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  • Jerome Tennille, MSL, CVA

Breaking the Mold: A Call to Action


Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

In my previous post you may recall my sharing what some may consider a harsh opinion about the act of volunteering. The short of it is about how the act of volunteering is a social construct, and as a result is often misunderstood or only understood through the very narrow lens we were taught through our social, cultural and religious ideals. Of course, this was through the context of how we value volunteering here in the United States (as a western nation). In that January post I shared my thoughts about how in some ways our narrow view of volunteering may be doing more harm than good, and in more extreme cases simply perpetuating issues we’re working to solve in society.


Collectively society wields the act of volunteering as carelessly as a three-year-old that just found a pair of scissors. Yes, a harsh comparison, but my point is that we often think of service through our very narrow lens based on how we learned to volunteer.


Of course, some may argue that they weren’t taught to volunteer. But one must ask as a social construct, how and where do we see volunteering? Well, we see it promoted in education institutes, political campaigns, our faith-based institutes (as it’s sometimes a tenant of our faith), we see it promoted at our workplace, and the list goes on. So, even if we’re “learning” how to volunteer passively, this is something we’re picking up as a “normatively” prescribed behavior in our society.


However, my challenge to others in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), the non-profit and governmental sector is to use this time of crisis to rethink the act of volunteering. Why? Because there’s a real possibility that our intentions to serve others may actually be perpetuating behaviors that we don’t necessarily want to see. We may even be perpetuating harm in our own communities or abroad unintentionally. Long term, our expectations of others to conform to our understanding of volunteering could even be placing expectations and values on other communities that carry different understanding and value of service. I’ll share how we can challenge the current understanding in this post.


Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash

Decouple acts of service from significant dates in history.


One action I see too often is this focus on attaching acts of volunteering to significant dates in history. In my previous post I point to MLK Day of Service and September 11th National Day of Service and Remembrance. But it doesn’t stop there, we do this with holidays and call it “The Season of Giving”. To me, the issue with being focused on significant dates is that it can quickly turn into a situation where we’re not actually addressing the deeper-rooted issue that created the critical issues we’re working to solve in the first place.


While attaching acts of service to historically significant dates is a nice gesture (and often expected by society), doing so in many ways actually ignores the true or deeper-rooted needs in the community we’re seeking to serve. And this isn’t to say we must stop this completely, but we must be more thoughtful. Here’s what I suggest for those striving to make greater positive change; first, fight the urge of giving into the societal pressure of creating a service-oriented activity based on dates and holidays that are purely the result of holidays or a time chosen to honor a person’s legacy. Instead, try and challenge the status quo and work more deeply with the community you’re serving to identify when they have the greatest need, and align your acts of service with that.


In this instance and using the American food bank system as an example, one change you might make is to redirect your volunteering to be aligned with their greatest time of need which in some cases is February through May, and again from August through October. And instead of seeking to volunteer during November through December (when they’re inundated with support), you could do a communication blitz that educates would-be volunteers why the American food bank system generally needs volunteers during these different times of year. Will you get raised eyebrows and many questions? Yes! But be courageous. To me, this is all about expectation management.


Photo by Bonneval Sebastien on Unsplash

Create the opportunity to educate. Avoid virtue signaling.


Too often I feel like we’re so paralyzed by the fear of having to answer why we’re deviating from a societal norm. In many cases we’re so afraid of questions we eventually choose the societal norm (even when we also acknowledge it’s not enough) simply because bending to that expectation is easier than answering questions. But to me, every question presents an opportunity to educate in efforts to realign expectations. Remember, in some cases that societal expectation may only (unintentionally) perpetuate the status quo of our programs. So, my challenge to you is to think about every question as an opportunity rather than something to avoid.


We should also think about our actions and whether they’re more symbolic than helpful. There’s nothing wrong with making a pledge or setting a goal. But we also have to ensure that any pledge we make has follow through, and that any goal set is rooted in understanding true outcomes and not simply based on achieving just a number of hours or a monetary figure donated. When we set goals that are only focused on output, we always run the risk of slipping into a rut that only reinforces virtue signaling even if unintended.


