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  • Jerome Tennille, MSL, CVA

Fighting Racism Through Diverse and Inclusive Volunteer Engagement Programming (Part 1 of 2)


I wish there were more people who looked like me in my profession.


I’m a social impact and sustainability professional. For the greater part of nine years I’ve engaged volunteers to solve some of the world’s most critical social and environmental issues. But, when I network, collaborate with cross-functional teams and attend conferences I notice something. In many cases I’m the only man of color at the table or in the room.

I want to be clear about something before I continue. It will take more than just having greater numbers of people of color in my field to solve the issue of racism.


I’ll also acknowledge that there’s a chance that what I’m noticing is a result of hundreds of years of racial injustice. But I believe greater inherent diversity (in any profession) is a part of the solution.


I also happen to believe volunteer engagement has a special place in healing the wounds of a nation divided by centuries of racial injustices. Think about it for a second. Every action matters. Who’s served, what the intended goal is, when you choose to do it, where these actions physically take place, why you’re seeking to serve and how that programming is created. It all matters. And before you think this is solely on professionals who engage volunteers in the non-profit sector alone, you’d be mistaken. Remember, there are professionals whose job it is to engage volunteers on corporate social responsibility (CSR) teams and at government agencies. They too bear responsibility.


But before we get to the act of volunteering itself, let’s address what may be obvious (to some). It goes back to my original statement.


I wish there were more people who looked like me in my profession.


It’s not every day I come across others (who identify as members of a minority community, let alone the black community) in my field who also identify as volunteer engagement professionals. To me this isn’t a shock. I suspect my peers (especially those in the non-profit sector specifically) agree. According to a recent report on the progress of volunteer management published by Toby Johnson & Associates LLC, 84 percent of respondents from 27 separate cause areas and industries, self-identified as being “White/Caucasian/European” in the “race and ethnicity” column. And while I couldn’t find any demographic data on professionals in the CSR space, I suspect it’s similar.


And let’s be real, just as acquired diversity (academic and learned skills) influences our behaviors, so do the experiences as a result of our inherent diversity (traits we’re born with, like gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation). So, maybe the place we start is making a commitment to fight for greater inherent diversity in the profession of volunteer engagement. I would urge others to think about that. Additionally, this is more than just the responsibility of human resources (HR) and talent acquisition (TA) teams of the organizations and companies that employ us. While HR and TA play a part in how diverse and inclusive talent pipelines are, we too play a role. Here’s how; being more front and center in advocating for our profession (In non-profit or CSR) with the end goal to have others (from diverse communities) pursue a career in our field of work.


And yes, many of us do a ton of advocacy for the advancement of our profession. I know this because I’m a result of that advocacy and I also do it myself.


But we must ask ourselves, do we focus that advocacy on diverse communities in the hopes that more people of color pursue our profession? I’m not sure. I too have failed in this category.


We can (and must) do more to remove myths and stigmas that taint the work we do as professionals who engage volunteers for a living. And while we can be our best cheerleaders to educate others about the roles that exist in both non-profit and CSR, we must do that outside of our own silos. We can mentor others and work to develop their curiosity, passion and finally, their employability.


We must be that conduit.


But what after that? I’d say the natural place to start would be with addressing the diversity in the very volunteer programs we manage. Taking inventory of our own practices. And after that I think we must fully understand the power volunteer engagement has when it comes to removing racism from society.


First you must audit your own diversity, equity and inclusion strategy (DEI) in how you engage volunteers.

Photo by Lucas George Wendt on Unsplash

Creating a DEI strategy for volunteer recruitment.


I’ll be the first to say that non-profit organizations and CSR programs aren’t socially responsible by default. Here’s why. None are perfect. There’s a reality that the programming (and how it’s created) and the outcomes achieved may be flawed. For some programs this might mean the positive change being sought after is cancelled out by the harm being done. In the years I’ve done this work I sometimes hear people say, “well they should just be grateful for what they get”. I sometimes hear remarks of this nature when underserved communities are being “gifted” a form of support that’s not necessarily beneficial.


The fact of the matter is nobody should just be grateful for getting mediocre service, even at the hands of volunteers. If we can understand that, then it becomes clear that professionals who manage the mechanisms that engage volunteers (both non-profit and CSR) must do so with nothing short of excellence.


Just like HR and TA teams work with human capital, managers of volunteers do as well. Of course, volunteers often come with different motives and expectations (as they’re not being paid), but the principles of having a DEI strategy when recruiting is vital. What I’m going to share will help you build a more diverse pool of volunteers. Here are some considerations and steps you can take.


Create more flexibility through options. Inequities exist everywhere. Many diverse communities don’t have the same level of access to volunteer opportunities. There are digital, physical and material considerations at play. All three are double-edged swords that act as both barriers and avenues to participating in volunteer opportunities. Understand this, and work to offset the barriers by creating more avenues for engagement. While that’ll take more deliberate work, think of this as a long-term investment. For example, when seeking engagement with communities that have less access to internet, perhaps you create more in-person recruitment campaigns to engage these harder to reach close-knit communities where they live. These actions may require that you meet them in their community and rely heavily on human contact. It may also require reliance on hard-copy collection of phone number, email and address. For communities and populations with greater access to digital mediums you may instead focus on creating a highly segmented social media campaign with short videos and eye-catching photos. The bottom line is this, do your research!


