Rethinking Volunteer Engagement Among Disruption

Posted Tuesday, November 8th, 2022 by Sterling Volunteers Staff

Over the past few years, disruptions have affected everyone, and every industry, volunteer engagement and nonprofit operations included. Examples abound with organizations overcoming these disruptions and transforming them into opportunities to impactfully engage volunteers.

Nonprofit expert Beth Steinhorn, President of VQ Volunteer Strategies, joined Katie Zwetzig, Sterling Volunteers Executive Director, for a Sterling Live episode on rethinking engagement among disruptions in the volunteer community. Additionally, a dedicated webinar on the topic is now available on-demand and touches on exemplary stories with lessons that can be applied to nonprofit organizations.

Landscape of Disruptions to Volunteer Engagement

The recent disruptions to volunteer engagement efforts have been as varied as they are widespread. Below are five key insights when examining the landscape of disruptions and rethinking volunteer engagement in organizations.

1. Volunteering Disruption

Volunteering was significantly disrupted due to health concerns and regulations. In March 2020, 93% of all volunteering was ‘cancelled’ according to a VolunteerMatch report. Volunteering Support Organizations were challenged to innovate, including VolunteerMatch itself. The research conducted ultimately motivated a shift in the organization’s focus to a few specific areas:

  • Building a new online hub that encouraged people to connect and share Covid-19-specific volunteering best practices, research, and other human connection-oriented resources.
  • Enhancing technological capabilities to effectively foster Covid-specific and virtual volunteering engagements across local, regional, national, and global lines.
  • Developing an advocacy platform to offer a trustworthy space for conversations about social justice that ensures inequities faced by BIPOC communities and opportunities to serve in solidarity are surfaced for volunteers.

Key findings from the research indicate that in the context of the pandemic, the increased use and development of technology have been important to helping manage the supply and demand for volunteering. Volunteer Support Organizations proved their adaptability by developing online opportunities and quickly adjusting to virtual communication and volunteer support.

2. Volunteer Services Suspended or Extended in Communities

Volunteering disruptions bring disruptions in human connections along with them. As services began to be cancelled due to the pandemic, the following trends emerged:

  • Recruitment shifted dramatically as organizations were pressured to create virtual opportunities.
  • Interest did not necessarily equal activation.
  • Fear and regulations were barriers to volunteering with deepened isolation or relational loss for both volunteers and constituents.
  • Equitable access in volunteerism has a long way to go.

3. Growing Recognition of Inequities in Volunteerism

The Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement (MAVA), who conducted listening sessions on the topic of racial equity, found strategies that are particularly important for overcoming inequity. These include collecting demographic data, overcoming stereotypes of who can volunteer, and providing training to all team members.

4. Ageism and Co-Generational Volunteerism

One of the divides hindering social cohesion is between generations, likely driven by social isolation, instability, and fear. In public and private discourse at the beginning of the pandemic, young people were blamed for spreading the virus, while the higher risk of death for older adults was seen as driving shutdowns. This narrative pitted generations against each other. Compounded by the divergent economic effects of Covid-19 on older and younger people, it has fueled an outbreak of ageism, adversely affecting old and young alike. As national service volunteer opportunities have expanded significantly, more co-generational service innovations have helped to build bridges across widening divides.

5. Shifting Expectations

Nonprofits must be prepared for a shift from transactional, time-based, and place-based volunteering to a comprehensive, transformative approach to engagement that is truly disruptive. While the systems we are trying to change are complex, society’s issues are ultimately community issues—and we must approach them in more than one way. This is how change happens.

Rethinking Volunteer Engagement Strategy

In response to these disruptions, some organizations went into hibernation—but others led the way and forged new trails. Beth Steinhorn, contributor and co-editor of “Transforming Disruption to Impact: Rethinking Volunteer Engagement for a Rapidly Changing World,” highlights how we’ve seen a variety of innovations and transformations within volunteer engagement programs. Below are some themes:

Redefining RelationshipsHow can your organization redefine relationships?
Be intentional in redefining relationships and definitions of community. For example, Cornerstone VNA (home, health, and hospice care) thought very intentionally about who was in their volunteer community and how to nurture a sense of community while developing a hybrid program. Also, think of ways to nurture connection even when apart. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS) had a mandate from leadership to “stay connected until we can be together again.” Staff members were supported in taking time to reach out to volunteers, help shift event volunteers to other roles, etc. At the same time, seek to increase equity, like MAVA who had a dramatic increase in requests for trainings and convened national summits on the topic of redefining relationships.

InnovationAre there new ways of engaging volunteers and adopting previously resisted practices?
Use innovation to overcome resistance to change and develop new partnerships. Nonprofit professionals are simultaneously grateful for and challenged by corporate social responsibility event requests. That paradigm shifted dramatically because of issues around the pandemic. Marriott International took the opportunity to redefine what a service day could be, redeveloping theirs as an opportunity for small teams of colleagues to learn about the issues that underlie local community needs and make a pledge to serve in some way over the coming year.

Leadership DevelopmentWhat are new ways you can look for leadership and recognize it?
Assess shifts in leadership focus, such as the VolunteerMatch example mentioned earlier, as well as recognize new sources of leadership. Increasingly, we’ve seen a rise of informal volunteers such as those who organize food drives and students who organize efforts such as babysitting for the children of essential workers. Also, acknowledge volunteer engagement professionals as leaders. Specifically, the city of Fort Collins, Colorado was able to leverage and engage hundreds-to-thousands of residents as volunteers because their volunteer engagement manager citywide had already been able to demonstrate the power of engaging citizens to respond to crises (saving their jobs in the process).

InvestmentWhat does it take to engage volunteers?
Funders can play a big part in leading change. In fact, some organizations have even included volunteer engagement as part of Covid-19 recovery funding. Take some time to rethink investments and really consider big ideas about how to change the ecosystem. Investing in infrastructure is necessary for major change. For example, the shift from using paper maps to using GPS required a huge investment nationally and globally because GPS relies on satellite technology. The investment was significant but worth it. The analogy raises good questions moving forward.

Shifting from Transactional to TransformationalHow can you shift the relationship with volunteers?
Focus on multiple impacts, such as national service that impacts not only on the community being served, but also the service member and the field as a whole. Communicate impact by aligning data with purpose, use appropriate messaging, and expand from volunteer value to volunteer worth. Nurture empathy and consider how to create opportunities for volunteers to say, “This is it! This is what I am looking for!”

As you rethink volunteer engagement among a landscape of disruptions, you’ll want to remember a few important takeaways. Focus on relationships that fit with mission, with each other, and with community. Be sure to welcome innovation from all arenas as well as track and share results to determine sustainability. Nurture leadership from a broad arena and invest in volunteer engagement within your organization. Finally, seek transformation and not just transaction as relationship is key.

Watch the Webinar On-Demand

To learn more, watch the “Transforming Disruption to Impact” webinar and download the Transforming Disruption to Impact handout here.

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