Volunteerism in the New Economy, A Bridge Over Troubled Water?

December 7, 2009

The Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) Report: The Status of Minnesota’s Volunteer Programs In a Shifting Environment

According to a recent MAVA report, some nonprofit organizations in Minnesota are currently finding themselves in a challenging, almost paradoxical predicament. They have more volunteer inquiries than ever before because of higher unemployment. However, their decreased resources and staff capacity due to the downturn have made it a challenge for some to make use of these potential volunteers.

Eight-six percent of organizations polled in a recent survey conducted by MAVA reported that their organization is under fiscal stress. As budgets for paid work are cut at some of these organizations, unemployed workers are simultaneously volunteering at higher rates. Forty-four percent surveyed reported an increase in volunteer inquiries, and 50 percent reported an increase in volunteer hours at their organization.

Despite this surge in volunteers, relatively few nonprofits reported an increase in the administrative resources used to manage and train these volunteers. Only 12 percent of organizations reported an increase in the budget for their volunteer programs.

Regardless of the challenges of managing this windfall, many organizations surveyed disclosed that they are are enlisting novel strategies to both attract and retain these new volunteers, among them:

  • Involving volunteers in new capacities
  • Allowing volunteers to serve in leadership positions
  • Designing volunteer opportunities to offer more robust work skill development
  • Creating new streamlined and standardized intake, screening and placement practices

Both nonprofits and unemployed workers looking to keep their skills sharp stand to benefit mutually from this increase in volunteerism. Will this uptick in volunteerism be the bridge that helps nonprofits overcome these troubled times? Having a larger, more highly skilled pool of volunteers will undoubtedly help those who are able to tap into it. However, as noted in the conclusion, MAVA challenges the assumption that organizations have the capacity to effectively channel this force for good without additional resources.

To read more and download the full report from MAVA, visit mavanetwork.org.


Local Nonprofit Allies Are Valuable Assets During Tough Economic Times

July 31, 2009

Our grantmaker members have been requesting the opportunity to learn more about resources available to local nonprofits looking to build capacity and support their infrastructure, especially in the current economic environment.

MCF hosted “Getting to Know Your Nonprofit Allies” on July 21 as part of its Economic Roundtable Series for MCF members. A few choice highlights from the event follow. MCF members can download a full report of the event, as well as pdf versions of the PowerPoint presentations given on our Economy and Philanthropy page.

Representatives from three locally based nonprofit assistance organizations discussed accountability, collaboration, mergers, technical assistance, financial expertise, organizational development and capacity building.

Charities Review Council (CRC) executive director Rich Cowles quoted former Star Tribune reporter Bob Franklin as saying that the CRC is morphing from a sector watchdog into a guide dog. CRC’s Accountability Wizard tool is one reason why.

Cowles explained that engaging in the process to complete the Accountability Wizard gives nonprofits the opportunity to strengthen their policies and procedures and make sure they are aligned with accepted and sound practices. It also lets prospective and current donors know that the organization is paying attention to accountability/transparency issues. A recent survey showed that donors who have higher trust in an organization tend to give more.

Organizations that meet all the accountability standards earn a fundraising “seal,” which can set them apart in the field, which is especially important in this economy.

Fieldstone Alliance works with nonprofits, philanthropic organizations and academia, looking at all the pieces that contribute to strengthening the nonprofit sector.  Carol Lukas, president, cited examples of Fieldstone’s work in research, publication of learning resources, capacity-building initiatives and partnerships, training and consulting.

In lean times, Lukas pointed out that many nonprofits tend to look only at expenses, but developing a strategy for revenues is also important.

The “Free Resources” section of Fieldstone’s website provides the most recent economic resources, as well as practical, downloadable research reports, e-newsletters and tools. Several assessment products also are detailed on the website, including resources to help define and measure sustainability and answer the question, “How do you tell if an organization is sustainable?”

MAP for Nonprofits’ Project ReDesign’s director Renae Oswald-Anderson explained that mergers and other forms of realignment should not just be a response in difficult times, but part of an examination of how organizations can best serve and advance their missions. Contrary to for-profit mergers, mission advancement is the top priority in nonprofit mergers.

Merging is not the end of a mission, but the rebirth of a mission and requires full, intentional integration of board, programs, services and funders. The guts of the work focus on reaching common understandings on the “Big 3”: Organization name and mission (how do we preserve history, create change and move forward?); governing structure (what does this look like and how do we do this?); staffing and management (who will be the leaders?).

Program transfer, in which service sustainability is the key, is another form of realignment.

The presenters discussed grantmakers’ important role in making sure capacity-building progress is maintained by nonprofits:

  • Capacity building is not a one-time event, but a long-term investment.
  • Change is a two-to-three year process.
  • Leadership changes affect capacity building.
  • Keys are to follow-up, fund capacity building over time, and support leadership over time.
  • Nonprofit organizations can’t survive in the current model with decreased government and private funding, increased need, clients/users of services who cannot pay. We need to experiment with different funding models and discuss how grantmakers can best support grantees. Sustainability is an issue.  Where does an organization go to get money for operations? Boards and trustees may want to consider investing more in organizations than projects.

- Chris Murakami Noonan, MCF communications associate

Photo CC Lucas Towne Designs

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