NPOs have to change their view of volunteers, donors and other stakeholders if there is any hope of achieving their mission. The tendency to distinguish between beneficiary and benefactor undermines success and limits impact every time.
The Tale of Two Audiences On September 29th the U.S. Government’s $700 billion “bailout plan” failed to pass because of one fatal error: politicians exluded one of their two important audiences. The White House, along with the leadership of both parties, worked overtime to get the commitments they needed from Congress, the legislative audience who would pass the bill. Unfortunately, the failed to obtain buy-in from the American people. Thus, when the plan was discussed in the media it looked an awful lot like “a welfare scheme for the humbled plutocrats of Wall Street” as suggested by Kevin Connolly of the BBC News in Washington.
The second time around (October 3), this mistake was not repeated. The most persuasive argument to accept the bailout package may have come from the Market itself on Monday. With a nose dive of 500 points within minutes of the vote, the result was a loss of 777 points. This marks the biggest single-day decline ever (the Dow Jones lost 684 points on the first day of trading following 911). Message delivered and understood. No Man is an Island This recent financial crisis has been a sobering one for middle and upper classes across the globe. It is not, however, the sole issue of our time. Most organizations doing non-profit work would argue that the causes for which they tirelessly and courageously work are no less a crisisfacing society. Whether it is improved education for children in poor neighborhoods, clean water sources for African villages, a solution to the Aids crisis gripping large parts of the globe, animal rights, or the environment, these leaders are working to bring to light the abiding societal and moral imperative to address the issues. The only difference is that for many of us untouched directly by these crises, we have learned to co-exist with them, (or worse, pretend they don’t exist). Unlike the pain and suffering of humanity around us, it is impossible to co-exist with the financial collapse of the United States.
Whatever one’s chosen perspective, human suffering belongs to all of us. The days of claiming ignorance are long gone. Society, the environment, communities and individuals each influence one another and carry responsibility for that influence. Main Street and Wall Street are connected, financially, politically and personally. And while it’s possible to isolate a problem, there are never isolated solutions.
In the non-profit world of problems and solutions, people receive uninformed labels that generally fit in one of two categories: “giver” or “taker.” These labels are no longer applicable and the time has come to do away with them.
Divide and be Conquered Almost all NPO’s neatly divide their work between donor and recipient, server and served, needy and resourced. This kind of “us and them” vocabulary can be useful for a variety of reasons, but building a strategic plan on it is severely limiting. The NPO has a cause or a mission and everyone in it's vicinity is somehow affected by the success or failure of it. While the primary audience may be a particular social group (e.g. homeless men and women), excluding the surrounding community from being part of the solution would be a fatal error. As NPOs develop solutions for the numerous plights of society, society as a whole becomes a vital and affected audience. Inside the NPO, this audience shrinks to an individually identifiable size - namely, volunteers.
Volunteers are not a “means to an end” and to use them as such will debilitate the work of an organization. The benefit of an NPO’s good work flows equally to the “served” (e.g. the homeless man to whom the NPO provides a meal), and the “server” (e.g. the volunteer to whom the NPO provides a renewed clarity of mind). The server and served are not the same person. Their needs are poles apart, and they are affected by equally dissimilar elements. Despite these differences, they are both tragically affected by homelessness. Does it affect their lives in the same way? No, it doesn’t. No more than the current financial crises affects everyone in the same way. The point remains, everyone is affected, whether by the loss of a 401k or the loss of a minimum wage service job. Serving your Volunteers better Assuming it is true that society, and on a smaller scale, volunteers are a vital audience of the NPO’s, most organizations must learn to acknowledge this role and treat volunteers with the value they deserve. Like the American people and the “bail-out” plan, volunteers have the power to cause great success or embarrassing failure. Here are a few suggestions to help NPOs on their way:
At service events, include intentional discussions or high-quality literature that clearly explains not only the issue, but how we are all affected by it.
Work with your staff to help them understand that both volunteers and your primary audience are equally important to your cause.
Make space for relationships to develop between your primary audience and your volunteers.
Offer regular events for volunteers to bring friends, family or even co-workers to share in the cause.
Ask for solutions from your volunteers in order to leverage creativity, innovation and broaden networks.
Without changes in society and government on a massive scale, a single agency or NPO will never be able to achieve their mission on their own. In the meantime, we can choose a wiser course than our elected officials by striving to know our audiences and involve them in the message and the solution. Hopefully, it won’t take a historic catastrophe to force us to make the switch.