This shouldn’t be innovative, but it is…

In Lieu of Money, Toyota Donates Efficiency to New York Charity is a fantastic example of skills-based corporate volunteerism done awesome. The New York Times reports:

At a soup kitchen in Harlem, Toyota’s engineers cut down the wait time for dinner to 18 minutes from as long as 90. At a food pantry on Staten Island, they reduced the time people spent filling their bags to 6 minutes from 11. And at a warehouse in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where volunteers were packing boxes of supplies for victims of Hurricane Sandy, a dose of kaizen cut the time it took to pack one box to 11 seconds from 3 minutes.

Skills-based volunteerism and corporate volunteer programs have been around for ages.

But they’re generally not done well. Organizations limit volunteer roles requiring professional skills to their boards of directors, and corporate volunteering often involves intelligent professionals painting walls.

“They make cars; I run a kitchen,” said Daryl Foriest, director of distribution at the Food Bank’s pantry and soup kitchen in Harlem. “This won’t work.”

In a research project 27 Shift completed for Volunteer Canada in 2012, we found that organizations engaging corporate volunteers were most commonly doing so in a workplace fundraising capacity. Unfortunately, there is often short-sightedness and protectionism when organizations explore skills-based and/or corporate volunteerism.

Sometimes this type of volunteer engagement is met with resistance: unionized environments protect certain duties, staff don’t want to give up interesting work, or staff feel threatened by a volunteer with more experience than they have. (From Building the Bridge for Volunteer Engagement, Volunteer Canada and 27 Shift, 2012).

This really shouldn’t be New York Times newsworthy, but it is. Maybe if organizations see the potential media exposure, they’ll finally get on board?

“It’s a form of corporate philanthropy but instead of giving money, they’re sharing expertise,” said David J. Vogel, a professor and an expert in corporate social responsibility at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s quite new.”

New only because it’s done well. It shouldn’t be innovative, but it is.

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.

How to design virtual roles for young volunteers

The simple answer is: any volunteer role that requires work to be done on a computer, can be done virtually (eg at home, in pajamas, at 4am).

Heck, even roles that, on the surface, involve meeting in person, can often be shifted to involve meeting online (Skype, Google+ Hangouts).

Not only are vitual roles great for Millennials, they are great for people with disabilities, people in different geographic areas, and any individual with a changing and demanding schedule.

Here are some activities that can be done virtually, and can help drive your mission forward.

  • research
  • translating
  • writing articles
  • social media
  • blogging
  • web design
  • graphic design
  • project planning
  • writing press releases
  • outlining communication plans
  • giving feedback

How technology can make or break your volunteer engagement

I recently spoke at Vancouver Net Tuesday on the topic of technology and volunteer engagement. My talk was titled “6 questions to ask before using technology for volunteer engagement“. While the questions can trigger deeper thinking before implementing technology, much of boils down to this:

Does your use of technology make you stick out or stand out?

When technology is used for volunteer engagement, the results are not always fantastic. Here are 6 ways technology can make or break your volunteer engagement.

Technology that sticks out

Collecting information

Asking volunteers to fill out actual forms. Paper, Word documents, PDFs. Print and mail, print and scan, save and send back. These scream INEFFICIENT! Even if you don’t require printing, the way most people create forms in Word, they end up looking pretty funny when filled in and require fiddling. They also indicate that there’s probably going to be a staff member at the other end doing a lot of menial cutting and pasting or data entry. The only time paper forms are OK is when volunteers face economic barriers and don’t have access to computer or internet. But most public library facilities serve this purpose – usually internet is free, but printing is not and scanning doesn’t exist.

Solution: Online surveys. Whether as part of a more robust database system or free tools like Google Forms (a part of Google Docs), Survey Monkey, Wufoo, or FluidSurveys, collect your data so that the volunteer and the administrator don’t have to hassle with administrivia. Instead, they can work with data that has been entered directly by the individual. AND often you can integrate your forms with other software you use.

Volunteer administration systems

Some organizations buy into intense software to coordinate and schedule volunteers. They may simplify things on the back end for the coordinator, but are often headaches for the volunteer–especially in the application stage. If a person is considering volunteering or just wants to learn more about opportunities with an organization, sending them through a 10 page volunteer administration system and asking them every question the organization could ever think of needing the answer to (from t-shirt size to 5 references to the names of any planned future children) for them only to find out on page 9 that there are only two distinct volunteer roles, neither of which is interesting to the volunteer or neither of which has openings — not OK. This is not an effective way to welcome a supporter into the organization.

Solution: Mix the admin with the personal. Have the initial application form (ahem, online survey) be short. Name, contact information, what triggered their interest in the organization, if any particular role is of interest to them. Done. Then, follow up by email or phone. Within the week. 24 hours even better – catch them while their interest is hot.

Social media

You know those Twitter accounts that only promote fundraising events? Or how about those Facebook pages that haven’t had new content for a year? If a volunteer starts following an organization via social media, bad social media skills can be a turnoff.

