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Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Sustainability

Automatic Volunteer Management: <br/> How to Offer A Great Volunteer Experience (1 of 6)

Having the capability of starting and operating hands-free.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, which began in Great Britain in the 18th century, almost 80% of Agrarian (agricultural) societies were focused on self subsistence, which roughly means “just enough to get by.” There was no ‘middle class’ and very little new revenue - with the exception of the gold bullion coming across the Atlantic from ancient civilizations. But with new ideas about technology and innovation, the world began to change. By the time electricity, the combustible engine and the assembly line came about in the 19th century, the possibilities of automation were endless. Soon, handfuls of people would produce more goods and services than entire nations would have been able to produce over hundreds of years.

If you will allow the analogous stretch, most NPO’s operate as agrarian societies. With a tremendous demand on resources just to provide basic services to their clients, we function with near equivalence to subsistence. The occasional influx of new bullion via generous donors enables some growth in infrastructure, but what is gained is soon consumed by the demands that inevitably follow. The answer to this quandary is, of course, to mobilize an army of volunteers. But developing an army demands amounts of time and personnel which are already in scarce supply. We are due for a change that, so far, remains all too elusive.

The Volunteer Management Cycle (VMC) has done it’s best to offer a caveat to this change. While most NPOs will acknowledge the logic behind the VMC, they admit it is virtually impossible to effectively implement due to limited time and personnel. Frankly, the VMC seems to be intended for use only by organizations with numerous support staff and strong financial support. Without these guarantees, the Cycle is neither realistic nor practical. In fact, as I mentioned in the first of this blog series, if you’re in charge of the volunteer program, you are probably the E.D. and in charge of....well, everything. (Except your salary, eh? Bummer.)

So, your time is limited - too limited to find the people you need. You need Board and committee members, fundraisers, mentors, program helpers, project coordinators, counselors, custodians, outreach workers, administrative support, special events personnel and so on. If only a few of these positions were up and running, you just might be able to find, train, place and retain more volunteers. But you don’t and that makes it all feel like subsistence living - peasants of the middle ages.

I know, I’ve been there. I remember, after a particularly long and discouraging Board meeting, saying goodbye to each member and trying hard to hide the fact that I was nearing the end of my rope. Those last few lingerers must have regretted their pace when they became the lucky recipients of my frustrated sputterings. “There’s no time!” I began, “There’s no time to get the help I make the find the help I need!” (It made sense to me.) I was spinning my wheels, inches away from the solution to my traction-less work. The Chairman stood in the doorway listening with sympathy registered on his face. It felt good to say (however ineloquently), “Its not my fault...arrrggghhh!” Then, in an act of wondrous problem solving that I will never forget, he said, “You know what your problem is, son?” (I’m sorry, what?) “You need to delegate!” (I’m sorry...wait....WHAT??).

Wow, just writing this brings back some un-dealt-with emotional baggage.

It would be years before I realized that the answer to both issues (lack of time and personnel) had been within reach since the 18th Century. The key was automation. Manage the process, not the volunteer.

I had taken a position at a large church as the guy responsible for engaging the congregation in local expressions of social justice. This was no mean feat, considering this particular congregation numbered up to 7000. They had been mobilizing hundreds into the community, but the leadership wanted to see that number increased. I came in with high ambitions and decided the number should be increased by several thousand per year. One problem: there was just one me, and one part-time assistant (who, incidentally, was the best assistant I could have asked for at the time).

Needless to say, the VMC wasn’t an option. I didn’t have the time to Plan, Recruit, Organize, Train or Supervise anyone. And I didn’t have the help I needed in order to mobilize thousands. If I focused on the few that I could handle, it would be years before we saw the numbers increased and I simply didn’t have the patience for that. I wanted to ramp up the numbers fast. Specifically, the goal was to see 1000 new volunteers in 12 months. I had to make a decision and it looked like I would be required to step outside the ordinary boundaries and try something unconventional. Mentally I tossed the VMC aside, and in the end, it wasn’t much of a decision because I only had one option: Forget about volunteers. Offer an experience. Automate.

My Industrial Revolution happened the day I created the Stage One experience. This was the first piece of what I now call the Stages of Realized Worth. A Stage One experience is all about offering people who want to volunteer a chance to see what we were all about. Because I needed to automate everything, and find enough time for everyone, I simply took myself out of the process. I let the space I was inviting people into do all the work for me.

First, I found an organization offering an opportunity to serve a meal on the weekend. I met with them and described what I was hoping to achieve. In one meeting we agreed that I could bring in a handful of volunteers each Sunday to serve the meals. This offered them a connection with the community (potential donors) and me a basic entry point for potential volunteers. In order to automate the process I would need to achieve the following;

RECRUITMENT. Eliminate repeat promotional events, large activities or organization of any sort and thereby move to a passive (hence automatic) recruitment process. By making the Sunday Suppers a regular, identical, weekly event, all project management implications were removed. I also had a continual entry point that would eventually fit anyone’s calendar.

SCREENING. Use the space where you invite volunteers to do the screening for you. With so few available resources, I could only afford to invest in people who would eventually be able to return on the investment. If they came back a number of times, I figured they were someone I should start spending a bit more time with.

TRAINING. Create opportunities that don’t require training. Beyond a simple brief, I didn’t have time to train or orient anyone. The space itself needed to be structured to communicate what most training events aspire to. For us this looked like one-on-one time with our guests, and a quick de-brief after the event to learn from each other.

FOLLOW-UP. We pretty much need to eliminate follow-up all together. Besides a simple database entry process to prevent unnecessary risk, I didn’t have time to call anyone or explain much of anything. My focus was on the weekly rhythm of the Sunday Suppers; the process, not the people. If people came back a number of times I would invite them to the next opportunity or training event (which we’ll talk more about when we get to “stage 2” opportunities).

DEVELOPMENT. Allow the space to self-select people in or out of a development process. I only wanted to work with the most interested, the most dedicated and the most committed. Again, with a week after week event, it was pretty easy to know who these people were.

Automating everything is just one step towards leaving the agrarian reality behind. Subsistent living is not good enough for NPOs - not anymore. If we are willing to take a few, innovative steps toward our own, personal Industrial Revolutions, we will soon accomplish in days what is currently taking us years. Most importantly, the world will begin to change. And you and I will be an integral part of that change.

Don’t forget, this is the first of a 6-part series. “Automate everything” does not address your immediate needs (for example, those boxes of letters on the floor of your office that need to be collated and stuffed this week), but don’t worry - we’re getting there.

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