The Shifting Model for Volunteer Engagement

A new initiative being explored by nonprofits in New Hampshire aims to improve the level and impact of volunteer engagement at a time when the mindset of volunteers is changing.

Is it time for a fresh take on the volunteer model?

Nonprofits are facing the challenge of either taking advantage of that opportunity or having volunteers take their skills elsewhere.

The New Hampshire Center for Nonprofits and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation think that’s a question worth exploring. They recently accepted applications from 10 nonprofits to participate in the High Impact Volunteer Engagement Initiative, a yearlong program that will explore the latest trends and best practices in volunteer engagement.

The program will be led by JFFixler Group, a professional and organizational development firm. “They were really interested in shifting the thinking on how groups utilize the skills of their volunteers,” said Laurette Edelmann, assistant director of the New Hampshire Center for Nonprofits. “They want you to start thinking of them as resources to supplement staff, moving strategies forward for the organization, and putting them in charge of projects. It’s really an interesting shift in perspective.”

This shift in thinking is a result of the changing mindset of volunteers, according to Beth Steinhorn, a senior strategist at JFFlixer Group.

“Generations prior to the baby boomers are motivated to volunteer out of duty and out of a desire to join and be part of associations, and that’s the model of volunteerism that most of the nonprofits in our country evolved to address,” Steinhorn said. “But boomers and the generations that followed are really seeking to use their professional skills and to have a measurable impact. Nonprofits are facing the challenge of either taking advantage of that opportunity or having volunteers take their skills elsewhere.”

A key is to look outside the traditional volunteer management model where volunteer members are either engaged at the top level in governance or in direct service projects, Steinhorn said. “That hearty middle, that’s where we can engage skilled volunteers as managers of teams, as managers of projects, and leaders of initiatives.”

Engaging volunteers throughout the organization will be crucial, Steinhorn believes.

“Members and volunteers really represent an untapped pool of skills and talent and passion, and member and volunteer engagement is going to be a key business strategy,” she said. “Volunteers are an opportunity not just for skills and contributed time, but for financial resources and advocacy. With technology today, they have the potential to leverage all of their networks on behalf of the cause that the organization is working towards.”

To implement that kind of strategy requires intention and strategic action on the part of the organization, Steinhorn said.

“It really is a shift for organizations to be willing to let go of controlling all of the information and, rather, creating spaces for people to have dialogue about the issues, causes, and events important to them,” she said. “What we give away in controlling all of the information, we more than make up for by being more open to input from members and volunteers, and that’s what they want today. They expect to be able to help shape the future of their organization.”

And by allowing volunteer members to be more engaged and active within the organization, the perceived value of membership goes up.

“It’s key in shifting the idea from sort of a consumer or transactional model of, ‘I join and I get this,’ to one where members feel like they are in a relationship with the organization and that they can be coauthors of the organization’s future,” Steinhorn said. “When we engage our members as volunteers in cocreating our future as an association, that’s what will lead to stronger membership.”

Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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