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The Uncertain Future of Local Volunteer Centers

The Uncertain Future of Local Volunteer Centers

At e-Volunteerism, we think it is high time to take a close and careful look at volunteer centers – and we want to provide a forum to do just that.

In this Points of View, Susan J. Ellis and Rob Jackson start the discussion by raising some provocative questions about volunteer centers. Then in six months, e-Volunteerism will devote the journal’s entire April 2014 issue (XIV, 3) to this topic, and we encourage and invite contributors to that issue. Do you have research, information, or an opinion to share about volunteer centers? Please contact editor@e-volunteerism.com and let us know.

Entities that most e-Volunteerism readers recognize as volunteer centers exist in many countries around the world. Granted, they operate under different names and reflect regional differences in the specific things they do, but all volunteer centers have a surprising number of things in common, such as matching volunteers with organizations or working to develop and promote volunteer opportunities.

Although one can find effective and creative volunteer centers in scattered places, the majority of volunteer centers have, quite honestly, never met their potential, never received adequate funding and staffing, and never established much visibility in their communities. Never.

So we had to ask: Why?

  • Is there something flawed about the concept of volunteer center services or does the problem lie in how they provide their services?
  • Does anyone need the services that volunteer centers try to provide?
  • Should there be new priorities for volunteer centers, and what should they be?
  • What support does volunteering at the local level require today?

As we started to exchange ideas for this Points of View, Rob’s immediate reaction was this:

Ah, Volunteer Centres. For six years they dominated almost every professional minute of my life as, in my capacity as a Director at Volunteering England, I was responsible for the strategic development of the English Volunteer Centre network. This was a role that gave me some of the most enjoyable and challenging experiences in my career.

I’m a fan of Volunteer Centres. They do essential work with voluntary, public, and private sector bodies. They engage with groups, organisations and individuals. As a result they are pretty unique in the mix of so called second tier or infrastructure agencies.

But I am also a passionate advocate for Volunteer Centres to change. My response to the question of whether there is a future for Volunteer Centres is a strong, “it depends.” It depends on whether they can adjust to today’s volunteer world.

Here are some of Susan’s thoughts:

I also support strong volunteer centers. But it’s discouraging to see competition, not collaboration, between volunteer centers and volunteer-involving agencies. We must accept that volunteering has irrevocably changed (much of it for the good), and we need to redefine our shared mission. 

In this Points of View, Susan and Rob continue this discussion and look closely at the uncertain future of local volunteer centers, officially opening a debate on the issues and quandaries now confronting this part of the volunteer world.  

What Volunteers Centers Do

Understanding the History of Volunteer Centers

In the UK, the U.S., and Canada, volunteer centers date back to World War II when they assisted in coordinating civilian volunteers to support the war effort. At that time, the most popular original name was “volunteer bureau.”

In the second half of the twentieth century, volunteer bureaus opened in most of the major cities in the English-speaking world, expanding to Australia and New Zealand. By the start of this century, most had rebranded themselves as volunteer centers. Japan had more than 300 very local volunteer centers (operating more like service clubs for a neighborhood), which expanded their scope in the aftermath of relief efforts for the victims of the Kobe earthquake in 1995. The United Nations’ International Year of Volunteers in 2001 was the springboard for the formation of many new volunteer centers in Europe and Africa.

Some centers have a state/provincial/county focus, while others are regional. In most countries they have formed national networks and associations. Despite the existence of national, “peak” volunteering agencies in over 50 countries (see the full list compiled by the International Association for Volunteer Effort), local volunteer centers are not coordinated centrally nor do they always see their national body as an ally.

How volunteer centers are funded depends on the country. In much of the world, they receive a major portion of their budget from government money (national, regional, or local), though usually operate as NGOs. In the U.S., almost all volunteer centers are nonprofit organizations (independently incorporated or part of another 501(c)(3) organization such as a United Way), except for those created as a service provided by city or county government.

One more important point: Volunteer centers developed alongside the profession of volunteer management. For at least the first 20 years, most individual volunteer-involving organizations did not have a staff position dedicated to coordinating volunteers.  Especially in smaller communities, many volunteer centers did more than provide referrals to volunteer opportunities; they actually interviewed prospects and personally guided them into specific roles. As volunteer management evolved and more volunteer resources managers (VRMs) took charge inside agencies, volunteer centers had to find new ways to be helpful.

 

Even though volunteer centers predate the formalization of volunteer management as a profession, few know much about their history or geographic spread (see sidebar for some key points). We do know, however, that volunteer centers everywhere have generally always organized themselves around what are often called “core functions.” Whether by design, imitation, or happenstance, these core function statements are quite similar around the world. For example, in England, volunteer centres have six core functions:

  1. Brokerage
    Matching volunteers with organisations / opportunities
  2. Marketing
    Making volunteering more visible in the local community
  3. Good practice development
    Helping volunteer involving organisations get better at working with volunteers
  4. Developing volunteer opportunities
    Helping volunteer involving organisations develop ways for volunteers to contribute
  5. Policy response and campaigning
    Lobbying, campaigning, and advocating volunteering especially with local elected officials
  6. Strategic development of volunteering
    Working to ensure a local context that encourages and supports volunteering

These core functions were negotiated with volunteer centers 10 years ago, before being codified in Building on Success, a 10-year strategy for the development of the England-wide Volunteer Centre Network.1 These six core functions form the basis of Volunteer Centre Quality Accreditation (assessed by NCVO, formerly Volunteering England), which in turn entitles Volunteer Centres to use a common brand.

