Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

November 2, 2009

Volunteers, part 2: Obama targets impact, innovation

By Todd Cohen

With a lot more Americans giving their time and know-how, volunteerism is going through big changes.

Government is working to better match federally-funded public service with priority social needs.

And nonprofits face the challenge of better equipping themselves to handle more volunteers who want to put their skills to more productive use.

A new collaborative effort known as “Reimagining Service,” for example, aims to turn “good intentions into good impact,” says Michelle Nunn, CEO of the Points of Light Institute, a collaborative member created in 1989 by former President George H.W. Bush to promote volunteerism.

“Part of that is doing a better job of matching skills of volunteers with needs of nonprofits,” Nunn says.

One approach, she says, is for nonprofits to build the management of volunteers into their organizational strategy and then allocate “appropriate resources to leverage volunteers.”

And nonprofits can recruit volunteers as leaders to recruit and manage other volunteers.

The idea, she says, is to apply human-resource lessons from the business sector to engage human capital in the nonprofit sector.

Generally, nonprofits should undertake a strategic review of what they need to achieve their mission, and then “think creatively about how they can use volunteers, human capital, to meet those needs,” Nunn says. “What do we actually need people to do to achieve our mission?”

The challenge, she says, is to “create roles that are specific enough to achieve the organization’s mission and truly engage volunteers.”

Throughout the sector, for example, nonprofits also could create a “fast pass” for volunteering that would lessen the need for volunteers to undergo multiple security background checks to work at different nonprofits.

And employers could designate a “service leader,” either an employee or volunteer, to recruit, manage and engage employees in volunteer work, while colleges, universities and schools could designate a “service coach” responsible for developing and coordinating service-learning activities.

Government also can play a big role in service work, Nunn says.

Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all focused on federal investment to support “stipended” service through programs like AmeriCorps, Nunn says.

Building on that legacy, she says, President Barack Obama aims to “drive concrete tangible impact” on national priority needs through a “broad call to service and innovation.”

On Oct. 16 at Texas A&M University, at a 20th anniversary celebration for the Points of Light Institute, George H.W. Bush characterized service as a “defining characteristic of a successful life,” Nunn says.

At the same event, she says, Obama talked about the need to make service “essential to our national priorities.”

At its best, she says, service should “empower local, organic grassroots work,” providing “support for local organizations and uniquely responding to local community needs.”

And while federal investment in service should promote “service leaders,” Nunn says, it also should spur volunteering throughout the population.

AmeriCorps, for example, has graduated over 500,000 members in the past 20 years who have “done extraordinary things with a huge impact and leveraged more volunteers,” she says.

Yet those AmeriCorps members represent only a small fraction of the total of over 60 million Americans who volunteered in 2008 alone, Nunn says.

The goal is to “channel service and the extraordinary civic spirit of America to the most important challenges of our day,” she says. “That’s the next chapter of the service movement.”


  • At 7:38 PM, Blogger Unknown said…

    Todd, thank you for a very helpful post on volunteering. During this time we've seen our volunteer base grow by 200%. Part of that is that people are inspired to give; part of it is the increase in interest in global philanthropy and volunteerism; part social entrepreneurship; and part the economy.

    But equally important is finding a great win-win for volunteers, identifying their interests which also match your goals. In that way, people feel fulfilled.

    All my best,

    Founder and CEO

    Living and Giving


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