Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Volunteering at the Center of the Organization

The main take-away for centering volunteering is that for a volunteer program to work, they volunteers have to be integrated into the agency and the agency needs to build a relationship with the volunteers. One way of looking at is is that the volunteer is not tangential to the agency, but serves a key part of the mission - unpaid team members instead of just volunteers, even those coming to help bigger events.

As part of having the institutional commitment is having someone who a key component of their job is to coordinate volunteers. As part of my research, I worked through our organization’s process of what it takes to volunteer, and there were a lot of frictions. I had to talk to several people, and then it was delayed because someone was on vacation. It was very frustrating, and I bet part of the volunteer experience at a lot of organizations. Every point of friction made volunteering more difficult, and I was someone who wanted to go through the training and knew who to talk to. Our organization does not have that easy flow that would lower the bars.

Other things that volunteers crave include meaningful work and feedback. Again, just because they are unpaid is not a reason to leave them unsupervised or taken for granted.

I contrasted this with a good volunteer experience I had. I was unemployed for a while after the financial crisis, and I ended up trying to look for volunteer gigs to help my resume and keep me from going stir crazy. Several organizations were like CSS, where limited resources and lack of institutional commitment made me feel unwelcome. An organization that made me feel welcome was Open Books, a literacy advocacy group located at the time north of the river. They had someone who was the facilitator and made my volunteering easy and eliminated frictions in my service. That made me feel like a valued part of the organization.

There are a lot of barriers to getting to this point though. The main issue is the institutional commitment, There needs to be a person, or at least a very defined set of processes for recruitment and intake. We currently don’t have any. When I was doing the research, I found out that we have few volunteers is because of our contracts with the state. Governmental bodies stipulate that the people doing the service have to be compensated, and that is the bulk of our mission-oriented work We do have some programs that are not billed to state contracts that rely on volunteers. My wife is a volunteer at such a program. In this program, our participants get work experience while working at the Play Zoo at Brookfield Zoo. There is one individual at a time doing the program, and it runs 10 weeks during the weekends with the participant working both weekend days. We often have the participants ready to go, but the issue has been for several years in finding the person who will volunteer to work alone with the participant, finding them, vetting them, and training them. Because the volunteer experience is not central to our mission, this process takes much longer than it should. I would like to see more community involvement with our participants, but I have not had the vision on how that would work in practice with our current contractual status. Compared this to Open Books where the volunteer is focused in because so much of the labor of the organization was done by volunteers. It wouldn’t happen if it weren’t.