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Volunteer Engagement Through a Critical New Lens

Volunteer Engagement Through a Critical New Lens

A hand holding a lens with view of buildings upside down

The good news first: 2020 is almost over! This article launched on October 15, just 77 days until we arrive in 2021. Few will be sad to see this year over. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there hasn’t been a year like this in living memory (thank goodness). “Unprecedented” should be the word of the year, along with “you’re on mute” as phrase of the year!

Now the bad news: January 1, 2021 won’t be some magic date when all our woes disappear. COVID-19 and its effects on society are here for the foreseeable future, at least until we have a vaccine and a widespread, global vaccination programme. Even then, the economic shockwaves caused by the pandemic will probably take a few years to subside.

As volunteer engagement expert Tobi Johnson reminded us in May 2020, volunteerism doesn’t exist in a bubble. The ability and willingness of people to give time — and keep giving it — will be impacted as societies re-shape themselves to the new world we find ourselves in.

These seismic shifts will provide many challenges and even more opportunities for those of us in volunteer engagement. In this Points of View, we look at what changes we need to make in order to gain and maintain support in the tough times ahead, and to understand why we must begin right now to look at volunteer engagement through a critical new lens.

Ready? Then let’s begin.

The volunteer / donor divide is over

For as long as we can remember, there has been a divide between the volunteering function and fundraising function in many nonprofit organisations. We talk of donors and volunteers, not time and cash donors. We talk of donor acquisition and retention and volunteer recruitment and retention as two separate things — and not, as Susan J. Ellis used to put it, of a more holistic ‘friend-raising’ approach.

In fundraising there is little recognition that much of it is done by volunteers, supported and managed by Community Fundraisers who often miss the connection between their skill as a staff partner to those volunteers and fundraising success. Perhaps that’s why you don’t see many fundraising staff at volunteer engagement conferences.

In volunteer engagement, some still resist the idea of volunteers being asked to donate money alongside the time they give. Yet we fail to recognise that many already do so, and statistics show that they give more generously than non-volunteers and give even more than those who volunteer fewer hours. Perhaps that’s why you don’t see many volunteer management staff at fundraising conferences.

And yet, Volunteer Engagement Strategist Beth Steinhorn reminds us that “volunteering has long correlated with greater financial donations as people often give their money where they give their time, so engaging volunteers well can build financial resources when it is much needed.”

The silo thinking that this volunteer / donor division creates needs to stop. It has held our organisations back for too long. It perpetuates institutional thinking that devalues time donors over cash donors, ignoring the intimate relationship between both forms of philanthropy. It creates a false separation of, more often than not, the same stakeholders, to assuage the egos of paid staff before the needs of supporters and, ultimately, beneficiaries.

If our organisations are to survive and thrive in light of the challenges we now face,  they need to value and respect the donated hour as much as the donated $/£/€, for they are connected and equally precious to the people who give them and equally vital to our organisations.

For millions of people, money is going to be in very short supply as they lose their jobs and find government support lacking. This time, no matter how hard they try, most organisations aren’t going to be able fundraise their way out of trouble. Simultaneously, millions of people may find they have time on their hands as their jobs disappear. As in past recessions, they may look to volunteering as a way to keep skills sharp, learn new ones and build networks and references. Even the lucky ones who keep their jobs may continue home working, saving hours each week as the daily commute is no more.

In these unsettled times, organizations already know that neither unemployed nor employed individuals are likely going to commit to long-term, regular volunteering, no matter how much this makes our lives easier. So who will lead organisations as they navigate and reframe volunteer contributions to facilitate as much meaningful support as possible? As Steinhorn wrote: 

" . . . volunteer engagement can help sustain an organization through these uncertain times. It’s not a time to cut back or limit interactions with volunteers — even if they must engage from a distance for their or others’ safety. It’s a time to harness their skill, commitment, time, and passion."

The time to rethink our attitude and approach to all our supporters — volunteers and donors included — is here. Some of you may have known this for a while, while this may be a new idea for others. Either way, the current context is a golden opportunity to make some important changes. There is no time to waste in making it happen.

Making change happen

By now you’ve hopefully agreed to the need for change. Put simply, no longer will doing what we’ve always done get what we always got.

In an increasingly uncertain world, flexibility is going to be key, with people giving in ways that suit them and being able to switch their support depending on the fast-changing environment they live in. For years, some have talked of the need for an integrated supporter journey, a way for people to seamlessly switch how they support an organisation on their own terms. The time to make this happen is now.

