Don’t Just Expand Your Program, Expand Your Thinking

by Jennifer A. Smith

The decision to expand your volunteer program (or start one) can seem overwhelming. “How will I find the people?” you might wonder. “How do we mobilize them? Who’s going to manage all the details?” If you worry that you’re getting stuck in the how-to phase of a growing volunteer project, maybe it’s time to pause. For a moment, instead of focusing on expanding your program, spend some time expanding your thinking.

Working at a small, nonprofit service agency, I had been through training about volunteer management, had read some articles and, of course, had heard inspiring stories about the difference volunteers make. But the truth was, when it came to thinking about expanding our own volunteer program, we tended to get stuck talking about how we could find the right volunteer to do this one thing we were struggling to do ourselves, or how we could convince our existing volunteers to do more. I’m sorry to admit, these weren’t planning sessions that left me personally inspired.

Around the same time, I had the chance to work with New England Network for Child, Youth and Family Services (NEN) on a toolkit they were developing that looks at how organizations across the country are using volunteers. And as a result of being part of that research team, the range of what I was listening for when people talked about volunteers naturally expanded. I started hearing stories about very small but creative ways that people were volunteering their time and talents – things like offering to make a birthday cake for a homeless teenager – and I began to feel excited again. These were concrete acts, sometimes thought up by the volunteers themselves, which could make a personal impact yet didn’t require amazing feats of management. I became energized to think out-of-the-box.

In a way, these stories also shifted my focus from “What does our agency need that volunteers can give us?” to, “What do I sit in my office just wishing someone would do for my clients once in a while?” and, “What does this person (who’s a friend of our agency) want to give that’s meaningful to them?” I was starting to approach the concept of expanding a volunteer program, not just from my head, but also from my heart. And it’s the melding of the two that’s necessary, I believe, for a volunteer program that’s vibrant and fuels its own fire.

Cover of Publication 'The Hidden Workforce'

There is, of course, value in learning from others’ experiences and expertise, and so, a great way to jumpstart your own brainstorm about volunteer activities, would be to check out NEN’s toolkit called The Hidden Workforce: How to Use Volunteers to Expand, Extend and Strengthen Your Services. It’s full of examples of creative ways that organizations across the country are engaging volunteers and also includes research about what management strategies and practices will yield the best results. Then, feel free to borrow ideas or get a group together to generate your own list of new ways to include volunteers in your organization.

Jennifer Smith has worked with youth-serving nonprofits for more than a decade and has expertise in program delivery, development and evaluation for runaway and homeless youth programs. She has been a Research Associate with NEN since 2008. Smith is also a published author and provides editing and grant writing services through her business Calmposition. She may be contacted at jsmith[at]nenetwork[dot]org.

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