A colleague recently reached out with a question about volunteer demographics. His team wanted to collect them more consistently and thoughtfully. They wondered when the best time would be to ask for demographics: upfront in the application or after the volunteers were on board. Either way, they planned to make the reporting optional.
I immediately started to think through possibilities. What would be the “right” approach to this dilemma?
Distinguishing between Technical and Adaptive Issues
After sitting with the question a bit, I realized it might help to approach this topic with technical and adaptive lenses. The team had already identified possible technical solutions. They could take those ideas a step further by exploring how and when other agencies (or survey experts) ask about demographics. They might select one approach and commit to assessing the implications of it after a few months. Alternatively, they could implement both options and compare the results.
However, there was a bigger adaptive issue at play, too. Most of us aren’t only interested in the makeup of the volunteer corps but in the deeper issue of how we can cultivate experiences that are meaningful and welcoming for volunteers who come from a variety of backgrounds and identities. What we are really up to is figuring out how we want to enter and be in relationship with each other. That’s adaptive work. There is no one “right” answer that an expert can give us. Instead, it requires us to be mindful of our values, work with our communities (in and out of our agencies), and engage with the issue as it unfolds over time.
This adaptive angle left me pondering the process of how we form relationships and how asking demographic questions influences that process. I was curious about what this topic might reveal about nonprofits and volunteerism.
A Matter of Trust
So often, there is an assumption that we need to collect data before acting. We need to know who our people are so that we can determine what steps we need to take. Or we want to operate in more just/inclusive/equitable/accessible/welcoming ways and need to know who to accommodate or what that should look like. This assumption might shift the work of relationship building from the agency to the volunteer.
For example, if we ask about demographics upfront, it puts some burden on the volunteer. It asks them to trust us before we have proven ourselves trustworthy. For example, when I have questions about how my personal data may be used or if I think it might work against me, I limit my sharing. Those who have been othered or marginalized in some way, particularly on a regular basis, may be especially hesitant to reveal personal information. Demographic questions, even optional ones, might look like a red flag for those who have been recruited and then tokenized by the very people who say they want to be inclusive.
Perhaps then, it is up to organization leaders to first demonstrate our agency as a place where volunteers can show up as they are. How might we own the responsibility of creating equitable or just spaces without asking the volunteer prospect to share information that feels sensitive at a stage where we are building trust? How can we show that belonging and community are our values, not just things we say?
But I Really Need the Data…
We might also shoulder the work of creating just spaces by looking at existing data. For example, do the demographics of our volunteer corps reflect the demographics of our community? If not, we already know that there is something about service in our organization that doesn’t reach, appeal, or invite some part(s) of the community. Who successfully completes the volunteer process? Who starts but doesn’t finish? Who doesn’t make it to the starting line? Or as Rev. Stephanie Spellers asks, “Who would never even come to the door because they are so sure we will not receive them, because, historically, we have not?” Can we find any themes or patterns between these groups? (These themes may or may not be related to demographics.)
A homogenous volunteer corps may also be evidence that there are structural barriers in the volunteer process. How might we begin to parse these out? How can we bring fresh eyes to our agency’s volunteerism? Can we check in with new volunteers to ask for their input on the process of becoming a volunteer? What do they wish they would have been told? What seemed unnecessary? How do these responses vary? What does volunteering look like to someone who doesn’t reflect our usual volunteer?
Do we ask volunteers for information that we don’t use to make decisions or support them? Are the qualifications still relevant? Does lived experience “count” as a qualification? Did we learn anything during COVID that revealed unneeded steps in our volunteer process?
Another reason to collect demographic information is to get to know our people and welcome them fully. That carries an assumption that we can sort out what feels welcoming to someone based on a box they checked. What other ways can we discover how volunteers and volunteer prospects experience welcome? Could we ask that outright on the application? For projects with an interview or orientation, how might we invite volunteers to share an experience of when and where they felt part of a community? What factors influenced their experience? Once volunteers are on board, how do we cultivate connection? What is the rightsized version of welcome and community at one-time or short-term projects?
This might be an interesting exercise for the current staff and volunteer team to have as well. What makes them feel connected to a group? What contributes to a sense of belonging or team? Think about personal and professional spaces. Which ones felt inviting? Which ones didn’t? Why? How did that influence your participation? Would your answers change if you had a different role or identity? In what ways might the volunteer team or agency be curating volunteer experiences for people who are like them?
These questions are not appropriate for every agency or volunteer role. Sorting out which questions will feel invitational rather than intrusive is part of the adaptive work.
Toward Authentic Relationship
If we start peeling back the layers of cultivating community in our agency and acting out our values, we might end up in a different relationship with demographics. For those who still need demographics, perhaps it makes sense to ask about them later when volunteers may be more open to sharing the information because it feels like they have a connection with the agency team (particularly if the questions are optional and the purposes for asking are clearly stated.) Alternatively, the process of getting to know volunteers through their service and building trust with them may lead them to organically reveal aspects of their identities or backgrounds that aren’t visible. Or maybe the questions feel less meaningful at this point because there’s a greater sense of the richness that comes from a full engagement of the community that can’t be captured in demographic checkboxes
This topic reminds me of how much of volunteer engagement can come across as a technical issue. How do we craft meaningful volunteer opportunities? What’s the best way to recruit and train volunteers? How do we share volunteer impact? On the surface, the issues—and often solutions—look straightforward.
A deeper look though reveals that volunteer engagement is technical and adaptive. How do we partner with others in the community to address a common concern? How do we equip volunteers to be successful, not just in completing a task, but in actively owning their role in a cause? What can we learn from the community about how to approach our collective goals? How do we equip staff to share the work with community volunteers? What stories do we tell about what unfolds?
One of the things that makes volunteer engagement so dynamic and complex is that it entails technical and adaptive work and the ability to determine which tasks are which. Remembering this can help us ask and answer our questions in more thoughtful ways.
Thanks to Jason Blanch and his team at Nova Scotia Health for asking the question that inspired this blog post.