Volunteer Centers, POL Sign Affiliate Agreement

Fifteen years after the National Volunteer Center merged with the Points of Light Foundation (POL), a formal affiliate agreement has been developed in an effort to define expectations and strengthen both the affiliates and the national organization.

“The driving force for the affiliation agreement was to formalize the relationship and make it stronger and closer,” said Jackie Norris, executive director of Metro! Volunteers in Denver, Colo., and council chair of the Volunteer Center National Network. “We’re all separate organizations but we wanted to be more of a network, recognizing that there are benefits to a closer relationship and visibility that a national organization can bring.”

The agreement, released to members just prior to the National Conference on Volunteering and Service June 18-19, outlines the expectations and duties of the affiliates and the Points of Light Foundation and Volunteer Center National Network. The commitment from affiliates must include three “essential services:” Web-based online searchable volunteer matching application; volunteer management training at least once every two years; and, annual volunteer recognition activities.

Feedback to the agreement has been “overwhelmingly positive,” said Robert K. Goodwin, president and CEO of the Points of Light Foundation, following a June 28 conference call with the internal task force and representatives of the volunteer center network. “They all had the opportunity to express their universal delight with the way things are progressing.”

Goodwin said the one area of the agreement that people had hoped to have completed but has been postponed is the question of joint branding. “If anything, people were disappointed that we did not complete that before the conference,” he said.

“Branding, we feel, can be pursued once we’ve really demonstrated that the priorities of the organization for programming and spending plans reflect the centrality of their work and the height and importance of their work in the overall programmatic mix of the foundation.”

The agreements “thus far will contribute to a much more unified, effective national system of mobilizing and managing volunteers.”

“Regardless of size, location or focus, the local affiliate has the opportunity to share in the knowledge, skills, contacts, fundraising, and other features of a board national network,” according to a letter from Steven L. Miller, chairman of the Points of Light Foundation, and Norris to volunteer center leaders.

Affiliates that can provide all three essential services will be considered “affiliates in good standing,” while those that cannot will be “provisional affiliates” that will not be eligible for competitive funding, but will be eligible for resources to assist in developing the capacity for essential services.

For instance, the Walt Disney Corp. made a $2 million donation at the national conference in June, with $200,000 of that slated to go to the foundation and the remaining $1.8 million to be shared among its members, Norris said. In the future, organizations must be affiliates to be able to share in that type of grant.

“The idea with the three essential services is to assure that at a minimum, people can expect these things, but the goal is always more than that,” Norris said. “This is a start. Certainly it will continue.”

Current member volunteer centers have until Dec. 31, 2006 to sign the agreement, which gives centers six months to transition from member to affiliate, and lasts until December, 2007. Incentives to encourage signing the agreement by Sept. 30, 2006, include registration for next year’s conference and travel stipends. The agreement will be renewed annually or bi-annually, perhaps at the same time other standards are reviewed.

Affiliate fees will remain the same as membership dues. Volunteer centers that choose not to affiliate can become a nonprofit, corporate or government member of the foundation, but there will no longer be a volunteer center membership category and use of foundation logos will be stricter.

There are 345 members nationwide, giving access for about two-thirds of the U.S. population to the services of a volunteer center, according to Mei Cobb, senior vice president at Points of Light. The hope is that all current members become affiliates, in addition to other communities establishing volunteer centers, she said.

People’s motivation will be partly driven by benefits, Norris said, but also affiliation carries with it the implication for a closer working relationship. The foundation is the national organization, while affiliates are “the local delivery system.”

Norris also said it should be a much more coordinated system for vetting new program ideas, with affiliates more involved than in the past. As part of the joint planning within the agreement, POL and affiliates will work “to create a system plan every three to five years to guide the development of an annual operating plan that will drive priorities and key strategies, and develop budget and funding support to deliver essential services and system capacity, as well as system management and support.”

The plan would include input and review from affiliates and recommendations by the Volunteer Center National Network Council. The planning process will not replace existing planning processes of affiliates and the foundation, but rather seek to complement them.

Leadership governance An affiliation council will govern the system consisting of volunteer centers and foundation staff and board members, while the affiliation council chair will serve as the 4th vice chair on the foundation board’s executive committee.

“Clearly there were greater expectations from both sides” in the membership relationship, Cobb said. There was a move toward providing additional benefits, more than just membership, but it was not clearly defined. The biggest difference, she said, is moving from self-assessment of services to the specific items delivered in each community. And as essential services grow, the two sides likely will continue to add other initiatives in the agreement.

About 85 percent of centers are able to do all three essential services, leaving about 15 percent “struggling in one or more areas, and that’s who we’re committing to get up to the same level this initial time out,” Cobb said.

“We’ve worked on this so diligently and engaged the field throughout the entire process, I don’t think there’s anything surprising for anyone, particularly because volunteer centers take many different shapes, sizes and structures,” Cobb said. Evan Albert, program director of the Michigan Community Service Commission, places Vista volunteers at volunteer centers around the nation. He said the program is a prime candidate for the network and foundation to get the word out, yet the resource is being underutilized.

“I don’t think it’s recognized yet in the field,” Albert said, pointing out the number of volunteer centers in general, compared to how many are foundation members. “Some could care less, some don’t understand what they get for their money. You’re going to find that, despite the fact that now there are written guidelines for what it means to be an affiliate.”

There are so many resources and orientation is part of any new job, Norris said, that there likely will be a resource kit for volunteer centers once the affiliation agreement is in place. “One of the things we’ll be working toward is making sure affiliates have information to access programs,” she said.

Dianna Algra, director of the Volunteer Centers of Michigan, expects most of her members to sign off on the affiliation agreement. Approximately 27 of the 30 volunteer centers in Michigan currently are members, she said.

“I think it’s…a good step in the right direction. I just think it will help relationships with Points of Light and the network get stronger. And I think that’s good for volunteerism around the country,” said Martha Bottomley, executive director of Volunteer Muskegon! “This is a starting point. To get volunteer centers more in line with each other is a worthy goal, and I think that’s the goal of the affiliation agreement.

“I think everyone recognizes communities are different. That’s been the goal of the affiliation agreement, to develop some common threads.”

Denise Hubbard, executive director of Volunteer Connections in Greenville, Mich., said her volunteer center also plans to sign the affiliation agreement. “I think we’ve come up with a pretty good product,” Hubbard said, adding that the only thing not addressed yet is the co-branding of volunteer centers.

A program of the United Way of Montcalm, Volunteer Connections has a similar arrangement through its membership agreement with the United Way of America. “From my perspective, the affiliation agreement is really important to our network of volunteer centers. We need a strong national voice for our volunteer center work. We’re the delivery system for a lot of programs in communities across the country.”   NPT