Community-Centered Volunteer Data Collection

Cylinder floating in space with illumination that casts two shadows. One shadow is a circle and the other is a rectangle. The shadow shape depends on your point of view.
The volunteer data points that matter depend on your point of view.

Volunteer numbers. Service hours. The financial value of volunteer time. These are the figures tucked into reports on volunteerism. It’s all well and good for compliance. Yet it doesn’t tell us much about if or how volunteers had an impact on the community.

Isn’t that interesting? The things we report most tell us little about the things that matter most.

Although people facilitate or participate in service for diverse reasons, the common thread is that they want to have a positive influence on the people closest to the mission. That’s a harder nut to crack for tracking and reporting purposes. Then again, that nut may be a wise investment of our time and creativity.

What kind of volunteer data would we collect if we looked at it from the point of view of the people we serve? How would they define volunteer impact?

Community-Centered Volunteer Data Collection – National Multiple Sclerosis Society

Those were the questions we explored at the Colorado Conference on Volunteerism in Fall 2023. Brittany McGarry, CVA, generously volunteered to serve as a case study for the session. She’s the Senior Manager of Volunteer Engagement for the National MS Society.

Brittany had been curious about how her team could revamp reporting on volunteer success, especially for their signature bike and walk events. She wanted to go beyond talking about the number of people involved and dollars raised. Those stats were certainly important, but she witnessed so much more happening at the events.

So Brittany joined me on stage to fill in a Volunteer Impact Point of View Tool. She kicked things off by telling us about the fundraising events and identifying some of the audiences that were involved. Given their proximity to the mission, we decided to focus on event participants first. I gave them a dot in the inner ring of a fresh template.

Next, we considered what impact the volunteers made on those event participants. Brittany said that participants valued when the volunteers were knowledgeable and could answer their questions. She also pointed out that some participants had MS, so volunteers who could support accessibility were especially important in creating a warm and welcoming event.

Digging Deeper

Beyond logistics and access though, Brittany noted that a sense of community made the events special. The events brought people together who shared lived experiences and values. As such, they were primed and ready for community and connection. What’s more, this was an event space imbued with fun and celebration. Participants took the work of fundraising for a cure seriously, but on event day, they didn’t have to take themselves too seriously. We added these indicators of volunteer impact to the template.

Once we worked through volunteer impact ideas for event participants, the workshop attendees helped Brittany repeat the process for other audiences. This included event volunteers with and without MS, paid staff, event donors, and corporate groups that were part of the event as participants, fundraisers, and volunteers. By no means were these audiences exhaustive. We could have added board members or people who would benefit from the research that the event funded. To get a more granular look, we could have split the staff into local and national or fundraising and volunteer engagement team members, if that was useful.

Does every item on the National MS Society sample below cover the true impact volunteers had? No. Is every item going to be a priority for Brittany’s team? Also no (nor should it be. Just because an audience prefers some info doesn’t mean it aligns with the organization mission or is a worthy pursuit for staff). But Brittany and the workshop participants came up with thoughtful indicators that could craft a far more interesting picture of volunteer contributions than we usually see. This exercise offered a first step in moving toward volunteer impact data that are meaningful and relevant, not just popular.

I left all of the indicators we came up with in the session on the sample to normalize that the process may be a little messy. Having many ideas serves us better than having too few; it’s easy to get stuck in the rut of numbers and hours.
Making Meaning

Once you have a list of possible volunteer impact indicators, the next step is to look at the tool as a whole. This is a chance to assess whether your current and potential volunteer data are community centered.  

  • Which audiences’ interests are prioritized? Are any overlooked?
  • What matters to those closest to the mission? Do you track or report any of those indicators?
  • Do your current indicators of volunteer impact show up anywhere on the target? If so, where? If not, why?
  • Which indicators relate to logistics, and which ones relate to relationships and community?
  • Do any of the indicators link to the event or program’s purpose? How might these data points help you tell the story of your work and the importance of engaging volunteers well?
  • Do you spend at least as much time designing for impact for those closest to the mission as you do to ensure the satisfaction of those furthest from it? If not, what needs to shift?
  • Which of the indicators strike you as particularly meaningful or relevant? Which would you prioritize?
  • Are there any surprises?
Identifying Community-Centered Volunteer Data

As Brittany reflected on the results of the exercise, she highlighted the importance of community and fun as something she wanted to give more thought to with her team. This is where creativity comes in. How volunteers contribute to a sense of community and fun can be tricky to “measure,” but it doesn’t let her off the hook.

Brittany and her team might consider how a sense of community and fun are evident at the event (and importantly, how they can cultivate both). Do participants mingle with each other? Do they show up early or linger after? How many come back year after year? When it comes to fun, are the participants wearing festive clothing? Is there laughter or music or dancing or high fiving? What’s the event vibe? How does her team know?

Brittany’s data might come in the form of quotes and images from participants, volunteers, staff, and corporate groups at the event. Perhaps there is a follow-up survey that includes questions about community, connection, or fun. There could be an agenda item on the local event debrief to discuss how participants connected. Brittany’s national staffers might look at what folks posted on social media using the event hashtag. They could check in with local staff and volunteer leads to see if they received any calls or emails that indicated how the event fostered bonding.

Does this process take a few extra steps? Yes, but that time is an investment in finding evidence that volunteers are meeting real community needs while also advancing the organization’s purpose and values (or not). That seems like time well spent.

Your Turn

If you’d like to try out this exercise for your organization, visit the Volunteer Impact Point of View page to find a template, directions, and other samples. Consider pairing up with someone in your agency to work on it together or completing it at your next team meeting.  If appropriate, ask program participants for their perspectives on how volunteers impact them. Or you could use it as an exercise at your next DOVIA or other professional association meeting and compare notes among members.

Let me know if you have questions about using the template. I’d also love to hear from you if you’re willing to contribute your sample to the online library. (We can include or delete identifying information according to your preference.)

The Heart of the Matter

The data points we need for compliance tell us what matters to partners outside of the agency. Less often do they tell us what matters to the people we serve. The Volunteer Impact Point of View Tool is one way that you can be intentional about prioritizing the communities closest to the mission. Along the way, it helps us tell a better story about what really matters in the work we are doing.

With gratitude to Brittany McGarry for her willingness to share her example and to everyone in the session who offered ideas to fill in the template. It was fun to co-create with you! Thanks also to DOVIA Colorado and MAVA for the chance to test out and refine these ideas at their conferences.

Photo credit: Daniels Joffe on Unsplash

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