The same set of services can be found around the world. For example, in New Zealand, the 2011 national meeting of volunteer centres produced this list, also referred to as “core functions:”

  1. Facilitate community connections
  2. Promote and advocate for volunteering
  3. Promote and advocate for interests of volunteers
  4. Provide information on volunteering opportunities
  5. Work with organisations to develop volunteer opportunities
  6. Work with organisations to develop and maintain standards
  7. Promote management of volunteers as a profession
  8. Honor the Treaty of Waitangi  [A specific New Zealand reference to an 1840 agreement with the indigenous Māori people.]

In the United States, volunteer center Web sites also refer to “core functions.”  Those centers that are part of the local United Way, for instance, express some variations of this standard sentence: The core functions of a Volunteer Center are to mobilize volunteers, encourage volunteering, connect community members to volunteer opportunities, and to provide organizations with training and support for effective volunteer management.2 Those centers that are affiliates of HandsOn Network, which merged with the former Points of Light Foundation and the National Council of Volunteer Centers, state this function: “HandsOn Network Affiliates share a common mission to inspire, equip and mobilize people to take action that changes the world.”3 (You will note that this shows a shift in emphasis onto individual volunteers, an issue we’ll explore at another time.)

Rob Explains the Issues in England (as an example)

If you take look at what most Volunteer Centres in England do, it’s fairly apparent that their main focus is brokerage. They spend a lot of time and effort matching volunteers with organisations and opportunities locally. In England, they do this by meeting with people face-to-face and by uploading vacancies to Do-It, the national database of volunteer opportunities. 

To their credit, the centres are pretty good at it. Studies from The Institute for Volunteering Research consistently show that Volunteer Centres are particularly effective at working with groups traditionally under-represented in mainstream volunteering: young people, disabled people, the unemployed, people from various minority racial and ethnic groups, etc. This is often a consequence of the face-to-face support they can provide, enabling groups who are not able to or don’t feel comfortable or confident engaging with online brokers to receive a more personalised, supported service.

In the no-good-deed-goes-unpunished vein, however, this emphasis on social inclusion and individual attention is often expensive (in money and time) to provide and results in low numbers brokered. Volunteer-involving organisations sometimes assume that Volunteer Centres are dealing mainly with ‘difficult’ volunteers and so are reluctant to engage with them.

Further, in England, part of the Building on Success agenda was about expanding the focus of Volunteer Centres beyond traditional volunteer-involving organisations to work with volunteer-led community groups as well as more public and private sector agencies. However, many centres had policies requiring partner agencies to have procedures in place to work with volunteers more formally, including, expense reimbursements, risk assessments, and more. This resulted in excluding the very small community groups rather than working them to develop good practice. So even when they focus on brokerage, some Volunteer Centres can be turning away the very organisations that need their help the most.

The Internet has completely changed the way people find volunteer roles. Today very few agencies need a volunteer centre to post any and all open volunteer positions on many different Web sites. Nor do volunteer-involving organisations need to rely so much on Volunteer Centres as their main source of volunteers as the tools are now much more freely and cheaply available to reach out to a wider and wider network of potential volunteers.

Volunteer Centres remain resolute on their brokerage work for one or all of three main reasons:

  • Their historic roots (brokerage is what they were set up for in the first place) and their boards refusing to move from this role.
  • Their funding is tied to brokerage, so their success – and future funding – is dependent upon how many people they get through their doors and linked to volunteer-involving organisations’ vacancies.
  • As the cuts have deepened in recent years, many Volunteer Centres have had to merge with other organisations (normally local Councils For Voluntary Service) in order to service. In doing so, the only unique service for volunteering that has been preserved is brokerage and this is often run by a junior staff member with little or no strategic influence within the wider agency. Sometimes this brokerage function is even more limited and gets focused on only recruiting volunteers for services the merged agency provides, such as volunteer drivers for community transport schemes. (In the United States, this same issue occurs whenever a United Way brings a formerly independent volunteer centre in-house, where centre staff can be diverted to fundraising campaigns and stopped from venturing outside of support to human services organizations.)

The big quandary Volunteer Centres face is the need to refocus, redefine, and reinvent themselves when the prevailing winds of change are set against them. Whether Volunteer Centres can and will rise to this challenge – and how successful they will be in doing so – will determine whether we’re still talking about the importance of volunteer centres in a decade or consigning them to the Voices from the Past section of this journal.

Susan Goes Further

Another problem, though rarely spoken out loud, is competition. Rather than finding their unique niche, many volunteer centers end up fighting what ought to be their allies.