Vigorously work to understand the socioeconomic status of those you’re seeking as volunteers.


Once you’ve done so, work to create the most appropriate outreach mechanism that removes barriers to their connecting.

Image by Markus Steidle from Pixabay

Volunteering bears a cost. I’ll be the first to tell you some costs associated with volunteering create a burden for some. In a sense you can even say the act of volunteering can only be completed with a certain amount of privilege.


Let that sink in for a second.


Think about it. If you’re working two jobs, living paycheck to paycheck below the poverty line or can be considered “the underserved” as a result of your socioeconomic status, chances are you’re not volunteering. When you think about those who are most likely to volunteer, they often have a foundation that allows for it. That said, this doesn’t mean underserved communities don’t volunteer, it could just be that they have more barriers to overcome (especially when engaging in formal volunteering) making it that much more challenging to participate. The result? It’s much harder to engage them.


If a volunteer opportunity takes place during the work week (through working hours) or when a potential volunteer must provide for their family (i.e., taking care of the children) it may create a barrier. If a potential volunteer lives paycheck to paycheck perhaps by seeking their support as a volunteer they’re left with making the decision to volunteer at the cost of losing their wages. If faced with these options they’re not likely in a position to pay for childcare. Additionally, the would-be volunteer could possibly be left with another decision; rent a vehicle (which is likely out of their means) or build in several hours of commute-time (for public transportation) to and from the volunteer opportunity. And remember, this doesn’t even cover materials necessary to do the job if this event requires certain attire or tools provided by the volunteer.


This goes back to the basic hierarchy of needs. People often address their needs before they address the needs of others. This is precisely why I say volunteering requires a certain degree of privilege. Here’s what you can do.


Remove barriers to participation. In instances where we’ve created barriers, we must help bridge that gap to participation. It’s our responsibility to help solve this dilemma as the champion of a would-be volunteer. Where there is a challenge logistically, we should think about providing a stipend or transportation to and from the volunteer opportunity. If this is an event your organization or company is hosting, maybe think about providing onsite childcare for parents who wouldn’t be able to participate otherwise. Even the time of day you choose for your event is critical. In seeking support from diverse populations work with them to determine the time of day during a workweek or weekend that’ll generate the greatest turnout. Just be aware that even by removing barriers and providing incentive alone may not be enough. In managing a global employee volunteer engagement program, I learned of intangible barriers. This barrier may have everything to do with cultural nuances of those you seek.

Photo by radovan on Unsplash

Volunteerism (or giving one’s time for free) isn’t universally valued.


There could very well be a cultural divide that exists between you and some diverse communities you’re seeking. Here’s what I mean. Just the idea of volunteering or giving one’s time “free of charge” isn’t universally understood and valued by all. Some cultures socially discourage these actions completely. Some may even carry strong negative feelings towards these actions. It may be frowned upon and not at all seen as virtuous. Even the word volunteer doesn’t exist in some languages.


One report I’ve found incredibly helpful in navigating the global volunteer engagement landscape (and cultural nuances) includes the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) State of the World’s Volunteerism Report: The Threads That Bind. This report does a fantastic job at highlighting challenges when engaging volunteers globally, a part of that addressing societal and cultural barriers.


So, be mindful of this as you’re creating your engagement programming. It may even be a good idea to implement some cultural competency training to staff who manage these programs.


Build culture competency and awareness. Seek to learn everything you can about the cultural and societal values of the diverse communities you’re seeking support from. And remember this doesn’t have to be done on your own, think about collaborating with other community-based organizations that may be subject matter experts in working with these communities.


But don’t stop there. There are others in both education and the corporate sector you can work with. If you’re a nonprofit perhaps you deliberately work to partner with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), minority owned businesses or specific employee resource groups (ERG) at companies in which you have a partnership. Or, if you’re managing a CSR employee volunteer program perhaps you seek volunteer opportunities with community-based organizations that allow for more interaction with members of their community. There are some organizations that build in opportunities for their community to socialize as a part of the programming. I've seen this done with organizations that support diverse communities of women, refugees, youth, veterans and people with disabilities. Each of these opportunities have an ability to connect people on a human level while exposing volunteers to more diverse communities.


Know that this is just a start.


I'll also acknowledge that by no means do I believe I'll solve racism with this post. But, I believe the first place to start is by opening dialogue on what more we can do and then taking first steps to long-term action.


What I'd love to know from you is what steps you've taken to fight racism while building a more diverse and inclusive volunteer program. Are there specific actions you've taken? While I've love to hear what's working, I would open the opportunity for you to share where you've failed.


I imagine you may even have some thoughts of your own or places where you disagree. If that's you please let me know. I always welcome dialogue in hopes to learn and grow myself.


So, in summary, I've covered what I believe leaders of volunteer engagement must do to diversify our profession and the steps we can take to diversify our programs. In the next post (Part 2 of 2) I'll cover additional actions we can take to being more inclusive, additional considerations. But, I'll also cover how the act of volunteering can be powerful in helping heal a divided nation. Stay tuned for that, but until then, please reach out and lets connect. The most important thing right now is that we're having conversation and feel safe to do so. In the past week I've joined Volunteer Fairfax in co-leading a roundtable discussion on the role of volunteer engagement in fighting racism. Over the coming weeks I'll continue this much needed dialogue. And as we all continue to navigate these times, let's keep this conversation open. But, until we connect, stay curious and be well.

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