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  • Jerome Tennille, MSL, CVA

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


Photo by Zoe VandeWater on Unsplash

Part 1 opened dialogue about my place in the profession of volunteer engagement (non-profit and CSR alike). I shared my thoughts on the role of those in this field in advocating for a more diverse and inclusive profession. We also dove into the practices those in this profession can implement to make their own programs more diverse and inclusive in terms of those they’re engaging in the act of volunteering. But that’s only a part of the equation. After making a commitment to the profession and then implementing practices that remove barriers to participation in the very programs we manage, then what? Well, I have a couple thoughts.


We must address our own internal barriers that exist at the institutions we support. Look, I know that’s a tough hill to climb. I’ve been climbing it for nine years. By all accounts I'm still climbing. I acknowledge the fact that many in this profession have too few resources, too little time, too little funding, too little support, and the list goes on. It all compounds and often prevents our ability to manage a proper program, let alone implement diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) principals into our volunteer engagement strategy.


First recognize that we can’t make these changes ourselves just within our own programmatic silos. So, first seek the buy-in and approval of those within your leadership, those who fund your programs and the governing body of your institution. We’ll call these individuals the “power brokers”. And then after that we must understand how the act (of volunteering) can help bridge the divide in this nation.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

The power brokers. A double-edged sword.


I’ve been in the position of not getting the support I felt was needed. Perhaps you’ve been there yourself. You had a great idea you knew would yield far-reaching results and you pitched the idea. The issue? Others didn’t see the vision, or perhaps it didn’t connect with the vision of those possessing authority. There are many of us in this line of work (volunteer engagement) who are valued as only coordinators and managers. We often beg for permission to act from the very programs we support, our executive directors or CEOs, our board members and strangely enough those who work in development. The result when others don’t buy-in? It’s simple. Would-be great ideas aren’t implemented.


Well, while you and I may think implementing a DEI strategy for volunteer engagement is brilliant, others (the power brokers) may not. Or, they might, but perhaps they see it as a distraction or as an additional cost that’ll be denied by donors.


Well, this may be painfully obvious, but we must first gain consensus that a volunteer engagement DEI strategy is important internally. I would suggest starting this dialogue with those you consider allies in your institution. I share that because unless you’re a political lobbyist by trade, gaining consensus, horse trading and ultimately pushing your agenda through the finish-line can be tough. But, there’s no time like the present to express a desire to pursue what’s right, and that’s ultimately creating an inclusive environment for everyone. Yes, this includes the very volunteers who are engaged throughout your institution. So, try this. Start with your closest friends and colleagues where you work.


Connect with them individually, and in a logical format explain why diversity is important to you personally and what that means for the institution. Perhaps this means getting others to sign a petition as a pledge of support. Regardless, having allies will help make a stronger case when you talk to those who hold all the cards. This will make it tougher for potential naysayers to say, “we’re not doing this”. Once close friends and colleagues are on board, work your way outwards and get support from other leaders who might be in positions with more authority. Perhaps these are direct reports of the executive director or CEO.


Next, work to explain the importance to your leadership.


Once you have the support of others it’s time to bend the ear of your executive director (chapter director, CEO or other chief officers). But a word of caution, don’t be brash or abrasive in how you do this. Don’t be overcome by emotions. Think about the pain-points they might feel and the language they speak, understand and value. And if you’re uncomfortable, perhaps you approach them in confidence, in private.


Let them know just as you did the others that DEI is important to you. But even beyond the population of those who are considered paid employees, let them know that DEI is important for the institution and how this will benefit. Be sure you’ve done your research with data that indicates there are benefits. Yes, it might be the “right” thing to do, but you’ll also have to convince others that there’s a business case for this. Why you ask? Because you’ll likely have to convince others (i.e., the board of directors and major donors) of this as well. And if they’re holding the purse strings this will be critical.


So, do the research. Make the case to those in development for a grant. Regardless of support from your senior most executive, there are other options and avenues to pursue. One being the research for grants and streams of funding that may exist for this very goal. After you’ve done some research it may be advisable to approach the development team with the concept of a DEI strategy for your volunteer engagement program. But don’t make this a burden for them to carry. Rather, identify potential grants and funders in advance. Sure, they’ll likely have to put in the proposal to a potential funder, but if a grant exists and you’ve done that research it’ll be one less step they’ll need to take. It will lighten their load even if slightly.


But, with any grant there are often requirements and stipulations. One of those is proof that you’re making progress on the goals submitted.


Create a data-collection plan. Like any major gift there will likely be a requirement to report on progress made. If you’ve not done so, ensure you have the proper collection method to demonstrate progress towards your DEI goal. For starters you should have a baseline of demographics before you start. You’ll also want to periodically measure the progress you’re making through outreach to diverse communities of volunteers. Track it as though your success depends on it, because it probably does. Having this data will ensure that power brokers (regardless of who they are) see the data and understand the positive change being made.


This will help you show them this isn’t for naught.


At the point you’ve secured enough support it’s time to act. And this may be the act of implementing a plan to make your program more accessible as mentioned in Part 1. But, even after making your volunteer program more inclusive through policy and practice reform, what about the action of volunteering itself? What role does it play in healing a divided nation? Well, I believe the act of volunteering itself can help support minority communities while also building empathy for those engaged in the act of serving.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Understanding how volunteering can bridge a divided nation.