Too often in the past, volunteer centers have claimed the volunteer opportunities they broker people into as their opportunities because the center listed them and made the referral. Around the world, centers resisted the rise of Internet volunteer opportunity registries because that knocked them out of the loop: the databases were taking “their” information and the centers could not record and report how many volunteers they introduced to agencies. But the reality is that the opportunities – and the volunteers -- belong to the volunteer-involving organisations and not to the volunteer centres, no matter how people learn about them. And those organizations do not care where they get volunteers from, so long as they get them.

The Internet also provides a wealth of information on volunteer management practices from all English-speaking countries, including online training opportunities. This means that volunteer centers need to assess where the gaps are in training for their local constituencies and provide that instruction, not continue to repeat the basics.  Yet some volunteer centers feel that any resources not created by them are threatening. They are supposed to teach volunteer management to their networks, so why even share Web links to good materials elsewhere, or publicize conferences or workshops in other areas, or bring in trainers and speakers who might be more popular than the year-round presenters from the volunteer center?

Complicating all of this, of course, is funding. One of the reasons why volunteer centers need to show “how many” volunteers they help place is that public and foundation funders are not in touch with the changes in the volunteer world and gravitate to tried-and-true, easily-counted results. There are many innovative things volunteer centers might do in the future, but a big question remains as to who would fund them to do this work.

Ironically, while for-profit companies are racing to demonstrate their social responsibility through employee volunteering efforts, they are asking volunteer centers to find projects for them (brokerage!), but rarely pay extra for this service. When limited center staff focus attention on workplace volunteer efforts, they cannot give attention to other constituents. Yet the centers provide the service in the hope they will win corporate friends, and eventually money. Further downward spiral.

Volunteer centers are well aware of all the issues we’ve just raised and more. Most truly want to change and desire to be meaningful and effective – but they cannot redefine themselves alone. They need the input and advocacy of the volunteer-involving agencies in their communities and volunteer resources managers as a profession. This means intentional cooperation and some suspension of territoriality on all sides. We all share the same mission: facilitating people to volunteer their time and skills to the causes that matter to them, in ways that are most effective. We are all stronger when we unite to promote the value of volunteering and influence those with authority and money to provide the necessary foundation for successful volunteer engagement. 

So What Are the Options?

In our view, volunteer centers are uniquely positioned to focus more attention on the big picture and support their communities in responding to the 21st century volunteer. They should be doing things that promote effective volunteering but cannot be done by single organizations on their own. They can offer an umbrella and neutral meeting ground for connecting many different constituents.

If they are alert to key social, economic, and technical trends, they can translate them into possible responses by volunteer-involving organizations. They should look for innovative practices and make sure everyone learns about them, especially volunteer roles that match peoples’ desires for shorter term and more flexible commitments, online service, a way to volunteer with their children, and more.

We are seeing a blurring of lines between sectors, as not-for-profit/charitable organizations, government at all levels, and for-profit businesses redefine their services, sometimes taking over functions that were once the domain of the other, and sometimes openly collaborating to leverage available money and people. All three sectors involve or deploy volunteers. Volunteer centers can participate in building community-wide collaboration when volunteers are the common denominator – something that no single volunteer-involving agency can do alone.

That’s part of our vision. What’s yours?  In your responses to this article and then in the entire April 2014 issue of this journal, let’s explore this important issue, starting with the following questions:

  • Which audiences should volunteer centers identify as a priority? For example, should they focus on improving the practices of organizations already involving volunteers? Or should they devote more time to those organizations not yet doing so at all?
  • What can volunteer centers do to make volunteering more visible and valued in their communities?
  • As a volunteer resources manager, what do you need from a volunteer center? What would you be prepared to offer the center in return?
  • As a current or prospective volunteer, what do you need from a volunteer center?
  • As a volunteer center staff member, what do you need from your service recipients to do more for them?
  • Collectively, how can we educate funders and legislators about the need for some local infrastructure supporting volunteering?

It’s important to pose these difficult questions, and equally important to ensure all volunteer center constituents are included in answering them. This means strategic planning in partnership with volunteer-involving agencies (in all sectors, not just nonprofits), all-volunteer associations and community groups, managers of volunteer resources, and even front-line volunteers, not just internal discussions among the center’s staff, volunteers and board.

Let the discussions begin!

_________

We’d like to acknowledge Cheryll Martin, of Volunteering Auckland in New Zealand, for approaching us with many of the questions above that she had asked of herself and her colleagues. She provided the tipping point that led to this Points of View, as the two authors and Cheryll have been grappling with this subject for a long time.

Please note that the different spellings throughout this article (centers and centres) are intentional and reflect the two authors’ preferred word spellings in their different countries. 

Footnotes

1 For background on the evolution of volunteer centres in England, see http://www.ncvo-vol.org.uk/advice-support/collaborative-working/case-studies/volunteer-centres.

2 Volunteer Center of the United Way of Wapello County, IA, http://www.wapellocouw.org/volunteer-connection-center (randomly selected).

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