Don't Let Goodwill Slip Through The Cracks

It's been a watershed time for volunteering. Our leaders stepped up with ground-breaking commitments: President Obama signed the Serve America Act, Governors Schwarzenegger and Paterson made volunteerism a cabinet-level priority, Mayor Bloomberg launched NYC Service, and mayors around the country pledged their commitment through Cities of Service. Volunteering is suddenly hip; even Ashton Kutcher is tweeting for service.

Tens of thousands of Americans have been inspired to action, and like many organizations nationwide, New York Cares has experienced an unprecedented flood of new volunteers. Forty-two percent more people joined us during the first six months of 2009 than during the same period last year. Many said they were inspired by the President's call to service. Others cited the recession - one-third were newly unemployed and looking to use their time productively.

Conventional wisdom suggests this is great news for nonprofits and agencies delivering social services. These organizations are struggling to serve a larger client-base in the face of drastic budget cuts. Volunteers are an ideal solution to fill the gap - free labor when it is needed most.

But have you ever tried to volunteer at homeless shelter, a school, or a social service agency? It's not as simple as it sounds.

The untold story of the 2009 volunteerism boom is that many people who want to volunteer can't.

That's because many nonprofits that could benefit from volunteers lack the capacity to recruit, train, and manage them. The NYC Service Blueprint to Increase Civic Engagement report (April 2009) stated that 54 percent of city nonprofits surveyed turned away volunteers due to capacity constraints. On average one of every three potential volunteers could not be used.

This is disconcerting - but not necessarily surprising.

A volunteer recently told me that she wanted to get more involved with a community center that she had "fallen in love with" when she'd participated in projects that New York Cares had planned there. When the community center staff wasn't able to make good use of her extra time, she was disappointed and confused.

The community center managers aren't bad at their jobs. Their first priority - and the mission of the center - is to work with the clients who need their services: it's not to manage volunteers.

That's why dedicated volunteer organizations are critical. From the volunteers' perspective, they make finding and participating in opportunities incredibly easy. But they also provide a critical resource for other nonprofits. New York Cares, for example, expands nonprofit capacity by effectively outsourcing volunteer management. We provide a free service to nonprofits, city agencies, and public schools, bringing tailored and time-tested volunteer programs to meet their critical needs.

Our staff designs programs in partnership with each organization, then manages the execution from start to finish. This makes it possible for them to deliver important services they otherwise couldn't afford: like after-school and recreation programs for children living in shelters, free SAT prep for low income high school students, job readiness training for unemployed adults, and many more. There are organizations like New York Cares in major cities nationwide through the HandsOn Network.

But even at New York Cares - where planning volunteer projects is our business - some of our newest volunteers over the last three months haven't been able to get started as quickly as they'd like because most of our projects are already full. And we are not alone. New York City - and the country - are at risk of losing thousands of aspiring volunteers who may never come back. We don't want that to happen. So what can we do?

One approach is to increase technical assistance and capacity building support to help nonprofits maximize volunteer interest. Mayor Bloomberg's on it - this summer, his NYC Civic Corps deployed hundreds of AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers to help New York City nonprofits to strengthen volunteer programs and infrastructure over the next year. NYC Civic Corps is the largest VISTA program of its kind, and the first to specifically address a municipality's need for sustainable-impact volunteer programs. There are similar initiatives in New York State and across the country helping nonprofits tackle the hard work of managing volunteers.

But at the end of the day, an influx of human capital also comes with costs. The VISTA volunteers who help to build capacity also draw on the capacity of the hosting organization. Like any volunteer, they need all that an employee needs: a supervisor, somewhere to sit, computers. And, of course, an increased number of service projects have attendant expenses.
We need to increase awareness that while volunteering is an incredibly cost efficient way to deliver services, it's not free.

Some financial resources have begun to be put toward building nonprofit capacity, and to supporting organizations that train, deploy and manage volunteers so they can harness the time and talents of everyone who wants to help. Much more is needed.

It's an investment - but it's one that will yield invaluable returns. And time is of the essence.