VIOs & AVOs: The other half of the volunteer world

June 2, 2015       Susan Ellis      

Those employed in nonprofit and public agencies hear the word volunteer and generally picture someone working side-by-side with the paid staff. Such settings are called volunteer-involving organizations (VIOs). But there is a huge other arena in which volunteers are both workers and managers. That is all-volunteer organizations (AVOs) such as civic and service clubs, small faith communities, co-ops of various kinds, self-help groups, hobby clubs, professional societies and lots of other membership associations.

In addition, there are AVOs organized by VIOs, such as auxiliaries, special events committees, advisory councils, and other independent or quasi-independent support/friends groups.

One could argue that more people give their time to AVOs than to VIOs. But policy making, research, and conferences discussing “volunteering” tend to focus only on the agency-based sort of service. Yet coordinators of volunteer services in VIOs face similar challenges to the leaders of AVOs, even if the latter commonly call their constituents members rather than volunteers.

Such leaders include sole paid staff of otherwise all-volunteer activist groups, presidents of service and fraternal clubs, chiefs of volunteer fire companies, clergy, and political campaign managers, just to name a few. We can define this population as people whose work (paid or unpaid) makes them interested in such common-denominator subjects as recruiting volunteers/members, designing work for volunteers to do, keeping volunteers motivated, developing teamwork among participants, recognizing efforts, and so on. And the skills of accomplishing these goals are compatible and transferable.

Despite more commonalities than differences, there is a chasm dividing the two perspectives that ought to be bridged for the benefit of both. Are they “worlds” apart or “words” apart? And why is finding common ground important?

Compelling Reasons to Come Together

There are strong, practical benefits of the two worlds working together. Most important is that they exist in the same community and recognize the essential concerns of those who live in it. Many AVOs have service as their mission and are already focused on causes or needs that might align with VIOs in the same arena. Joining together on the same priority can only increase the impact of both.

At a minimum, being in communication with each other can prevent working at cross purposes. Even if a partnership is not appropriate, it would seem reasonable to assist one another in promoting activities of benefit to a mutual cause.

If some sort of collaboration is possible, both groups gain strength in several ways. Most all-volunteer groups do community service projects, either giving time as a team or organizing events to fundraise for a designated cause. They are always interested in new ideas — both for new causes and for innovative activities that will be attractive to their members while doing good. So if an all-volunteer group adopts your organization, you might wind up with a very valuable asset of both hands and money. In fact, you can make this an open agenda. Talk about how the group might raise the funds to support the project they will then staff. Once established, these relationships can continue for decades.

Formal nonprofits might be forbidden from political activities that look like lobbying, yet have a legitimate interest in educating the public and legislators about their cause. Enlisting the support of private citizens, through an independent AVO, can offer a legal and perhaps more effective way to influence public opinion and government action to favor the issues affecting your work.

All-volunteer groups are self-organized. If they become volunteers together for a big event, or “adopt” a project or a regular shift of work for you, they will coordinate themselves. You certainly should orient and train all the members. But when it comes to parceling out the work, scheduling and even finding replacements for missing members, you can expect the group leaders to take over. In many ways they are the ideal volunteers. They are experienced, accustomed to working together and self-managing.

If your volunteer involvement is not as diversified as you wish, find all-volunteer groups that include members from the populations you most want to attract. As you collaborate, you will learn a great deal about the new population and both of you will get acquainted in a natural and evolving way. Successful teamwork will eventually lead some members of the all-volunteer group to ask for ways they might get more involved with you as individuals, too.

If you are seeking community visibility or political clout, find an all-volunteer group that will bring these assets to you. If the right group becomes involved in your cause, there’s no end to the possibilities for greater influence where it counts or for more resources of all types (cash, goods, access to top levels of companies or government, etc.).

Past presidents of all-volunteer associations are sometimes at loose ends when their terms end. They’ve already risen to the top of their hierarchy, so what happens now? Well, some of them might be enticed to re-direct their leadership skills on your board or even in the volunteer office to help run the volunteer program.

The benefits run both ways. By working with a VIO, an AVO can obtain needed help, too.

The partnership can result in new ideas and projects, the possibility of greater visibility and becoming part of a larger effort than the volunteers could manage on their own.

In exchange for a long-term commitment of participation, the group might gain meeting or storage space, a permanent mailing address or clerical support.

Sometimes the most appealing part of a project is the hands-on activity, not the logistical planning. Cooperating with an agency takes the A-to-Z preparation off the shoulders of the volunteer officers, since the volunteer resources manager will be facilitating the event and/or coordinating many of the details. This frees the volunteers to concentrate on staffing and accomplishing the activity.

