Beyond Measurement: Cultivating Attention and Aliveness

Two women sitting on swings in a park and smiling
From Official on Unsplash

It’s been said that what gets measured gets managed. The adage is useful: the process of measurement supports goal setting and accountability. And yet, it can also fall short when it comes to things that are hard to measure or when the act of measurement is harmful or distracting. In those cases, it may be better to remember that measurement and management are just another form of attention.

In a study of volunteer retention, for example, a colleague and I asked volunteers and their supervisors what “good” volunteer retention meant to them. Their answers were eye opening. They said that good retention is when:

  • a volunteer prospect’s inquiry translates to service,
  • volunteers fulfill their commitment,
  • volunteer work focuses on the community and relates to the mission,
  • the volunteer feels like a valued part of the community and experiences a sense of teamwork, and/or
  • the community being served has their needs met.

Just as interesting were their answers about what retention is not: the length of volunteer service or number of hours contributed per week. In fact, they said that the extensive engagement numbers they were required to collect to demonstrate volunteer retention had a negative impact on the process of retention. The time it took to collect and report numbers was substantial. So was the amount of time they spent on nudging/reminding/harassing volunteers to log in to their account or submit hours. It was time that might have been spent on building and sustaining the relationships that they considered to be the heart of true retention.

I’m not suggesting that we throw out measurement (that was a different blog). I am suggesting, however, that we come into a healthier relationship with it. The first step is acknowledging that measurement is not the best fit for the relational aspects of community work.

To that end, it may be more productive to say that what gets measured gets attention. And to recognize that measurement is just one form of attention. How can we create and sustain attention in other ways? What does thoughtful attention look like in community and volunteer engagement?

“We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice.”1  

Before there were spreadsheets or logic models or even written language, communities were attending closely to their surroundings. Making observations and noticing patterns cultivated awareness of how our actions influenced the land and people around us2. Attention was a precursor to and form of relationship3.

Yet, when I teach about volunteer engagement, students often say that volunteerism is an afterthought in their agencies. Volunteers and their engagement receive little attention. Even when those volunteers are a significant part of the agency’s workforce. Even when the agency’s mission is bigger than the paid staff alone can achieve. Even when the community’s involvement is critical for understanding and addressing the complex issues the agency is trying to solve.

It’s understandable to some degree. Nonprofit leaders need to tend the instrumental aspects of the mission, the parts that are practical, visible, and achievement oriented. When there are many audiences to serve and please though, the value-based and expressive aspects of nonprofit agencies can get squeezed out4,5. Few funders or external audiences are asking about the role and contributions of volunteers. Few boards are asking about anything other than volunteer numbers. As such, it’s not terribly surprising that volunteers are overlooked.

“We make things holy by the attention we give them.”6

The etymology of the word holy is wholeness, of being whole, sound, or well. Maybe attending to volunteers and volunteerism in meaningful ways can contribute to a sense of wholeness in our agencies and communities. Perhaps it could be the connective tissue between logistics and values, short-term and long-term goals, those inside and those outside the agency walls.

To become more whole through attention, we might start by considering the ways we currently attend to agency priorities.

  • Who directs attention and to what?
  • What gets the most attention and the least?
  • What is the quality of our attention: what holds it and what distracts from it?
  • What does attention look like in actions and communication?

Next, think about the ways that volunteer engagement relates to topics that regularly receive attention. For example, if programs are a priority, we might identify the ways that volunteers contribute to those programs.

  • What value-add do volunteers bring as a complement to paid staff?
  • What are the program effects when volunteers are excited about and equipped for their role – and when they are not?
  • What would happen if volunteers were not part of the program (or what did happen during the pandemic when volunteers were on hiatus)?
  • In what ways can we include volunteers or volunteer engagement topics regularly in team and community meetings?

Then, imagine what other forms of attention you might introduce to or through volunteerism.

  • Facilitate a dialogue about the team’s experience as a volunteer or working with volunteers. What do they see, notice, perceive? What patterns exist? What are they learning? What do they want to do differently or better based on their observations? Include time on each team agenda for at least a brief version of this exercise.
  • Invite people with different perspectives on volunteerism to share and lead a conversation at team meetings. What do service and the mission look like to a long-time volunteer? To a new volunteer? To a volunteer group? To the program or fundraising or marketing teams? To the community served? To a board member? What do these diverse perspectives reveal about the agency’s involvement of the community in its mission?
  • Involve the volunteer engagement staff in strategic and annual planning processes. Link volunteer efforts to programmatic and operational goals so they are included in plan reviews and check-ins.
  • Likewise, include volunteer contributions in agency reports. Highlight the roles volunteers play in the agency’s effectiveness and reach.
  • Send a pair or team of staff to volunteer engagement training. In addition to the person in charge of volunteers, include another person who is a step or two removed from the day-to-day efforts of volunteers (bonus points if they are a senior leader). What discussions are spurred from the experience? What fresh ideas are there for engaging volunteers or bringing more attention to them?
“The quality of our attention measures the quantity of our aliveness.”7

These suggestions mainly speak to the ways that we can bring attention to volunteerism within an agency. Of course, the attention we bring to relationships with the volunteers themselves is essential too. In what ways are we creating conditions that help all kinds of volunteers feel seen, heard, and valued? Do our processes cultivate attention to human needs as well as logistical details? Where are there opportunities to foster relationships as we involve the community in our cause?

One of the dangers of measurement is that it can become a proxy for genuine attention. It can reduce the complex work of community to artificially shallow data points – what can be counted instead of what matters. Indeed, we condense volunteer retention to years on the roster or projects completed. We flatten volunteer impact to volunteer volume. We relegate volunteer appreciation to a luncheon and a certificate. Along the way, we lose the dynamic relationships that meet a community and agency and volunteer need. Let’s increase the quantity of our aliveness with high-quality attention on the right things.

With gratitude for conversations on relationship, measurement, retention, and beyond with Immy Robinson, Laura Hamilton, Curt Luthye, and Crystal Trull!

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *