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  • Jerome Tennille, MSL, CVA

Here’s What You’re Not Being Told About Upcoming Trends and Opportunities in Volunteer Engagement


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While participating on a recent panel hosted by the Association for Leaders In Volunteer Engagement (AL!VE) called "Resiliency in Volunteer Engagement: Lessons from a Pandemic", I shared my personal experiences and take on resiliency while managing life through the COVID-19 pandemic. I also gave my prediction on what we'll see across the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) landscape specific to corporate employee volunteering and opportunities for volunteer engagement professionals. The panel was chalk full of robust discussion featuring others including Rob Jackson, Lindsay Baker and moderator Faiza Venzant, the newly appointed Executive Director for the Council for Certification in Volunteer Administration. There's just one catch, it was incredibly exclusive and not recorded.


Yes, that was done very deliberately. But I feel strongly that what I shared should be re-shared for a couple reasons. One, I think it's important that I give a quick recap for those who participated but didn't have had an opportunity to ask questions or perhaps needed more time to digest what I shared. And two, to share my assessment with others who didn't have an opportunity to attend. During the panel I spoke about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected CSR programs in addition to some trends to expect as a result when also coupled with the heightened focus on racial injustice. I also opined a bit about what opportunities exist for professionals who engage volunteers resulting from the disruption to previous service delivery models. While optically these topics are seemingly unrelated, I actually believe they're incredibly intertwined.


It may not shock you that what I shared during the panel wasn't the vanilla flavored forecast that's been regurgitated and peddled over and over since the beginning of the pandemic. Nope, instead, I shared (as I always do) my candid opinion. But in this post I'll also expand a bit on the reasons why I believe these trends will stick and why others aren't mentioning them. Okay, I'm to get into the meat of this discussion. Here we go.

Photo by Chris Briggs on Unsplash

The pandemic has only exacerbated what was already happening.


Disasters both natural and man-made have a strange way of accelerating the inevitable while also exaggerating the effects of other critical issues. In this case COVID-19 accelerated the adoption and utilization of technology as a tool. As we sought to social-distance, the pandemic forced society's placing a higher value on the use of video chat, shared cloud-based files and remote work. This was already happening to some degree, albeit not at the pace we've seen since March, 2020.


The pandemic also accelerated the timetable on the pursuit of delivery service in how goods and services are provided to customers. Since the beginning of the pandemic it seems like everyone has adopted a delivery service. Never in a million years would I have thought I would be doing "date night" and having my food bought and delivered by Ruth's Chris Steak House. Hell, I was even able to continue patronage of my favorite local farmers market. Central Farmers Market (here in the Northern Virginia market) adopted some innovative practices and did delivery service allowing me to purchase all my favorite local produce, meats, dairy product and even hand sanitizer.


And that's not to say the acceleration of society's adoption of these tools is a bad thing. Matter of fact, this was a shift that was bound to happen. However, I believe it wouldn't have been for another three to five years that we see this change if not for the pandemic. This shift has even been positive for several reasons. For one, it's highlighted the true value of virtual volunteerism. While virtual volunteerism has been around for close to thirty years, its never received its due respect until now. Secondly, the pandemic has acted as a proof-point that remote styles of work can and does work for many. Yes, you can have most of your staff work from home and still be incredibly productive. In some cases they're more productive now then when mandated to work in the office. I suspect it's even been good for sales of Ben Bisbee's new book "The Unashamed Guide to Virtual Management". Yes, shameless plug, it's a great book, I have a copy and the timing of its release couldn't have been better. That all being said though, this is a double-edged sword. The good arrived with it's ugly cousin.


This shift has also arrived with a hyper-focus (and unrealistic expectation) on virtual and remote means of volunteerism that sometimes has a negative impact for organizations.


More so now then ever before experienced in the history of what can be considered CSR are we seeing a push for employees to volunteer virtually. And while some organizations can benefit from this as a means of support, many simply can't. This will spell hardship and disaster for some organizations. Here's why. For companies that haven't been gutted financially there's still an appetite to engage employees in volunteerism. But while many seek to volunteer, many won't take the risk of sending their employees to in-person opportunities. As a result, many companies have an expectation that their non-profit and NGO partners have virtual and remote options for volunteers.


And while that's not wrong, the question that we must ask is this, is the expectation to volunteer virtually or remotely being driven by the expressed needs of the community? Or rather, are these expectations being driven by one's overwhelming urge and desire to give during a time of disaster? And to be clear, both are different. I suspect we're seeing more of the latter.


