Conventional wisdom. It’s what is widely accepted as true and correct by experts in a field and the public. But suppose conventional wisdom is both true/correct and detrimental?
Here’s something for Maine’s volunteer sector to ponder. It’s a point where conventional wisdom about engaging volunteers and emerging research in a related field seem to indicate opposite things.
Volunteer program leaders have been hearing the conventional wisdom that people want to volunteer when their schedules allow. “On-going volunteer opportunities in the context of a set schedule are just not going to attract Boomers/Gen Xers/Millenials,” says Conventional Wisdom.
The models promoted for what works look a lot like one-time projects. Volunteer opportunities are posted electronically so that people can look up a date, pick something, show up, do it, and then go back to their lives. The work accomplished is still substantial although the set up and logistics for the organizers are much more complex. Yet, the volunteers are more like temporary help – here for the task and then gone. It’s supposed to be the new way to engage volunteers but not tie them to one organization.
Challenging conventional wisdom are the findings from Civic Health Index research.
The Civic Health Index, you may recall from the 2013 Maine volunteerism conference, is measure of the well–being of a community, state, or nation. There are just over 10 indicators of how well a community is functioning and all of them are about interaction between the residents. Half are related to volunteering, service, and civic engagement.
The Civic Health Index data is collected, analyzed, and published nationally by the National Conference on Citizenship. Kristen Cambell, NCOC’s Chief Program Officer, was the keynote speaker at the 2013 Maine volunteerism conference. She’s responsible for overseeing the research and her presentation focused on some of the newer studies that show there’s a connection between a community’s civic health and its resiliency, especially around unemployment and economic recovery. (There’s also some research out of Arizona by one of NCOC’s partners that correlated positive civic health and higher local GDP.)
In the middle of Cambell’s presentation, was the note that the density of non-profits is one factor behind the strength of civic health. But not every type of nonprofit supports civic health and social cohesion. Only those with 4 specific traits:
- - provide direct, tangible benefits to their members.
- - are horizontal organizations, meaning they are characterized by peer-to-peer interactions and collective decision-making, rather than strongly hierarchical organizations in which a few people make the decisions.
- - have supporters who perceive themselves as genuine members and meet regularly, in contrast to mailing-list organizations.
- - are “Thick” rather than “thin” organizations – a reference to a nonprofit management term.
“Thick” organizations are characterized by involving ongoing and sustained commitment. The members of the organization agree about certain values and act on those in their daily routines. On the other hand, “thin” organizations are largely based on transactions – not necessarily a purchase (e.g., gym use or borrowing a book) as it could be using community trails or ushering at an event. There isn’t one common set of values in “thin” organizations but rather different sets of values and beliefs throughout the various components within the specific organization. And the “members” don’t connect with each other.
So, thick organizations engage community members in ways that foster interaction, build trust, promote communication and relationships, facilitate sharing of information/news/opionions, and connect people to each other in ways that make working for the good of the community possible.
Which brings us back to Conventional Wisdom and Maine’s volunteer sector.
What is the role of your volunteer program in fostering civic health?
- - Is there a process for engaging with your program services as a volunteer that lets people to work within their schedules and be an on-going volunteer? Maybe you let people self-schedule after giving them a clear understanding of roles, duties, and the time commitment the program needs.
- - Do you give volunteers opportunities to connect their values with the values of your organization so the attachment between your program and the volunteer are strengthened?
- - Are there opportunities for peer interaction even when volunteers work in small teams or solo?
- - Do you engage them in problem-solving or some level of substantive decision-making?
- - Do you foster a sense of “team membership” among the volunteers so they feel rooted in your mission and program?
There are many ways that volunteer service programs can contribute to civic health and community resiliency. It may take a bit of intentional adjustment to your operational processes but the results will be worth it.
As we enter April and the season of volunteer recognition, maybe the gift you can give your volunteers is some time spent reflecting on the four traits and a commitment to ensuring each is reflected in your operation by the time next April rolls around.