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Investing in volunteers means more than lip service

This article was originally written in commemoration of National Volunteer Week. First proclaimed by President Nixon in 1974, National Volunteer Week is a salute to the many volunteers across the nation whose work, dedication and commitment makes our country a better place. This year, President George W. Bush proclaimed April 17-23 to be the time "we recognize the millions of individuals who touch our lives as soldiers in America's armies of compassion.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 64.5 million people volunteered in some organized, formal capacity in the year ending in September 2004. If we reviewed the year through the eyes and actions of our volunteers we would find them at work organizing grassroots political campaigns, advocating for children in court, assisting the victims of the Christmas-day tsunami, clearing trails in our state parks, managing the crowds at SXSW and teaching adults to read. At the University of Texas at Austin alone, more than 24,000 undergraduate students, or 74% of the student population, served an average of 111 hours during the 2001-2002 academic year, the last year for which we have comprehensive data. The 2,997,000 hours of service represent a contribution in excess of $48 million to the Central Texas economy.

Yet, when the spotlight dims on these incredible acts of kindness and caring, I'm left to wonder if the accolades generated by tributes like National Volunteer Week will make any appreciable difference in the capacity of volunteers to impact our nation’s most critical problems. Will our nonprofit and public sector organizations be any more willing to invest in the effective management of this critical human resource? Will our legislators, now in session, consider the impact of their actions on citizen participation? Will the boards of directors of nonprofit organizations and other policymakers be any more prepared to support volunteers, or will they continue to undercut the very infrastructure critical to volunteer involvement in the name of cost savings?

In its landmark study, Volunteer Management Capacity in America's Charities and Congregations, the Urban Institute and the Corporation for National and Community Service concluded, "volunteers can boost the quality of services in charities and congregations while reducing costs." But this conclusion comes with a caveat. The caveat is that “the percentage of time a paid staff volunteer coordinator devotes to volunteer management is positively related to the capacity of organizations to take on additional volunteers." The best prepared and most effectively managed programs have made an investment in volunteer management in both the time dedicated to the function as well as the qualifications of the person leading the effort. In other words, an infrastructure exists to support volunteer involvement, and volunteers are supported and lead by knowledgeable, dedicated staff.

The RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs reached a similar conclusion in an earlier study examining the work of volunteers in Texas state agencies. A 2002 analysis of 18 Texas state agencies found that more than 218,000 Texans provided in excess of 2,762,000 hours of service valued in excess of $35 million. In addition to providing direct service, volunteers also raised more than $7 million in cash and in-kind contributions. But the same caveat applied: "Successful involvement of citizens as volunteers in Texas government is directly dependent on the quality of the volunteer management infrastructure." We found that state agencies that invested in full-time professional staff at both the regional and central office levels ran the most effective and comprehensive programs.

But what is the reward for this stellar performance? All too often it falls into the category of “no good deed goes unpunished.” House Bill 2292, which enacted a sweeping restructuring of the state’s social service system, effectively decimated the infrastructure critical to effective volunteer engagement. Although some regional staff remains in place to facilitate volunteer engagement, the central administrative resources essential to ongoing professional development and best management practices were either eliminated altogether, or multiple full-time positions were condensed into one person’s job—an effective recipe for disaster. Misguided policymakers mistakenly believe that no paycheck means no investment, but just as it takes money to make money, it takes dedicated, knowledgeable staff and resources to effectively engage and mobilize community time and resources.

Public agencies are not the only ones with myopic vision. Many nonprofit agencies qualify as “equal opportunity abusers.” In my role at the RGK Center, I’m often called upon by area nonprofit boards of directors and volunteer managers to answer questions about volunteer involvement. Frequently asked questions include: “What are the metrics of an effective volunteer program?” “How many volunteers justify a volunteer manager?” “Do we really need to budget money for a volunteer recognition dinner?” Although time and space do not permit a comprehensive answer to these questions, common sense tells us what the Urban Institute confirmed. The more critical volunteers are to the mission of the agency or organization, the greater the investment of staff time and fiscal resources should be.

But all is not lost. There are jewels in the crown of community volunteer action. One needs only witness the exceptional work of volunteers at SafePlace or the Austin Children’s Shelter to appreciate effective volunteer administration and well-placed volunteers in action. Mobile Loaves and Fishes is exemplary in its utilization of web-based resources to support effective volunteer involvement. The Capital Area United Way has not only rejuvenated the area’s volunteer center, but it has also linked volunteerism to philanthropy—the giving of time and money—in its mission to create a stronger and more caring community. Despite the devastating effects of HB 2292, which effectively eliminated years of volunteer infrastructure development, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services took measures to invest in volunteerism in its new organizational design. Regional staff has been assigned to manage volunteers with the dedicated support and guidance of central administration to assure a high quality operation.

Along with the Greater Austin community, I want to recognize and thank volunteers for the work they do to strengthen the fabric of our local community. We are all better off because people care. In the future, I can only hope that those responsible for supporting volunteerism will put their money where their mouth is and facilitate community involvement by making an investment in high quality volunteer leadership.

Related Links

Student volunteers inspire by example

RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service

© Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs
P.O. Box Y
Austin, TX 78713-8925

6 May 2005

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