Thursday, May 21, 2009

Are Nonprofits Ready for Volunteers? And Will Volunteers Help if They’re Not Ready?

Good questions, says Bethany Godsoe, ED of the Research Center for Leadership in Action at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. In an op-ed she penned for the Christian Science Monitor, Godsoe raises questions that some think are extremely important but that haven’t really been discussed and/or analyzed as much as, perhaps, they should be, given the amount of money that’s being proposed for various programs involving nonprofits and volunteers. A colleague who once served as a senior executive at the Corporation for National and Community Service, in fact, emailed me, pointing out that in 2002, soon after President Bush announced his call to service, which included a 50% increase in Americorps, the Washington Post did a story featuring the spokespeople for leading charities saying that “they didn’t know what they would do with all the volunteers the President was seeking to mobilize and that they’d prefer government money instead.” He asked whether that attitude has now changed—and if so, why?

Godsoe seems to agree with the Post piece, arguing that while it’s nice that forward-looking legislation has been passed to encourage citizens to serve (at “a time when the country needs it most”), she asserts that nonprofits, especially smaller organizations that have been the hardest hit by the economic turndown, may not “be equipped to handle the coming influx of well-intentioned helpers.”

A solution she proposes is, interestingly, one that many groups working to promote and practice more “citizen centered” approaches to civic engagement have recommended: Rather than simply add more slots or ask people to “plug into” existing programs (or new ones), perhaps service programs could give communities “a stake in and forum for setting priorities and conveying their needs,” so that community needs can be better matched with the resources and energy that volunteers can provide. Nonprofits can serve as important brokers and intermediaries for such planning and forums, which may be more strategic and effective than trying to scramble and figure out what to do with all the new volunteers.

Another important issue is the nonprofits’ ability to provide good training, oversight, and relationship-building with volunteers—activities that some nonprofits, again, especially the smaller ones, say will take away from “what we need to be doing.” Where do these groups get the resources to ensure that volunteers have quality and fulfilling experiences—factors that several research studies, including one by New York Cares, one of the country’s largest volunteer organizations, have found to be critical in retaining volunteers well beyond their initial service experience?

One auspicious development is New York City’s approach to its new service program. When developing this, New York officials spent (and will continue to spend) time meeting with and hearing from nearly 180 nonprofits—big AND small—and have since made one of their top priorities under their new program supporting nonprofits’ capacity to use volunteers more effectively and strategically. And, they’re committed to helping nonprofits measure what they’re doing rigorously. (See comprehensive report at

There are also, as we know, several national efforts afoot to help nonprofits strengthen the ability to assume volunteers—among them, the Social Innovation Fund and a nonprofit capacity-building fund. To some nonprofit leaders, however, these efforts, while well-intentioned and auspicious—have yet to be carefully aligned with the Americorps expansion, meaning that they’re still not sure whether they will be of adequate help to building nonprofits’ capacity in this area. Others think that while these efforts are an important signal from the new administration that nonprofits are critical to solving problems—something that’s been missing for awhile—they are still relatively small compared to some of the big foundations (some of which spend $50 million every four days) or too “insider” for smaller nonprofits not as skilled in Beltway lobbying.

Whatever folks think, it’s clear that there’s a need to take a step back, perhaps, and think about some of these issues so that all of us who support national service, volunteering, civic engagement, and the nonprofit sector, can ensure that what’s being rolled out—and proposed—aligns in the most strategic and effective ways possible. Thoughts?


  1. The federal government can also play a more ambitious role in building capacity, as I discuss in my recently released book: Carmen Sirianni, Investing in Democracy: Engaging Citizens in Collaborative Governance (Brookings Press, 2009).

  2. Each year, CRF and 38 cooperating county offices of education, recruit, train, supervise and engage over 3000 volunteer lawyers and judges in a mock trial program that involves around 8000 middle and senior high school students. Most students and many of the the lawyers consider this a life altering experience.
    Volunteers become loyal annual participants. Their tasks as volunteers use their skills as lawyers. The most difficult challenge is coordining their involvement. Unfortunately, most funding streams require elaborate and complicated programs to secure funds. As I understand new funding streams, a simple grant to fund coordinators for such a program would be still be ineligible for funding.

    Seems as though we're missing something!