Are Volunteer Centers a Dying Breed?

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During my brief 3+ years of involvement with Volunteer Airdrie, one of the most thought-provoking and challenging questions I have encountered is “Are volunteer centers a dying breed?”

In today’s internet age where it is all too easy to search online for volunteer opportunities if you are looking for a cause, or posting opportunities if you are an agency needing volunteers, it is easy to jump to the superficial conclusion that volunteer centers have become redundant.  One memorable comment recently made by a staff member of a local funding agency was “Volunteers just show up.”

Well, based on my extensive experience as a volunteer leader, I can confidently state that volunteers do not simply and magically show up when you need them!

According to Susan J. Ellis, a well-known North American author, consultant and guru in volunteer management:

“The Internet has profoundly and universally changed what volunteer centers do. Fifteen years ago, most volunteer center members spent the majority of their time collecting information on available volunteer opportunities and helping individuals connect with them. This was done first through paper records, index card files and printed directories, then by computer programs that people could access by coming to the centers’ offices. No more.

Today, organizations can post their opportunities on their own Web sites or dozens of general and specific online registries; individuals can browse such listings from their homes or offices at their convenience, 24/7. The change to Web-based volunteer matching was met with some resistance; some volunteer centers wondered what their purpose would be if freed from the work of compiling and update these local lists. But the change came very quickly and it soon became apparent that there was no going back.

The most resilient centers have responded by re-focusing on developing the volunteer management skills of agencies; running special projects for students, court-ordered service, and people with disabilities; and becoming engaged in disaster response or local priorities such as working with the unemployed. Now the evolution of online social media is having a large impact, with volunteer centers developing online communities on forums such as Facebook and Twitter.

Throughout the world, volunteer centers (by any name) have been responsible for mobilizing millions of volunteers on behalf of thousands of important causes. Yet, by and large, these organizations are relatively unknown as a national movement. Even in their own countries they are often unnoticed. They are chronically under-funded and understaffed. Many are also remarkably uncreative in recruiting volunteers to help in volunteer center operations.

Volunteer centers have difficulty obtaining operating funds, for several reasons:

1) the general low status of volunteering and

2) the lack of value placed on coordinating volunteer efforts or educating leaders of volunteers.

Many centers report frustration in having to demonstrate “impact” in a role as middle man; they are in-between the volunteers and the agencies that deploy them, not directly responsible for actual service provision.

Governments waffle between support and neglect, with different political administrations alternately emphasizing volunteer service as necessary to democracy or cutting funding because they believe volunteers can generate their own resources. For instance, right now the new Cameron government in the UK is extolling something called the “Big Society,” calling for greater self-help neighborhood organizing; at the same time, deep cuts in government programs are putting the country’s network of volunteer centers into jeopardy.”

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The messages are clear:

1. Volunteer centers must continually evolve to adapt to the new & ever changing social, economic & political environments.

2. Organizational resiliency becomes a core competitive advantage. According to Psychology Today: “Resilience is that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever. Rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to rise from the ashes. Psychologists have identified some of the factors that make someone resilient, among them a positive attitude, optimism, the ability to regulate emotions, and the ability to see failure as a form of helpful feedback. Even after misfortune, resilient people are blessed with such an outlook that they are able to change course and soldier on.”

3. We can no longer count on government for any long-term, stable support. Volunteerism will never be a higher political priority than helping the poor, the unhealthy (physical & mental), those abused domestically, international refugees or the environment.

4. Fundraising becomes Job #1, even if it consumes the majority of our human resources.

5. Creative program development and delivery on a fee-for-service basis directly to the client population becomes Job #2.  This however does not rule out the possibility of delivering these services through other social service agencies that are willing to partner and collaborate, rather than compete and duplicate.

6. The stigma of being known as a volunteer center may require organizations to reorganize, rebrand and rename themselves in order to reposition themselves in the eyes of potential funders.  We have seen many cases of this in Alberta already, with Propell:us (Volunteer Calgary), Synergy (Chestermere Area Youth and Community Development Society), Fuse Social (Volunteer Wood Buffalo) to name a few.  This does not necessarily mean abandoning the traditional roles of volunteering matchmaker and capacity building educator, but becoming more efficient such that these tasks no longer are the primary focus of the organization.

My deepest hope is that volunteer centers do not go the way of the infamous Dodo Bird, but rather, are reborn like the Phoenix!

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