Challenges

If we share so much in common, why is it so difficult to work together? Here are a few factors:

• The thorny problems of ownership and who gets the credit are always at play in any collaboration. The formal agency wants to be recognized for its expertise and professionalism, showing funders the impact of its work. Its trained staff is fully focused on delivery services. Should an “amateur” community group thinking about the cause for only a few hours a month be seen as equal?

• AVOs, of course, desire independent visibility. They are not necessarily collaborating with each other, either. They feel competitive in recruiting new members and want to avoid any opportunity for another group to steal “their” volunteers. This attitude is prevalent in agency-based volunteer programs, too.

• Many AVOs do not have a physical base of operations. The contact information (postal address, phone, even e-mail) changes as the officers do. This lack of continuity makes it very hard to maintain communication, unless the officers themselves make a point of changing and updating contact information.

• The skills of volunteer management are directly transferable to membership development and leadership. But the officers of all-volunteer groups simply do not identify with volunteer management itself – not as a field and certainly not as a profession. Conversely, the invaluable skills that leaders of all-volunteer groups tend to possess, especially skills in dealing with political situations, are often unrecognized by volunteer resources managers in VIOs.

• Most volunteers who lead other volunteers (such as presidents of AVOs) rarely think about their work in this context. They have primary careers in different fields and do their volunteer leadership in their discretionary time. It’s all they can do to handle the projects and activities under way in their AVO, without adding another layer of information.

It rarely occurs to all-volunteer groups to pool resources and do joint training of new board members and officers focusing on generic skills apart from the specifics of each organization. Because AVOs are unaffiliated with resources such as volunteer centers or academic nonprofit management programs, they do not receive announcements of workshops and conferences at which they could learn new skills side-by-side with other community leaders.

Nothing is stopping leaders at either type of organization from approaching each other to start talking, but you can be intentional in reaching out. A very simple way to begin is to ask current volunteers and paid staff if they belong to a civic club, homeowners association, faith community or any other AVO, and if they think there may be mutual interests with your agency. Get the name and contact information of their presidents and ask for introductions. Don’t be surprised to learn that your most active volunteers are even more active in the community at large.

Read the section of your local newspaper or online community events calendar that used to be called the “society pages.” There are always photographs and articles about big fundraisers and community projects, in which the leaders of the event are identified. You can initiate a conversation if it seems as if the event has relevance to your cause.

There are other ways to help the two halves of the volunteer world find each other. One is to attend meetings of mutual interest. Can you host a public forum to educate the community about your cause and invite local AVOs to attend and even to present? It will be most successful if you target the officers of groups with a history of activity related to your work.

Why not send invitations to the presidents of all-volunteer groups to attend a meeting of whatever professional association you belong to and then make sure the topic of the meeting is relevant to everyone? Greet the guests and make them feel welcome in the discussion. You might even make AVOs the focus of the meeting, as in “Who Is Doing What in Our Community?” Ask them to make a short presentation on what they do and how they operate, or even how they deal with the challenges of volunteer recruitment, supervision and recognition.

Another strategy can be suggested to those who plan large conferences. If we really want to include the leaders of strong AVOs, we have to demonstrate that by scheduling more creatively. Why not organize the program to give conferees a welcome free afternoon rather than always an open evening, then reconvene for workshops between 5:00 and 8:00 p.m.? Your attendees might welcome the chance to see the host city in daylight, and the volunteers who lead AVOs would be able to attend something with substance in the evening without affecting their paid jobs. You might even consider offering evening-only registration plans.

Volunteers for a New Project

Finally, if your organization is starting a new project or service and you want to recruit volunteers to help run it, first assess the best approach. Do you need to put effort into finding, training, and managing a whole new set of volunteers, or is there an AVO in your community that might adopt the project as its service focus? You can negotiate the goals, budget, lines of authority and accountability, and any other element that concerns you. You can give whatever training you determine is needed. If the all-volunteer group you identify is willing to tackle the challenge enthusiastically, you can hit the ground running.

The key is to find win-win situations. You want a horticulture therapy program and the local garden club wants to experiment with new types of roses. This can be the start of something beautiful. You both bring assets and expertise to the collaboration that create synergy, benefitting everyone.

The AVO’s members, however, will not be “your” volunteers. It is vital that the group retain its own identity. If they don’t, the process will break down and the last thing you want is to have to revitalize another organization’s corps of volunteers. You do need to include them as an official and valued part of your agency’s volunteer corps. Recognize them, as a group, in all thank you events. Report their contributions along with what individual volunteers registered as “yours” provide each year, but in a distinct category. Celebrate the partnership itself. NPT

Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, a Philadelphia-based training, publishing and consulting firm specializing in volunteerism. She can be reached via email at susan@energizeinc.com. Her Web site is www.energizeinc.com