In June, I wrote a blog about the dangers of centering the service experience primarily on volunteers while the client, staff, and organizational needs took a back seat. The question of who we center in volunteerism has stuck with me (thanks to Vu Le’s post on who we center in fundraising). It got me thinking about how often we track volunteer data based on the interests of people who are furthest from the day-to-day volunteer experience. I’ve been wondering about alternatives and what mission-centered volunteer data collection might look like.
The usual approach has been to tally volunteers or their time and outputs. For example, a volunteer driver shared that he didn’t care about how many hours or miles he drove. Yet, he was required to report it and speculated that the program’s funders wanted that data. Likewise, when I ask volunteer administrators and executive staff why they collect volunteer hours, numbers, and financial value, they often say that funders or board members want that information. (I will dig deeper into this issue on a future blog.)
What if we selected and collected data about service that mattered to the people closest to the volunteer experience? What if we centered the people who care most about whether our organization engages volunteers (and does so well)? These folks include clients and participants, such as:
- Patients and families visited by hospital or hospice volunteers
- Kids who participate in volunteer-led tutoring or youth programming (and their parents and caregivers)
- Participants who receive meals served by volunteers
- Seniors in a transportation program who can get to doctor appointments safely and affordably
- Families served in a disaster shelter
The other people who care about volunteer involvement include the volunteers themselves as well as volunteer prospects. Finally, the staff who partner with volunteers are a critical, but often overlooked, audience in volunteer-data tracking.
Taking a mission-centered approach to volunteer data selection requires a different set of questions to help us determine success indicators. What might clients and participants (or their families) care about?
- Am I in good hands when participating in volunteer-led programs? Is my family member cared for?
- Do volunteers treat me with respect, dignity, joy, and welcome?
- Do volunteers help me feel safe and nourished? Do they support my learning, growth, and curiosity?
- Am I accepted for who I am? Are my strengths acknowledged? Am I treated as a person or a charity case?
- Do volunteers look like me or understand my challenges? If not, are they open to learning?
What might the volunteers care about?
- Do my service and time make a positive difference?
- Am I able to live my values through my service?
- Am I learning more about my community and myself?
- Does my service engage my talent and skills?
What might the paid staff care about?
- Are the volunteers partners in my work?
- Do they help meet our program, event, or organizational goals?
- Do they contribute unique capabilities that make our team stronger?
- Do they complement the time and expertise of paid staff?
- Does service help volunteers understand our cause or mission better? Does it help volunteers question their assumptions about our work or who we serve?
- Will volunteer involvement mean I have to accept sub-standard work?
(If the answers to all but the last question are ‘no’, it might explain staff resistance to working with volunteers.)
Centering our volunteer data on the volunteer experience itself provides a unique way to think about whether our volunteer engagement efforts have been successful. It often means we move from volunteer head counts to volunteer accomplishments and relationships.
Of course, this kind of work is much harder than counting volunteer hours. In addition, most of us are not set up to ask or answer these questions. However, as mission- and community-driven organizations, these questions—and their answers—are fundamental to the work we do.
Here’s the good news: we do not have to create an elaborate system for evaluation. Instead, we can pick a question or two that are meaningful for our unique context. Ask the questions informally. Share and discuss what you discover. Help others understand why this information is important. Use your learning to adapt your work and reporting. Remember that volunteer numbers are a by-product of a mission-driven experience, not the end goal itself.
We are not going to throw out the traditional ways we track volunteerism in our organizations. Yet, as nonprofit and government agencies, we have an obligation to put mission and community at the forefront of our work, even (and especially) when that feels counter-cultural.