Operationalizing Equity in Volunteer Engagement

black hanging bridge surrounded by green forest trees
Photo by Kaique Rocha on Pexels.com

Preparations for a course on Volunteer Engagement have me thinking about how we apply diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) principles to volunteerism in meaningful ways. What does DEI look like in volunteer engagement – from design to implementation? How do we invest in volunteerism so that it provides a bridge from the community into the organization (and back out again)?

These questions led me to notes I took while reading Decolonizing Wealth last summer. In it, Edgar Villanueva identifies ways that colonization shows up in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. Power and resources are concentrated and controlled by experts (“the Haves”). The decisions they make behind closed doors deem whether and when to release resources in a one-way and downward flow to the “Have Nots”. He paints a picture of this flow as a pyramid and observes that,

“…the experience of the least empowered people/roles…is that their time is less valuable… Their thoughts are also less valued, their voices discouraged. Their experience of work feels more anonymous, more interchangeable, less meaningful, than the experience at the top of the pyramid. Their individuality and personal creative expression is likely not welcome in, and possibly strictly prohibited from, the workplace.”

Decolonizing Wealth, p. 44

Many of us in nonprofits know the experience of feeling like Have Nots when it comes to working with funders. However, it strikes me that in some cases, nonprofit leaders are the Haves in relation to our communities. As such, we may be replicating an unhealthy power dynamic through our organizations. It can show up in our relationship with community volunteers and the volunteer engagement function.

Power (or Lack Thereof) in Volunteerism

Now, Villanueva was not talking about volunteers, per se. However, it is not a stretch to find parallels. How often have we heard someone describe themselves as “just” a volunteer? How often have we heard a well-intended person say we “just” need to get a volunteer to take on a task? To what extent are volunteer voices (and the broader communities they represent) heard and heeded in organizational decision making? To what extent is volunteer engagement included in the organization’s strategic plan (or the Volunteer Director invited to these discussions)?

Fortunately, Villanueva not only critiques power structures but offers guidance for moving to healthier dynamics. He emphasizes the interdependence of community and the shared responsibility of healing and “making things right” (p. 11). We all have an opportunity to look at the systems in which we participate and use whatever influence and power we have to effect change. So, I’m considering my role in making things right and how we can use our time as a class to do the same.

That said, it can be overwhelming to know where to start in systems work. One way in is to consider how we can practically apply DEI principles to volunteer engagement. The list below is an initial, messy, and incomplete attempt to move in this direction.

Guiding Questions for DEI in Volunteer Engagement (aka Community Engagement)

  • In what ways do we invite community involvement in the organization through volunteerism?
  • How does the strategic plan account for and integrate volunteers in achieving mission and operational goals?
  • What would volunteer engagement look like if volunteers designed it?
  • To what extent are we practicing DEI principles in all of our volunteer engagement strategies? Are volunteers included in (and/or leading) this work?
  • In what ways do we ensure that client and organizational needs are prioritized along with volunteer interests?
  • Do we decline (or re-direct) offers of volunteer support that do not align with organizational values and client (and staff) needs?
Roles and Qualifications
  • What roles do volunteers fill? Who creates these roles?
  • What qualifications do volunteer need to serve? Who establishes these criteria?
  • What is the process to become a volunteer? Who is best able to complete this process?
  • In what areas of the organization can volunteers participate? Why?
  • Do volunteer activities contribute to organizational mission and operations in meaningful ways?
  • Where do we recruit volunteers? Who decides?
  • How do we design volunteer recruitment ads? What images and language do we use? Do these images and language affirm the dignity of our clients and volunteers? To whom do these ads appeal?
  • What approaches to recruitment might be more accessible or inviting to a broader cross-section of our community?
  • Are we trying to diversify our volunteer team without doing the companion work of improving equity and inclusion?
  • Do volunteers reflect the community we serve? Why or why not?
  • What are the implications of volunteer demographics and life experiences on our services, the people we serve, and the volunteers?
  • Who stays as a volunteer? Who leaves?
  • Are there patterns in our volunteer participation and retention that suggest serving with our organization is more welcoming to some volunteers than others?
  • How do we help volunteers understand the complexity of the issues the organization is trying to address?
  • In what ways do we challenge harmful volunteer assumptions and biases?
Voice, Power, and Welcome
  • Are volunteers partners or tokens?
  • What roles do volunteers have in decision making in the organization?
  • Are there ways for volunteers to share insights, ideas, and critiques?
  • Is volunteer feedback taken seriously and acted upon, as appropriate?
  • Do all volunteers feel welcome and valued?
Accountability and Supervision
  • Were staff (or lead volunteers) selected for their technical expertise and ability to complete a task? Were staff (or lead volunteers) selected for their ability to facilitate volunteers in completing a task?
  • Are staff (and volunteers) who lead volunteers provided ongoing training and support to be successful in this role?
  • Are volunteers held to the same standards of quality as paid staff? Why or why not?
  • If a volunteer makes a mistake or does not complete a task, who is held accountable: the volunteer or paid staff? How does this influence the paid staff’s willingness to delegate work to volunteers?
  • When a volunteer demonstrates the training or skills to serve independently, do we micromanage their efforts?
  • Do we appropriately and promptly address actions that are discriminatory or offensive? Do we counsel volunteers or staff who are not acting in alignment with our values and purpose?
  • Does volunteer engagement assessment link to organizational assessment and goals?
  • Do we track volunteer contributions and impact that matter to our clients and community as well as those that matter to funders and board members?
  • Who selects the volunteer data we track and report?
  • Do we acknowledge and recognize the diverse ways that volunteer support the organization’s work?

These questions are by no means exhaustive. Rather, they are a starting point to examine volunteer engagement strategies through a DEI lens. They help identify who has power and decision-making authority in our organizations and how that influences our ability to engage the community in our work as volunteers.

What does your set of guiding principles and questions include? Whose ideas inspire and challenge you?

In Gratitude

Thank you to the following leaders. Their writing, presenting, and role modeling teach and guide me.

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