It is said that we are at the dawn of a great, new age of
Volunteerism in America. In
Two distinct sets (or generations) of volunteers have emerged: the first set includes members of the baby boomer generation who have retired recently and are looking for “meaningful civic engagement roles”; the second set includes young adults of the (Obama-inspired?) Millennium generation who increasingly consider volunteering for nonprofits as a way of life.
There is no better indicator of this volunteer fever in America than
While these and other examples lend proof to the large influx of potential volunteers showing up at the doorsteps of the nation’s numerous nonprofit organizations, the critical question remains: How well prepared are the nonprofit organizations to engage with all these volunteers? Or, do the nonprofits have the ability to tap into and channel the creativity and expertise of this emerging volunteer workforce, to solve key social problems?
Based on my own ongoing research on social innovation, the answer, unfortunately, is No.
Nonprofit organizations’ challenge of involving citizen volunteers in social innovation initiatives is not much unlike that of business organizations in partnering with customers in innovation and value creation. Customers act largely as volunteer innovators in the private sector; most often, they do not derive any monetary gains from their activities. As research shows, companies that are successful in engaging their customers in innovation activities are those that create “valuable experiences” for customer innovators and bring a lot of clarity and transparency to the innovation process. These and other lessons from the private sector imply three key issues for consideration for nonprofits confronted with the ‘volunteer challenge’:
- Does the nonprofit organization have a strategic approach towards engaging volunteers in its activities? (Identifying the organization’s expertise/skill gap, mapping out the roles that the volunteers will play to fill those gaps; etc.)
Is the nonprofit organization structured to truly embrace volunteers as partners in its activities? (Establishing communication channels between volunteers and paid-staff; offering orientation and training programs for volunteers; implementing processes to integrate the inputs from the volunteers; etc.)
Can the nonprofit organization offer “meaningful experiences” for its volunteers? (Assigning tasks that are aligned with the individual volunteer’s skills and interests; enhancing the transparency of the activities so that impact of the volunteer’s contributions is clarified; etc.)
Teach for America is a
If they do, then we will likely see a revolution in social innovation—one that is truly grassroots-driven and with enduring social impact!