Volunteer engagement frameworks or no?

There are two fantastic volunteer engagement spectrum/ladders that I have come to know and use in my strategizing for volunteer engagement, and another that looks more at the purpose/intent of volunteerism. I wanted to share them with you as potential frameworks with which to view how you engage volunteers, and for you to identify gaps in how volunteers might be engaged.

Framework 1: Spectrum of Volunteer Engagement (Volunteer Canada)

Spectrum of Volunteer Engagement
Source: Volunteer Canada. Canadian Code for Volunteer Involvement. p. 20. Available at http://volunteer.ca/content/canadian-code-volunteer-involvement-2012-edition 

I like this framework in its simplicity. It is easy to envision the types of roles volunteers and supporters can play for each colour of the rainbow. It recognizes that the value of giving in ways other than hands-on time (e.g. who share their social capital by sharing information about the organization/issue with people in their networks). It acknowledges that people might come to volunteering through less active support, meaning that volunteer engagement and marketing/social media folk should work together within an organization.

The weakpoint of this framework is the absence of more robust descriptions and assistance for the reader in implementing what the framework suggests. I suppose that is what strategists like me can do for organizations, but it would be great for organizations to play with it more in house. While there isn’t really a link to more info about this framework, members of Volunteer Canada can try out their audit tool to help gauge their volunteer engagement work.

Framework 2: Engagement Pyramid (Groundwire)

Engagement Pyramid
Source: Idealware / Groundwire. Engagement Pyramid. Available at http://www.idealware.org/articles/engagement-pyramid-six-levels-connecting-people-and-social-change.

The original source of this framework (Groundwire) has ceased to exist, but you can find a description of it at Idealware.

What I like about the framework, and especially the information supporting the framework, is its detail in what each level might look like, how to measure engagement at a specific level, and how to move people up levels. I highly suggest a read of blog post describing the Engagement Pyramid.

I spoke about this tool/framework in June 2013 at Social Media for Nonprofits conference in Vancouver. In that space I used it more as an idea generator. But those who have the capacity to conduct strategic planning around volunteer engagement, in conjunction with marketing/communications and fundraising can really benefit from what the framework offers.

The upside of this tool for some is a downfall for others – its complexity. For organizations with little time and resources to spend on volunteer engagement strategy, this might be too robust. At a minimum, however, it’s great for ideas.

Framework 3: Continuum of Service (Morton, 1995)

Continuum of Service
Source: Morton, K. 1995. The Irony of Service: Charity, Project and Social Change in Service Learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 2 (1), 19-22.

This one is a little academicky, but it speaks to different motivations/intents of volunteers, and the types of work they can be engaged it. Organizations that only offer roles that connect to charity (often because the mission/service model of the organization is focussed on charity) will serve a very specific type of volunteer interested in hands-on work, that can be short term in nature (though some volunteers will continue longer term). Social change opportunities exist more frequently in advocacy and public education/policy oriented organizations, which again will attract a specific type of volunteer.

Each type of opportunity has its benefits and downfalls (e.g. feeling evidence of impact various) but each serves a purpose AND a specific type of volunteer.

Framework 4: No framework

Time limited? Want to think the least about volunteer engagement?

If you just want to start somewhere, I suggest continuuing with your work, sharing it publicly, saying YES to those that contact you with something important to offer, and focussing your efforts on those who often support you.

Ideas for governance in all-volunteer organizations

I co-faciliate a board governance webinar for Vantage Point, and one of the questions that comes up is what governance looks like in an all-volunteer organization.

Most board governance resources stress the importance of separating governance from operations: board members are responsible for governance; staff are responsible for management and operations.

But what about when there are no staff? I propose that boards delegate operations largely to volunteers.

I’ve written a thought piece on possible structural models to do this. The three examples include:

  • Option 1: Full committee structure
  • Option 2: One operational committee
  • Option 3: Volunteer executive director

I go on to compare the three models with respect to features, benefits, drawback, meeting design, etc. You can download the resource here.

27 Shift Governance in all volunteer orgs


I chair an all-volunteer organization and I would say we vaguely follow Option 1, but I see the potential to shift towards Options 2 or 3, especially if we consider geographic expansion.

What do you think of the options presented? What is the reality in your all-volunteer organization?

How to decide what your organization should STOP doing

If your organization has limited resources (people, time, money, etc.) but wants to achieve success in its programming, this resource is for you.

According to the MacMillan Matrix, a tool developed by Ian MacMillan at the Wharton School of Business, there are four criteria used to determine whether to grow, stop, or share a program: mission and ability fit, program attractiveness, saturation, and competitive advantage.

I’ve adapted the MacMillan Matrix and share it here as a decision tree. You can also download the full resource (3 page PDF).