Here's what I've seen since the start of the pandemic. Many companies are seeking to pivot successfully from in-person employee engagement to forms that allow for social distancing whether virtually or remote. In their quest to achieve this some companies have sought to place that burden on their non-profit partners in the communities they serve. Unfortunately, by placing this responsibility on the non-profit organizations in the communities where they do business they've created a situation where the tail is wagging the dog. The dog in this case being the non-profit, the tail being the company. This decision in many cases is creating a situation where non-profits are having to create virtual opportunities for the sake of engaging their corporate partners, even if it doesn't necessarily serve a purpose in solving the critical issues they're chartered to solve for or are facing.


Here's what many won't say. This unfortunate behavior is getting worse. My prediction is that it'll continue through 2021.


Additionally, there's been a hyper-focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), anti-racism and police reform. There's a saying someone once shared with me, "never waste a good crisis". Resulting from this plea from society to champion racial equality you'll also see a drastic refocus and doubling-down on supporting organizations that are tackling issues of racial injustice. While this is good, we need more of this, we must be aware that it may come at the expense of other programs.


Sure, some companies will be able to spend greater resources on this, but companies facing financial doom will likely cut other programs to make this shift. While it would be helpful for companies to provide non-profits with funding to transform their volunteer engagement programs to be more diverse and inclusive, I don't believe companies supporting DEI programming will fund those efforts. Why? Well, because many companies don't identify the action of volunteer engagement as a "cause" or "focus area". While I fully believe the mechanisms that engage volunteers need more resources, I happen to think that's a trend we'll see and should be expected.

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Renewed focus on activism and informal volunteering.


I happen to think many volunteer engagement professionals focus on too little. What do I mean by that? Well, lets face it, many only think about the specific ways "their" volunteers serve as an indication or measurement of how citizens give their time. But when you think about the overwhelming majority of volunteering that happens it's mostly informal. In many cases volunteering bypasses the very institutions volunteer engagement professionals work for. That's right, according to the 2018 State of the World’s Volunteerism Report: The Thread That Binds, it's estimated that 70% of the world's volunteering is informal in nature. These are people like you and I who give their time, not to specific organizations, but for the causes they care about, people they love and to advocate for the change they're seeking to create in society. And we're seeing a whole lot of it right now.


And while this isn't new, our acknowledging activism and peaceful protesting as volunteering is a must. But we also must do more than just verbally acknowledge it.


As professionals that engage volunteers not only do we need to acknowledge this as volunteerism, but we also must work to channel and harness this energy. Why you ask? Because as more people engage in informal volunteering we'll slowly become irreverent. While informal mechanisms of volunteering are vital, the very formalized institutions volunteer engagement professionals (in CSR, at non-profits and NGOs or government agencies) are still critically needed. These are institutions at the forefront of solving issues specific to human rights, arts & culture, poverty, food insecurity, seniors, the environment, disaster relief and much, much more.


But if CSR programs and formalized non-profit and NGO institutions don't figure out how to harness that energy they'll simply lose it. I don't believe this is impossible. However, we must be okay with getting uncomfortable in our pursuit to acknowledge, understand, accept and in some cases even support these informal mechanisms. Some companies have done this successfully in how they're capturing their employee voice. For example, Patagonia, ALDO and &pizza provide what they call "protest PTO" or "Social Justice Benefits" to support their employee's desire to protest. And while this is often not thought about as "volunteering" in the context of corporate employee volunteering, this is a way they've been able to successfully support their employees in this informal volunteering.


For non-profits and NGOs, they must learn new skills that allow them to channel this energy in a way that's productive, that supports their overall mission and community while not diminishing the integrity of the formalized programs offered.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

The shift in CSR to focus more on DEI, anti-racism and racial injustice.


This shouldn't be a surprise. But, while this work is much needed I suspect it will come at a price. What I mean by that is the renewed focus on DEI, anti-racism and racial injustice for some will come at the expense of other programs. This will likely go one of two ways; companies experiencing little to no negative financial impact from the COVID-19 pandemic will likely be in a position to increase their CSR budget to further expand and deepen their programming. Since June we've seen countless companies pledge donations (equaling tens of millions of dollars) to support institutions supporting DEI, anti-racism and racial justice reform efforts. Now, while I can't speak for how these same companies have fared financially, all indications suggest they're largely unaffected.


For companies experiencing the greatest financial hit however, other programs will likely feel the cut in programming. Why? If a company has say, $100,000 USD to support local programming in a specific community, but that budget was historically spent on environmental stewardship requiring physical volunteers showing up at a project site to dig holes and plant trees, with a greater demand on DEI and racial injustice (during a pandemic) it might be that what was historically earmarked (the $100,000 USD) for natural capital investment may be split in half, $50,000 USD going to environmental stewardship, and the other $50,000 USD perhaps going to a newly formed partnership with an organization supporting the critical issues more immediately front and center in the news headlines.