Solution: Don’t use social media if your organization is not going to invest in it. Turning to the youngest person in your office and asking them to do it off the corner of their desk is not OK. And if you do invest in it, be sure to involve someone that has a talent for marketing and engagement strategy. Just because a young person has personally used social media doesn’t mean they have the experience to implement a campaign or plan around it.

Technology that stands out

Social media

Just as social media can make an organization stick out, it can also make them stand out. Not for promoting, but for engagement. Social media is used best as a communication tool with people that are already involved with your organization. When getting contact information from volunteers, also find out if they’re on Twitter. Mention them in your Tweets or on your Facebook page by thanking a group of volunteers, or spreading interesting information they’ve shared.

Collaborative on-line documents

As a jury member for this year’s Vancouver Timeraiser, I was surprised how many applicant organizations didn’t have any positions that could be done from home. Really? I’ve worked with teams of people pulling together research on women and politics or articles on millennial engagement with ZERO in-person contact. The ones I use most frequently are Google Docs (and spreadsheets, and forms) and Wikis. You can change the settings so that anyone can edit and see the document, or only those you invite.

Myth: You need a Gmail account to use Google Docs.
Fact: Nope, you just need a Google account. You can create one using any email address.

None at all

I don’t mean you don’t actually use technology – just that volunteers don’t even notice it because everything is so smooth. Kind of like government – we don’t notice it when it’s working well.

Do an audit of your volunteer engagement processes – recruitment, screening, training, scheduling, working, rewarding, coordinating, communicating – to determine how technology is helping or hindering engagement at each step. Better yet, create a high impact volunteer role for a volunteer do an audit.

How do you use technology to effectively engage volunteers? Have you ever been frustrated by an organization’s use of technology (or lack thereof)?

Using “I wonder…” to develop high impact volunteer opportunities

The word “volunteer” usually conjures up an image of a person in a helping role – reading to children, serving at a soup kitchen, stuffing thank you letters. While these activities play important roles, they miss out on a segment of volunteers interested in using their minds more than their hands.


As a director of the Canadian Women Voters Congress, I am interested in knowing more about the context of our work helping women achieve success in politics and leadership. We have a visioning day coming up, and part of that will focus on the direction of our educational programming. However, the board will be in a much better position to decide on that direction if we know the breadth of programs offered in Canada that support women’s involvement in the political process. So we wondered: what are other organizations and initiatives doing in this area?

And from there a Research Associate role was created. We’ve interviewed and hired a talented pair of women from the Ottawa and Vancouver areas to lead the project and are still interviewing more for potential involvement. These high impact volunteers are essential to our growth as a strong organization.

The challenge

Vantage Point, a Canadian nonprofit capacity building organization, has been pushing high impact volunteering for years. But the uptake has been challenging. Many organizations are unwilling? unable? unaware? Sometimes reenvisioning the ways an organization has engaged volunteers from its inception is difficult.

Using “I Wonder”

I suggest having a note pad nearby your desk. An actual note pad. A Google Doc. Something to keep track of questions that unexpectedly or otherwise pop into your head. Things you wonder about.

  • I wonder if there’s an easier/better way to do _________.
    • eg use technology, public speak, process donations
  • I wonder what our stakeholders think about _________.
    • eg our brand, our events, our strategic priorities
  • I wonder how effective _________ is.
    • eg our advertising, our volunteer recognition, our mentorship program
  • I wonder what other organizations are doing in this area.
    • eg the breadth of programs offered in Canada that support women’s involvement in the political process

These are the questions that high impact volunteers can help you answer.

What questions could a high-impact volunteer help you answer? How have you engaged high-impact volunteers to answer them?

3 reasons why I’m a National Volunteer Week skeptic

So this week coming to an end is National Volunteer Week.

My reaction? Meh.

This is why.

Volunteers need constant engagement

If organizations are drawing public (or private) attention to their volunteers and thanking them this week only, I bet they are having a hard time retaining volunteers. It’s like a romantic Valentines Day dinner when your partner is an ass the rest of the year. Doesn’t mean much.

Volunteerism doesn’t need awareness-raising

Volunteerism as a concept does not need promotion. Volunteering for specific organizations might. But drawing volunteers to an organization involves more than good promotion. It requires an organizational culture that is attuned to the changes in the expectations and interests of volunteers. I’ve had the opportunity to speak to outstanding people who are meaningfully engaging volunteers through their work – and they have few problems recruiting volunteers, and rarely need to promote.

Volunteer agencies are bad at PR

Yes, #NWV11 has had some traction on Twitter. But really, as someone who is fairly embedded within the nonprofit and volunteerism culture in Vancouver, BC and Canada, I am often surprised how rarely campaigns promoting a spirit of volunteerism reach me. I’m not saying it’s easy – I had the job of promoting engaged citizenship at SFU and it’s was a slow and tough slog. It’s hard when your target market is broad and diffuse. But these organizations are often preaching to the converted, and even then only a very small circle of the converted.


Instead, organizations tasked with the promotion of volunteerism should focus on those doing the volunteer engagement. How can you help them succeed in promoting a spirit of meaningful volunteerism within their organizations?

Let’s shift to a place where citizens are clamoring at our doors because we all are offering engaging opportunities that address the realities of the present. Volunteerism isn’t changing. It has already changed.