In 2018 I attended an evening banquet hosted by DC Central Kitchen, an organization whose mission is to “use food as a tool to strengthen bodies, empower minds, and build communities”. During this banquet their CEO Michael Curtain said, “if we were able to feed our way out of food insecurity we would’ve done so by now”. And what he was referring to is hunger and food insecurity just being the symptom and not a cause. The cause of food insecurity was a lack of opportunity to jobs offering a living wage.


I share that to say that it’s through supporting workforce development, vocational and occupational skills-building programs that we’ll be able to uplift and empower diverse communities to a stable life. In the example of DC Central Kitchen, they do this by providing “hands-on culinary job training for individuals facing high barriers to employment while creating living wage jobs”. Those program participants (as trainees) use their skills to then serve “nutritious, dignified food where it is most needed” across the Greater Washington DC area. Through this non-profit and social enterprise venture they’re both providing opportunity to diverse communities in Washington DC, while also helping feed those who otherwise wouldn’t have the means if not for DC Central Kitchen.


To me that’s genius. And they’re not the only organization doing this. There are organizations that are providing opportunities to real career paths through their occupational skills-training programs across the globe. These opportunities are truly lifting up communities out of poverty for long-term success.


This type of service is an example of how workforce development focused on specific communities can be a way of empowering and uplifting communities while creating a more diverse workplace for companies doing the hiring. But what about those who volunteer at DC Central Kitchen and other similarly chartered organizations? We’ve seen study after study that claims the benefits for those volunteering. But is there more to it? I believe there is, and I’m not alone in thinking that. There’s evidence that by engaging in a very deliberate practices of volunteering you’re able to develop empathy.


Build empathetic pathways in the brain, remove bias.


I’ll preface this by saying this is not my idea. I just happen to be a huge fan of the concept I’m about to share. This deliberate act of giving one’s time is called transformative volunteering. This specific type of volunteer engagement has been led and fostered by Realized Worth. To understand more about this idea and the science (yes, real science) behind it I suggest you listen to this TEDxLASalon where Chris Jarvis (Executive Director, RW Institute) explains how volunteering can be a tool to address racism and inequity. While his presentation focuses on corporate volunteering and how you can make your employees better for your company, what he shares is transferable to other sectors. But, the short of it is this. Through the act of volunteering you can focus it in such a way that the volunteers themselves become more empathetic while removing implicit bias.


I also believe that volunteering is one of the strongest demonstrations of democracy and civic engagement. One form of volunteerism (albeit often informal) is activism. Right now, we’re seeing this play out in front of our very eyes through advocacy, marching and peaceful protesting. Yet many of us aren’t even acknowledging it as a form of volunteerism. But as millions of protesters take to the streets and demand change, this is a strong showing of the strength and influence volunteers have, even when done without the backing or support of formalized institutions. If you’ve been following my work over the past month, you’ll have seen my post referencing the introduction of “social justice benefits” and Protest PTO by some companies seeking to be more responsible.


For volunteer engagement professionals (in CSR) who have the ability, perhaps that’s another tool in your toolkit to pursue with your colleagues who work in human resources.


Support civil right organizations.


One of the most obvious yet forgotten is simply supporting the actions of community-based organizations that support civil rights and are on the front lines of racial justice. Volunteers supporting these organizations work to lobby the government, fundraise to support campaigns, create toolkits for activists and create movements at the grassroots level. Here’s a great searchable database of organizations compiled by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation that can serve as a racial equity resource guide where you can find specific organizations that volunteers can support. And VolunteerMatch recently (in late June) published a blog post with 15 ways to support racial justice and civil rights.

Photo by Bret Kavanaugh on Unsplash

It’s up to us to walk through that door.


Folks, these are all suggestions. And while this was a two-part blog, this is just scratching the surface on what we can do (or at least advocate for) as professionals who engage volunteers. Yes, this applies to those working in CSR and government just as much as the non-profit sector. But, at the end of the day while these suggestions go an inch deep, it still requires one thing. Action. It requires us to apply this to our work. And while I’m not advocating you bite off more than you can chew, I would ask that maybe you choose one action and start with that.


So, which of the suggested items will you choose?


I’ll tell you which ones I’m committed to championing. First and foremost, a more diverse and inclusive volunteer engagement profession where I’m not the minority but perhaps surrounded by others who look like me. Secondly, I commit to the best of my ability to get the buy-in from power brokers to inject more inclusive practices into the volunteer engagement schemes I’m responsible for. Third, I’m dedicated and will carve out time for dialogue on these issues with other professionals. This may be one-on-one, but also include lending my voice to roundtable discussions, panels and other speaking opportunities (as I’ve done over the past month) in hopes to educate and inspire others. Lastly, I’m committed to continued change and the pursuit of a more positive culture of volunteerism (i.e., human capital investment, giving one’s time for free, helping others, civic engagement) where I can.


For me it’s upholding my responsibility to remain Responsible AF.


Your move. What will you do?

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