Now, let's think of another scenario.


Let's say that same company with $100,000 USD set aside for environmental stewardship now only has a $50,000 USD budget due to significant budget cuts resulting from the economic downturn, this may look very different. In this instance it might be that their entire pot of $50,000 USD is set aside for organizations driving racial equality. Or, perhaps they have to split the smaller budget in half, with only $25,000 USD going to environmental stewardship and $25,000 being diverted to the new "issue of the day".


That's all hypothetical of course, but, I share all of this to say there's already been a shift in where CSR budgets are being allocated. Much of this shift the result of more immediate needs. I also believe this hyper-focus will continue until society is satisfied with the commitments made and follow-through of each pledge. So, what does this mean for non-profit organizations not focused on DEI, anti-racism and racial injustice? Well, sadly I believe most will certainly face a challenge generating revenue. If you don't believe me you've not been paying attention. Over the past several months I've seen companies experiencing their worst financial crisis (while publicly laying off thousands of employees) still actively hiring for DEI subject matter experts. That's how focused companies are on this issue.


But, enough of the doom and gloom.


This crisis is also presenting some great opportunities for volunteer engagement professionals. These opportunities aren't obvious, so just bear with me. Yes, we've seen probably the highest number of volunteer cancellations at the head of the crisis coupled with the laying off and furloughing of volunteer engagement professionals globally. And while this is horrific for those affected, we must use this as an opportunity to make the case for our profession while also expanding the breadth and depth of the other professional skills we bear.


For those who engage volunteers professionally, this is a time for to explore other things professionally. Here's why. Volunteer engagement professionals often wear many hats. We're generally expected to have the skill-set for rapport and relationship building, external communication and marketing, internal communication and engagement, graphic design work, workshop and training facilitation, project management, public speaking, and I can go on. All of these skills engaged for the sake of connecting with the very volunteers that drive change. It'd behoove volunteer engagement professionals to explore these further.

Exploring other professions to become a stronger advocate for volunteerism.


I firmly believe that in order to best advocate for the profession of volunteer engagement, one must ascend to a position where you're able to make the decisions that concern those same volunteer engagement professionals. In 2017 at the National Summit hosted by the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA), I had the privilege to co-present a session called "Beyond Volunteering: Why You Might Choose to Lead More Than Volunteers" where I shared my thoughts on why it would be more advantageous for professionals who engage volunteers to leave the profession to pursue professions that give them more decision making authority.


For example, you may wish to become the Director of Development, the Executive Director, Director of Communications or a Vice President who in turn often possesses greater influence over strategic objectives of the institutes they support. It's been my experience that those positions (and many, many others) often act as power brokers over the very mechanisms they're not managing on a day to day basis. I suspect that if volunteer engagement professionals sought positions outside the profession, they would wield more influence to empower, protect, uplift and even give opportunity for volunteer engagement professionals who are too often relegated to the title and duties of a "coordinator".


As a result your voice could then carry more weight when advancing the very profession of volunteer engagement.


But let me be clear, pursuing other opportunities doesn't mean you have to turn your back on the profession. Stay involved, that's the only way we'll eliminate silos while opening new doors to other audiences and at the same time advocating for the profession. And that gets me to my last point. Whether in the position as a volunteer engagement professional or in a position outside the profession (with a different voice), this is the opportunity to make the case for volunteers. While it might seem hard to do during a time where in-person volunteering is on the back burner, take the time, do the research and make the case for why volunteering is still important. There are many tools that exist that can help you determine the social, financial and volunteer-time return on investment (RIO). Aren't sure how to do this? Send me a note.


Look, these are tough, tough times. I get that, I'm still in the thick of it, and by all indications it's not getting easier as we conclude summer. That being said, I feel as though I'd be doing many a disservice by not shooting it straight. If anything I shared concerns you and you'd like to discuss some strategies or tactical level changes you might want to make, let me know. Shoot me a note and we'll carve out some time. Or perhaps you read something you disagreed with, let's discuss. I think the most important thing for the growth of this profession is diversity of thought. Perhaps we differ in philosophy, or maybe I have a blind spot I've not considered.


In either instance having a discussion about these varying views may be helpful. But, all of that said, I hope this helped provide some clarity (for those who listened to the panel) and provided new insight (for those who couldn't attend). Until we connect, stay positive, stay focused and stay Responsible AF.

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