we asking them to do? That’s half of the big equation. Do we have the capacity as a sector to adequately manage volunteers and then challenge them intellectually beyond something physical they might do," said Egger.

DCCK, which last year saw more than 11,000 volunteers, is rare among nonprofits in that it has a full-time volunteer coordinator whose sole job is to manage volunteers and their volunteer experience. Few groups have the luxury of a volunteer experience that’s easily translatable, coupled with staff that can develop volunteer programs and provide follow-up and advance materials that might not have the same impact of constructing a house or serving at a soup kitchen, Egger said.

"The unfortunate fact is that most organizations are not ready for volunteers, or their involvement with volunteers is at a low level and unimaginative," said Susan Ellis, president of Energize Inc., a Philadelphia-based volunteer management consulting firm. "It’s a myth that people won’t volunteer," she said, but it’s that so few places offer attractive and interesting things to do as volunteers.

Baby Boomers and older citizens are trying to find meaning in their lives while 80 million millennials have been raised on community service, Egger said. That’s more than 100 million people "surging toward a nonprofit sector that’s unprepared," he said.

"This is the great leap forward. Will the administration invest a large amount of money into the current, volunteer-driven system," Egger asked rhetorically. "A lot of people want to see 100 million volunteers but again the larger question is, doing what and managed by who," he asked. "I hope we don’t fall into the folly of volume equals impact."

Egger would like to see investments in the process, where "rank-and-file nonprofits" struggling with payroll even before the economic downturn, are given the ability to hire people. "That’s a much larger conversation of, do we want to have people come in and feed the poor, and is this our best solution?" He calls this period in time "a huge opportunity" to take volunteering beyond the busy work of sorting cans and painting walls, and instead engaging citizens in what comes next.

"There’s nothing wrong with the traditional volunteer experience, it’s a very important part of the larger nonprofit equation, but for many of us, you can only paint the wall of the shelter so many times," Egger said. "We can’t charity our way out of some of these problems. Just more volunteers won’t make hunger go away unless we decided as a culture to take this up a notch," he said.

The Points of Light Institute and its HandsOn affilates have advocated for the Volunteer Generation Fund, Nunn said, which would send money into the field to build the nonprofit infrastructure "to ensure that we can really equip these volunteers and have productive and meaningful experiences" in which people can contribute and make a difference.

The Volunteer Generation Fund is included within the Serve America Act, which is among the suggestions in a report released last month, The Quiet Crisis: The Impact of the Economic Downturn on the Nonprofit Sector, by Bruce Reed and John M. Bridgeland, who both served as directors of domestic policy under the last two presidents, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, respectively. In addition to passing the Serve America Act, the report suggests adopting tax incentives to expand private giving and volunteering, creating a "social innovation and compassion capital fund" and using nonprofit housing and financial institutions to solve the mortgage and foreclosure problems in the U.S.

The single biggest variable in success is whether there’s a staff member designated to be the leader of volunteers, according to Ellis. When an organization makes everyone responsible for volunteers, she said, really no one’s responsible. Volunteers are almost by definition part-time workers, so a lot of coordination is needed; "volunteers can’t do that themselves," Ellis said. It’s not a matter of having volunteers to do the work of coordination, Ellis said, but a question of how much time needs to be devoted to it. It’s unrealistic to think a volunteer can handle it as full-time work. And if an organization expects a dozen volunteers to share the job of volunteer coordination, then no one’s really in charge.

"Just because someone is a volunteer doesn’t mean they know how to run a volunteer program. Being a volunteer is not necessarily a useful experience to running a volunteer program," Ellis said. "The biggest mistake is to think of it as a postscript to planning. Those that realize it takes strategy and planning will succeed," she said.

Organizations seem too happy to create an internship program but not a volunteer program, Ellis said, potentially turning away 40-year-olds with multiple degrees while accepting college sophomores just learning about the field. She suggested that nonprofits turn around and ask the same question as if they were talking about employees rather than volunteers. "Really, these are unpaid human resources in the organization, the question is how do we make it work," she said. "Every nonprofit needs to think about these questions, whether they’re ready to work with volunteers."

There are thousands of available volunteer opportunities that get a bad rap, mainly because of the perception of not wanting to "stuff envelopes," Ellis said. Some nonprofits still think that professionals are required and misunderstand that they can recruit volunteers with tremendous professional skills. The idea is not to bring in volunteers to do what staff does but recruit them to augment and do more with clients that would permit staff to do the core work, she said.

Baldwin agreed that there still are conventional stereotypes of volunteer opportunities, from the old soup kitchen to stuffing envelopes. VolunteerMatch’s listings run the gamut, from board positions, marketing and Web development to watching "Monday Night Football" at a local senior center. VolunteerMatch has enjoyed steady annual growth of about 16 to 18 percent in terms of usage across a wide variety of metrics, he said.

Baldwin is banking on the Obama campaign tapping into the energy of those looking for new volunteer opportunities and hopes that technology, along with a new generation of volunteers, will change what’s considered to be volunteering and even the definition of a volunteer.

Baldwin believes that nonprofits will find that there is "an enormous untapped pool of skills and resources to plug into and take advantage of" and those who understand this moment in time and are able to tap the skills, time and energy of Boomers, and as well as the technology to find a lot of people out there who can help.

VolunteerMatch offers online training and webinars for nonprofits and earns revenue from the corporate employee volunteer programs it helps to produce and train. It also has contracts with national nonprofits and the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) to provide a variety of recruiting systems and services.

"This is not about a day of service," said Judy Vredenburgh, president of Big Brothers Big Sisters. "President Obama really pushed the concept of long-term service which is very congruent with our mission," she said. NPT