MacMillan Matrix as decision tree

Why not an HR approach to volunteer engagement?

Imagine for me an HR department. HR departments:

  • make sure employees get compensated (payroll, etc),
  • reviews the organization’s HR practices in comparison to laws, standards, and best practices,
  • establishes policies for hiring, firing, etc.,
  • develop (or help other departments develop) job descriptions,
  • plan professional development for employees, and
  • help departments do performance reviews

among other services. They serve as internal consultants to the rest of the organization on managing employees.

HR departments are NOT responsible for supervising the organization’s employees (other than the employees in the HR department).

HR departments and volunteer resource departments both deal with people, with the main difference being that one group gets paid with money, and the other group receives other benefits.

However, volunteer departments often serve very different roles. Rather than supporting the organization’s volunteer engagement, they actually manage (recruit, supervise, schedule, etc) the organization’s volunteers.

Let’s view volunteer engagement through an HR model lens. What if we tasked volunteer departments with:

  • making sure volunteers get rewarded (though meaning, purpose, development opportunities, etc.),
  • reviews the organization’s volunteer engagement practices in comparison to laws, standards, and best practices,
  • establishes policies for hiring, firing, etc.,
  • developing (or helping other departments develop) role descriptions,
  • planning development opportunities for volunteers,
  • helping departments to performance review of volunteers, and
  • serving as internal consultants to all of the departments who engage volunteers,


  • actually supervising all the organization’s volunteers (other than the volunteers engaged by the volunteer department)?

In this way, volunteer resource departments can mirror HR departments.

In this way, “volunteer programs” don’t exist; instead, there are programs and departments that happen to engage volunteers.

In this way, every department can become responsible for engaging volunteers.

Do you need a strategy to recruit Millennial volunteers?

The answer is probably yes.

Some organizations have brand recognition enough to not have a unique strategy to recruit young volunteers. But most organization don’t have that advantage.

For a recent client, 27 Shift conducted interviews with nonprofit executives across Canada. Interestingly, some organizations lamented the dearth of young volunteers, how young people don’t volunteer anymore. Completely inaccurate if we go by the results of the Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating.

However, organizations that enjoyed the time and talents of young volunteers often had success because they intentionally sought out Millennials, and didn’t just wait for them to show up.

Here are some ideas for intentionally building space for young volunteers:

  • partner with university courses
  • partner with other nonprofit organizations with young clients
  • develop roles that speak to the interests of young people
  • create low barrier entry points
  • create ways for boomers to volunteer with their young adult children

High-impact, short-term volunteer roles for Millennials

A few of the various hats that I wear involve working with young volunteers. One question I ask when interviewing an individual for a particular role is:

“What triggered you to email me about this volunteer role?”

While “contribution to a cause I care about” is usually high on the list, the reality that many of them share is that they loved how the roles were short-term, had a specific end-date, had clear outcomes and objectives, and would have a large and direct impact on the success of the organization and its mission. Even more specifically, some younger volunteers shared how the commitment fit perfectly with their schedule – a month off before law school started up again, a flexible schedule leading up to giving birth, etc.

One of the messages I take away from these conversations is people are willing to contribute their time if it’s worth it.

These short-term, high-impact roles can take a few different shapes:

  • research
  • task-force (designed to give advice on a specific area)
  • committee
  • project (with a goal to produce a specific output)

Some of the favourite work I’ve done involved setting up a group of young volunteers with clear objectives, helping out with clarifying process (eg. timeline, communication preferences), divvying up roles/responsibilities (including one person who is responsible for driving the timeline) and just sitting back and only stepping in to support when necessary. My role becomes less day-to-day volunteer management and more volunteer engagement strategy.

Don’t rely on young volunteers

I’m not saying you can’t rely on young volunteers, it’s just better if you don’t have to.

With any volunteer role, if the world will fall apart because an individual volunteer is not able to show up for a role, there’s a flaw in the role design.

Millennial volunteers have diverse time commitments that are often fast changing – high pressure work deadlines, school projects, child care complications, person health issues. Often a volunteer commitment is not of the highest priority, regardless of good intentions.

Rather than lament on this fact, design roles from the outset so that the work can continue.

  • Make work virtual – allow them to work on their own time and not at a set time and place
  • Design group roles – if one person needs to drop away for a bit, the rest of the group can continue
  • Provide autonomy for flex-time decisions – if a volunteer wants to still complete the work, but can only do it on a different day or a different week, allow for scheduling changes
However, if a volunteer is consistently unreliable, let them go for the sake of everyone’s energy. Give them a kind way out to start (eg “It seems like you have other priorities that are conflicting with your availability to contribute as a volunteer. Are you interested in stepping away for a while, and coming back when you have more freedom with your time?”) and be firmer if the pattern continues.