Consider these suggestions for taking some important first steps:

  • Look at the wide range of ways people support your organisation already — cash donors, volunteers, campaigners, advocates, allies, etc. What do you know about them? Do you capture consistent information on them (in line with local data protection laws, of course), ranging from basic contact information to why they support your organisation? Do any of them fall into multiple categories? For example, do you know if some of your volunteers are also cash donors? Do you know if they give more or less than cash donors who don’t volunteer? What other correlations can you see?
  • How can you find ways to make it easy for people to support the organisation in multiple, flexible and changing ways? How can people switch their way of supporting, on their terms, depending on changes in their lives? What barriers are there to this and how can they be dismantled? As NCVO’s Karl Wilding reminds us, “Remember, they are not your volunteers, you are their organisation.”
  • Perhaps this kind of analysis and associated conversations are already happening in your organisation. But are you, the leader of volunteer engagement, a part of them? Great if you are, but if not, why not? Who can you ask right now to get a seat at those discussions, placing volunteers are the heart of internal supporter planning?
  • Finally, it’s also worth looking outside of your organisation. More than ever, we need to acknowledge that we aren’t competing with other nonprofits for donations of time or money; we’re actually competing with the myriad ways people can spend that time and money on things that have nothing to do with nonprofits. When we realise this, we open the door to new collaborations. How can we help volunteers move between organisations – depending on both the needs of the individual and the nonprofit? How can we work together to raise funds for the community and allocate funds across organisations according to need?

Seize this opportunity – one escalator step at a time

Granted, it may all sound a little utopian. But we have to think differently if we are to seize existing opportunities and overcome the hurdles this new world we now live in will send our way.

Stepping forward is never easy when the organisation is already in motion and you’re feeling uncertain. Think of the movie Elf, where Will Ferrell’s character, Buddy, tries to step onto an escalator for the first time, looking and feeling completely weird about doing so!  Now consider all the people milling around Buddy, already in motion and completely at ease. Moving forward is always easier when you’re already in motion than from a standstill, when inertia has to be overcome.

Man in elf costume climbing escalator
A Scene from Elf (2003)

You may be wondering what this has to do with anything we’ve been talking about. Here’s the thing: because we’ve been reluctant as a profession to advocate for ourselves and our work, we are now at a standing start instead of being in motion and building upon that existing momentum during challenging times like these. We need to acknowledge this fact, and we need to own this fact.

They say that “a body in motion stays in motion” but it’s also true that a body already in motion gets somewhere more quickly than one that has to get up to speed. There are great initiatives like International Volunteer Manager’s Day and many examples of leaders of volunteers doing sound and strategic advocacy in their organisations. What’s been missing, however, is the kind of profession-wide, unified and consistent advocacy that would have over time built our skill in doing this work. What’s been missing is a profession-wide, unified voice that would have also built an ever-increasing baseline of accepted truths and attitudes that would have allowed for advanced conversations with colleagues and organisational leadership. Instead, we’ve been mired in the same basic, stale conversations over and over again.

Admittedly, the space we now find ourselves in is due to unforeseen forces that are beyond our control. The place we occupy in this space, however, is of our own making.

But we believe that all is not lost. If nothing else, the pandemic and its impacts on leaders of volunteers and volunteerism have demonstrated more than ever the power and potential of our role in supporting and sustaining essential services and those that enhance our quality of life. The more we all speak, act and prove that volunteer engagement makes good times better and eases times of financial austerity, the better off we’ll all be. As Steinhorn also recently noted:

“Organizations that, prior to the pandemic, embraced volunteer engagement as a key strategy to fulfil mission and valued the professionals who engage and support volunteers as key leaders are those same organizations that have been more nimble and strategic in engaging volunteers to deliver new services, adapt to virtual service delivery, and sustain the organization amid these changing circumstances.”


Everything we’ve talked about may sound daunting, a cliff face of change that you might struggle to realise. Perhaps what we’ve been talking about feels impossible in your organisation. You may see yourself as ‘just a Volunteer Manager’ with little or no strategic input into your senior leadership team and board.

Rest assured, we see you differently. As a leader of volunteer engagement, you are the most essential cog in an organisational wheel that needs to turn faster and more responsively to the world in which it spins.

Perhaps these two final quotations will provide some inspiration and comfort:

“Crises rarely change anything. They simply accelerate existing trends.”
 — Ruchir Sharma, chief global strategist, Morgan Stanley

Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.
— Muhammad Ali

In other words, you’ve got this. You are not facing much that’s new, just a faster need for that change to happen. So go and make the change happen. Be a beacon, leading from the front to make this world a better place, seizing the opportunities and overcoming the challenges we all face together.

As singer/song writer Bob Dylan reminds us all,

“Come gather ’round people

Wherever you roam

And admit that the waters

Around you have grown

And accept it that soon

You’ll be drenched to the bone

If your time to you is worth savin’

Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone

For the times they are a-changin" 1

"The Times They Are A-Changin," Bob Dylan, Copyright © 1963, 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1992 by Special Rider Music

To add or view comments

Mon, 10/26/2020

Without a doubt, it's a new era. If there is any upshot from the pandemic in the field of aging and in particular caring for older adults in long-term care communities, it's that you can't fix loneliness and social isolation with a pill. The medical model's grip on care may have been loosened somewhat as it's now crystal clear that social interaction, meaningful relationships, nurtured and families and yes, volunteers (screened and trained) is more than just an add-on, it's a critical component to providing person-centered care.