Recently I had the opportunity to be featured on February’s The Listen Up! Show, where we discussed the intersection of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) and Corporate Citizenship (Also known as CSR). While in conversation with the host, Chris Jarvis, we talked about how sometimes even our actions of volunteering or grant making in communities may just be another form of virtue signaling if we’re not actually doing the hard work on ourselves, behind the scenes and on a consistent basis.


For example, if we claim to be supporting black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities by making a financial contribution or by participating in limited episodic volunteering, but then forgo doing the hard work on ourselves to uncover our own blind-spots (ridding ourselves of implicit and unconscious bias), then it creates the situation where the act of gifting a financial contribution or volunteering (even if well intended) may only really be virtue signaling.


One must wonder, are aspirational (yet unrealistic) output-based goals and activities that only address symptoms (and not the real issue) a form of virtue signaling? And while I don’t want to quibble with definitions, virtue signaling is often thought of verbal expression. But we must ask if it shows up in our acts of service even if it’s unintended.


Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

Is equity in volunteering important? Why yes, it is.


I’m often asked to share my view on why equity in volunteering is so important, and my response is simple. Volunteering is a form of democracy, so let’s treat it that way. I believe volunteering is one of the few ways we as individuals can exercise civic engagement. And with our gift of time, we’re able to place that time towards causes and values we care for, similar to our vote during an election year. The only issue is that this form of democracy isn’t available for many people. Why you ask? Because volunteering requires privilege. It requires a fair degree of economic, social and human capital. Those with less of each have less access to opportunities to volunteer. So, if we believe volunteering is important, then we must seek to remove these barriers from would-be volunteers.


Because of this belief, I always suggest applying a DEI strategy to the mechanisms that engage volunteers. Not onboard yet? Okay just bear with me for a second. Here’s what I’ll say. Just like our counterparts in Human Resources (HR), we engage people and often have a ton of policy around how we do that. But different from our HR counterparts I’d also suggest that many of us who engage volunteers actually engage more people on a daily basis (through the mechanisms we create) than most HR professionals. The difference is that we’re engaging people in acts of service to and for others. So, I would challenge professionals who engage volunteers to think through that perspective when creating their programs.


To me, if we think of volunteering as a form of democracy and way to be civically engaged, and also acknowledge that through our work we often touch more people than many who work in traditional forms of HR, then it becomes an imperative to remove barriers that give voice to the would-be voiceless.


Additionally, this isn’t unique to how non-profits should start engaging would-be volunteers. This extends to how corporate employee volunteer programs create equity for employees to volunteer. I would argue that there are segments of employees at some companies that have very limited access to company sponsored volunteer opportunities. This isn’t true for every company of course, but we must think about the hourly employees who may be customer facing or work in manufacturing on a plant floor, who can’t step away from their role and figure out how to make opportunities to volunteer more accessible.


For some employees, they can’t volunteer without having to take paid time off (PTO). In some examples shared with me anecdotally, some employees can’t volunteer during working hours without the risk of losing wages. Too often we’re hyper focused on increasing engagement, yet we forget about the barriers that actually prevent engagement in the first place. This must change and actually gets me to my next point.


Image by photosforyou from Pixabay

Let’s collectively stop being lazy.


I just yet again read an Australian article urging people to volunteer and the creation of a “national volunteering strategy”. And in normal fashion within the first paragraph the article reads “Australian organisations are struggling to re-engage their volunteering workforce, with new research revealing that many volunteer programs are still not fully up and running despite COVID-19 restrictions easing”. What an unimaginative and lazy way to dive into real issues. The one thing I’ll say about this article is the only real place of agreement is that I too believe a national strategy is needed for volunteering, yes, even here in the United States.


That said, I’m going to challenge us to think much more deeply and broadly than this inch-deep article takes up. Yes, while COVID-19 restrictions may be contributing to the challenge to re-engage volunteers (as we’ve seen everywhere by the way), I believe the struggle for many non-profit organizations is the result of something else. Not solely COVID-19 restrictions.


