Experts: Treat volunteers like people

Conference focuses on their value to nonprofits

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian arts & features reporter

Published:

 

In this era of soaring social needs and public budget cuts, volunteers mean more to nonprofit organizations than ever. So it makes sense to treat volunteers less like functional widgets and more like people who bring skills, creativity and heart to their work.

That was the message underlying the third annual volunteer management conference put on by the Nonprofit Network of Southwest Washington and the Directors of Volunteer Programs Associations, presented at Club Green Meadows on Thursday. Jeanne Kojis of the Nonprofit Network said 110 registrants were there.

Sixty-four million volunteers contribute approximately 8 billion service hours to the U.S. every year, said Nancy Long, executive director of 501 Commons, a Seattle-based nonprofit that works to boost philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. It used to be known as the Executive Service Corps of Washington.

"What would America really be if there weren't volunteers?" she wondered. All the social progress that's been made across hundreds of years, she said — from the abolition of slavery to women's suffrage, from nonprofit hospitals to the Red Cross — has been spearheaded by volunteers. Long was pleased to note that Washington state recently rose up the volunteerism rankings of the Corporation of National and Community Service to become the ninth most volunteering state in the country. In 2011, she said, 1.83 million Washingtonians performed some sort of volunteer work.

And yet, Long said, holding onto volunteers is difficult. The typical pattern being a volunteer shows up a time or two, tries out a task that turns out to be not very interesting or appreciated, and disappears again. Comments like this brought nods from the conference participants, most of whom manage volunteers for Clark County nonprofit agencies — from the Arts Commission to the YWCA.

Long introduced a plan called Washington Serves, developed by 501 Commons with help from United Way officials, volunteer centers and others, that aims to boost volunteerism even more in Washington. The plan is available at 501commons.com, and it includes strategies and actions nonprofits can take to find and keep quality volunteers.

There's a wide and diverse world of eager volunteers out there, she said. Volunteer managers — not to mention nonprofit leaders and CEOs — just need to get smarter at embracing their skills, talents and ultimate value.

Young people want flexibility, a sense of involvement and a way to put their technology skills to use, she said. Older volunteers want to see their life experiences and skills valued. Working parents — and job shoppers — want employers to show some heart by encouraging employee volunteerism. And corporations want to be seen as having a heart, Long said.

Both corporations and nonprofits themselves want to be able to quantify the value of volunteerism, Long said. "If we're going to leverage serious cash into the sector," she said, "we need to speak the language of metrics more."

Military veterans are a great resource, she said, because they are so motivated by public service; people with disabilities are eager to find ways to belong and to provide compassionate help. She challenged the group to think about how they are reaching out to these populations.

Volunteer managers are often the first to go when layoffs hit an agency, but when you consider all the unpaid "human capital" that they leverage, Long said, "that is often not the right business decision."

Local presenters included Kevin Hiebert, who leads the Winter Hospitality Overflow response to seasonal homelessness as well as his own consulting company, Resonate. He reviewed basic human psychology and motivation, including the way people resist or embrace change, and stressed that people want to be included in important decisions — even if they are "only volunteers."

That's absolutely the wrong way to view them, he said, if you want them to stick around. "People want to be moved. They want something deeper," he said. They want their labor, opinions and suggestions to be vital to the mission, he said. "People will only support what they help create," he said.

Other locals speaking at the conference were Gary Bock, who introduced techniques for recruiting and retaining volunteers, and Nancy Gaston, who looked at volunteerism, liability and risk management.

Also speaking at the conference was Seattle management consultant and author Rick Lynch, who analyzed the elements of leadership and considered the differences between "proactive" leadership and "reactive" management. "You can be a leader without being in a leadership position," he said, "and you can be in a leadership position without being a leader."