The Tension Involved in Articulating Volunteer Impact

Puppies in a tug of war over a rope chew toy
By Darby Browning from Pixabay

One of my research aims has been to figure out how to measure volunteer impact. It seemed that if we could identify the “right” volunteer metrics, then nonprofit leaders could justify investing in volunteerism.

It hasn’t turn out the way I expected.

First, I discovered how much language mattered. Every time I facilitated a session about volunteer impact, someone would share a high-impact story that was hard to translate into numbers. These #HowDoIMeasureThat? stories made me realize that it is more expansive (and useful) to think about capturing volunteer impact than measuring it.

Second, I realized an assumption inherent in this approach: that numbers were king. No surprise there. Yet, that assumption has significant implications. If we start and end with numbers, we will struggle to communicate something as complex as how volunteers contribute to advancing our missions.

These insights made me realize that articulating volunteer impact required much more creativity and nuance than we find in our traditional quantitative approaches. They reveal a tension: our society is driven by numbers but not all work translates into numbers. That’s especially the case in nonprofit and government agencies because we deal with lives instead of widgets.

This leaves me in a tricky spot. I love to categorize and quantify the world around me – and I recognize the limitations of categorizing and quantifying. I believe we can do a better job of capturing volunteer impact in ways that include numbers – and that the best we can do for some volunteer efforts is to witness and behold it.

We can hold this tension by naming it and embracing the intangible elements in volunteerism along with what we can see and count. That means our work will not always align with corporate preferences or academic language. It means that we might use words like wholeness, love, community, and mystery when talking about volunteerism. It means that we can explore questions that do not have easy answers or any answers at all.

One of the first hard answers for me is that there are no right metrics that we can pull off a shelf and magically garner support for our volunteer efforts. Instead, we need to creatively curate volunteer impact data and stories that link to our unique missions. It takes more time and effort but yields more meaningful results. And in giving up our search for some external right metric, we can instead pursue what’s right for our missions, right now at this time.

3 Comments

  1. Ben Fertig said:

    Great article Sue. Looking forward to more on this topic.
    I work at an environmental education nature center. I am curious to learn of how similar organizations (or education in general) track qualitative volunteer impact.
    I am also curious about how qualitative information can be summarized to leadership and funders in small but impactful ways. How can this impact translate into funding, particularly in this COVID19 era of increased virtual volunteering?

    May 28, 2020
    Reply
  2. Tracy Nordbak said:

    Thank you for this timely message. Tomorrow morning I’m going to speak to leaders about how volunteers resume their work in our hospital.
    My focus was on the value they bring and the void they’ve left. You’ve reminded me that sharing the metric of hours and FTEs lost will catch the ear of some in the audience.
    Metrics are not my natural go-to, or what calls to me personally, but there is value in sharing.

    May 28, 2020
    Reply
    • Sue C Kahl said:

      Thanks for responding, Tracy. So often, we speculate about what might happen if we didn’t have volunteers. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has turned this hypothetical question into a real one. It seems to give us a unique opportunity to highlight the value and void as you mentioned along with a few numbers to help folks understand the magnitude of both. Best wishes with your presentation!

      May 28, 2020
      Reply

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