Blaine House Conference, 2011

by Eileen Buzzello

I had the opportunity to participate in the 25th annual Blaine House Conference this past week. This is Maine’s only conference targeted toward volunteer managers and administrators and the theme this year was “Imagine Service”. Hopefully many of you reading this blog were there, but for those who were not, a few words about my experience.

I’ve worked in the non-profit world for many years, both as a volunteer and as a manager of volunteers. Never have I been as inspired by an idea as I was this past week on the topic of “Reimagining Service”. Not only was the presentation by Kaira Esgate (Executive Director of Reimagining Service) inspiring, but the whole idea of it took my breath away and has continued to occupy my thoughts ever since.

When I was first introduced to the idea of incorporating a personal computer into my workplace my initial resistance was overcome by a colleague saying to me – we have to “work smarter” if we want to survive. The same logic applies to reimagining service. We are seeing an increasing need for the services our organizations provide accompanied at the same time by decreasing resources. The way we close that gap is by working smarter, and that means a new look at the way we recruit, retain, and manage volunteers. We have to work smarter if we want to survive.

First of all, we are dealing with a new kind of volunteer and this new kind of volunteer does not fit into the old model of just throw a bunch of bodies at an issue and whatever gets done makes the world a better place. The volunteers of today want to know they are making a difference – they want to know their particular skills are being used – they want organized and effective management of resources (including themselves) – they want measurable outcomes. If these things aren’t present they will go somewhere else with their time and their skills.

Secondly, businesses are becoming increasingly more aware of the value of providing their employees a mechanism for giving back to their communities. Research has shown that by doing so they increase their employee satisfaction and retention, and raise their public profile in the process.

Finally, funding sources are shrinking and there is a definite component in today’s society that does not believe federal and state government funding of charitable enterprises is appropriate.

These elements have all combined to make a “perfect storm” of opportunity to take a new look at how we are doing business – where the business involves volunteerism. Reimagining Service provides us with a strategy for doing so, by applying four core principles to the inquiry:

(1) The volunteer ecosystem is more effective when all sectors participate in its evolution. We (nonprofit, private, faith-based, education, government) are interdependent and can increase our impact by understanding and using this interdependence in strategic ways.

(2) Make volunteering a core strategic function, not an add-on. This is a fundamental shift in how we consider volunteerism – from a “feel-good” and “nice to have” model to a “must have to survive” model.

(3) Focus volunteer engagement on true community needs. Identify key issues in your community and recruit and place volunteers strategically to address those key issues. When this kind of a “match” is made, it is easier to measure the impact of the volunteer and report this out to the community – helping the community to understand the value the volunteer brings to the community – not just the hours.

(4) In order to get a return, you have to invest. Seems pretty simple, but this is a place where we consistently fall down. Research shows that in organizations where volunteers are central to the work of the organization and an investment is made in managing them, they generate as much as 3-6 times the community value as the cost for that management.

Reimaging Service is a national coalition of multi-sector representatives from nonprofit organizations, government, education, faith-based, funders, and corporations. They are engaged in exploring new ways of addressing the challenges and opportunities of increasing social impact through volunteer management. For more information, please go to their website at , and begin reimagining your service while we still have the opportunity to do so.

Eileen Reilly Buzzello is an Americorps VISTA and a Featured Blogger.

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