April 15, 2010

How nonprofits can use passionate volunteers

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justgoodtv on livestream.com. Broadcast Live Free

Practical tips from the leaders of Universal Giving, Volunteer Match & The Volunteer Center

JD LasicaOver the past year, as Socialbrite has worked closely with dozens of small nonprofits, a recurring theme emerged: Many small nonprofits don’t know how to take advantage of the wellspring of goodwill in their communities from people who’d like to support their cause but don’t know how.

NetSquared’s Net Tuesday event in San Francisco tackled that and related opportunities with an hourlong session on “The New Volunteerism: How to plug into cool projects in your community.” The speakers came at the topic from the POV of both individual volunteers and nonprofits looking to leverage the community.

Participating were Pamela Hawley, founder and CEO, Universal Giving (Pamela also was co-founder of VolunteerMatch); John Power, executive director, The Volunteer Center; Robert Rosenthal, Director of Communications, VolunteerMatch, and I served as moderator. You can watch the unedited LiveStream video above by Justgood.tv (skip the first 15 minutes), though we’ve been promised an edited version in the coming days.

The wide-ranging discussion covered how digital technologies have displaced some of the traditional roles of volunteer centers – “Now technology is really the clearinghouse of information,” John Power said – but volunteer centers have evolved to serve more as a matchmaker between individuals and nonprofits’ needs.

I had two big takeaways from the event:

Broad array of volunteer opportunities

VolunteerMatchI think a lot of people have a limited view of the kinds of things they can do to support a nonprofit or a cause: Cleaning up a hillside, working in a homeless shelter, that sort of thing. But in truth there are thousands of things you can do that match your talents and passions.

Next week is National Volunteer Week, so find a place to volunteer on:

Universal Giving’s Volunteer Opportunities, covering more than 70 countries — and you can help spread the word by embedding this widget on your own site
All for Good (see sidebar at the right)

Pamela and Robert pointed out some of the volunteer positions seen at some of the more adept nonprofits. Depending on your skill set and interests, you can:

• Contribute to the nonprofit’s blog.

• Create a video or photo slide show.

• Work on helping a nonprofit’s website optimize its search engine optimization.

• Input data into the organization’s Salesforce.com database.

• Reach out to bloggers and pitch journalists on the marketing side.

• Conduct research to determine which companies to target with a corporate social responsibility pitch.

• Help the organization with its strategic planning or with a fund-raising event.

Spark any ideas? Said Pamela: “It’s up to you (the nonprofits) to think about what those positions are, and it’s up to the volunteers to find openings that they’ll feel passionately about.”

She also pointed out that nonprofits need to manage volunteers just as they do with their regular staff. “Volunteers are not free. They give freely and generously of their time,” but they require direction and resources.

Supporting nonprofits vs. supporting causes

allforgoodRobert gave a fascinating answer to my final question of the evening on whether new technologies are helping us bypass the nonprofit’s gatekeeper function and connect directly with causes they want to help with, like helping a family in need. We’re seeing that in the philanthropic sector with sites like DonorsChoose and Kiva as well as in services like All for Good (which I wrote about here), an aggregator of volunteer opportunities from both nonprofits and nontraditional groups of do-gooders.

“In this crazy wild west universe, with lots of individuals looking to do good in unstructured ways, there’s an internal battle going on” in the volunteer community, Robert said. “Are we in the business of helping institutions and nonprofits, or are we simply in the business of doing good?”

While we can now use grassroots efforts and mobile technologies to help a local elderly person who’s sick or to crowdsource a fix to a pothole down the street, “we’re trying to send the message that by partnering with an institution, you stand to make a bigger impact,” he said. The world is filled with opportunities for individuals to make a difference, “but is it sustainable? how do you multiply your efforts?” He’s concerned about people turning away from community institutions like libraries and museums and local nonprofits.

The speakers touched on a number of other topics, including:

• Federal funding to support national service and state service programs. The Serve America Act created a social innovation fund, a volunteer generation fund and a capacity fund to bring millions of dollars to innovative volunteer efforts.

• John pointed out, “The new technologies have leveled the playing field for small nonprofits not named Habitat for Humanity or the Red Cross.” With the right approach, community organizations can be just as visible to local supporters as nationally known brands.

• There was a great discussion around the issue of using volunteers vs. paid staff and whether that devalued the contributions of volunteers. (Pamela said groups like UniversalGiving wrestle with that question all the time and want to bring aboard talented people as paid staffers when the budget permits.) JD Lasica, founder and former editor of Socialbrite, is co-founder of Cruiseable. Contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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