According to NPQ, in the United States the employment rate of the non-profit sector remains 929,000 jobs below pre-pandemic levels. And while that number was close to double during the spring of 2020, this tells us that there are still close to 1 million non-profit employees unemployed. So, what can we glean from this? Non-profits across the board are understaffed. You may think that perhaps volunteers can fill those roles, right? Wrong. While some key volunteers can help shoulder that burden, there’s a reason many non-profits hire paid staff, to build internal capacity. Some of those paid staff I assume manage volunteers. So, there’s one issue I see. Non-profit organizations have less staff, and less staff means less capacity, and less capacity means weaker mechanisms to engage volunteers.


But what else? Well, we also know that income inequality has risen since the onset of the pandemic. According to a Pew Research study, since the start of the pandemic “one-in-four adults have had trouble paying their bills since the coronavirus outbreak started, a third have dipped into savings or retirement accounts to make ends meet, and about one-in-six have borrowed money from friends or family or gotten food from a food bank”. And while job loss and job disruption has been more pronounced among certain demographics, the point I want to focus on is the fact that communities with less economic, social and human capital have less access to the act of volunteering. The bottom line is when income inequality rises, volunteering decreases because volunteering requires privilege. But wait, there’s more!


You may be wondering how I can compare what’s happening here in the United States to what’s happening in Australia. You’re right in wondering, and here’s what I’ll say. While we have some pretty unique challenges here in the United States, one challenge that’s not unique to America is what some describe as the decline in volunteer engagement. My point here really is focusing on the lazy argument made by many (often times within our own profession) where we claim volunteering is declining because people are lazy, afraid, not aligned in values or COVID-19 restrictions and the list continues. When in reality, we’re glossing over the real issue.


The issue is volunteering is becoming less and less accessible by the masses. And there are so many reasons for this. So, why do I share this? Because as a profession we must understand volunteering is a social construct, and there are many reasons that are tied to economic, social and human conditions that actually influence why people volunteer. And it’s hard to actually determine the reasons why people do or do not volunteer. But rather than doing the homework many don’t, they stop with an inch-deep reason and instead make a claim like “volunteering is declining” and point to a singular reason. But we can’t be lazy otherwise we’ll continue telling ourselves lies about why people aren’t volunteering.


Has anybody ever asked whether people have too many barriers?


Perhaps would-be volunteers actually want to give their time but can’t. Maybe the reasons have more to do with income inequality (due to economic, social and human exclusion), lack of non-profit capacity as a result of high unemployment (while being strained to meet higher demand) and the lack of funding by strategic philanthropy. And lastly, this doesn’t even broach the intangible barriers like the fact volunteering isn’t universally valued globally and that 70% of the world’s volunteering is informal, so it’s not even being tracked.


Think about that, because to not is to be lazy in our pursuit to engage others in service.


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Serving others requires nothing short of excellence.


Okay, I’ll admit, maybe I’m being too critical of how society should think about volunteering as an act of service. I have been told that I can sometimes be judgmental and overcritical on positions I hold. So, the last thing I’ll say is that perhaps it’s not even society’s fault we’re at this point, but maybe it’s our own profession’s fault. While decades (and even centuries) old social, cultural and religious ideals may have shaped how we understand volunteerism here in America, I do believe we all play a role through our complicity. But we have the choice to perpetuate this or to become that agent of change.


I’d rather be that agent of change.


And by choosing to be that agent of change and with every step in creating mechanisms that engage volunteers I have the opportunity (and responsibility) to challenge the status quo.

To me, the status quo isn’t excellence. To me, what’s often being done (and called excellence) is simply doing just enough to get by, it’s settling. And it’s done under the guise of calling it a “best practice” that we’ve benchmarked from another program that’s also just skating by. Let’s change this.


Those who know me know I’m an ultra-marathoner. Some of my favorite distances to race include the 50 kilometer and 50 miler. As a competitor one thing I’ve grown to understand is settling is never first place, it’s often never the best option. It’s often average, just like the status quo. So, here’s my challenge to others like myself who work in CSR, non-profit or governmental volunteer engagement, let’s stop settling and perpetuating the status quo because that’s what an uninformed society expects. Don’t know where to start? Reach out and let’s start that journey to becoming Responsible AF together.

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