In the face of a volatile economy, adaptation is key. Families, small businesses, and all levels of government must adjust to the ever-changing environment. Nonprofit organizations are no exception.
As resources become increasingly limited, the need for services provided by those organizations grows. However, often these limited resources also prevent nonprofits from maintaining the status quo of service delivery, and in response, organizations are forced to cut programs and focus staff energy on development work. But this can severely hamper innovation.
To avoid–or at least reduce–reliance on those usual models of dealing with limited resources, nonprofits must develop and implement bold, innovative adaptations. Such innovations require immense courage, but have the potential to both maintain an organization’s service delivery and foster a mentality of renewal desperately needed in the nonprofit sector.
Rosabeth M. Kanter of the Harvard Business School describes two types of courage: intellectual courage, required to challenge conventional wisdom, and moral courage, required to stand up for a principle rather than stand on the sidelines.
In the years since our launch in 2009, NYC Service has witnessed the most success and added the most value to organizations that have demonstrated both of these types of courage by using volunteers in new and strategic ways.
Engaging volunteers in unprecedented roles is a central tenet of the NYC Service philosophy. The first to take this approach in municipal government, our ideas have certainly been met with resistance. But nearly three years later, our partnerships with City agencies have maintained or expanded the delivery of services to New Yorkers. Shape Up NYC, an initiative of the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation, recruits volunteer fitness instructors to teach free classes, attended by an average of 3,000 New Yorkers each week. This represents a 150% increase in attendees, an expanded capacity that would have been impossible without volunteers.
This new approach to volunteerism isn’t just happening in New York, it’s happening in cities around the country through the Cities of Service coalition. Thirty mayors have already hired a Chief Service Officer or launched a high-impact service plan, with more doing so each month. And it’s working. In May 2010, when Nashville experienced a flood of historic proportions with over $2.5 billion in damages, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean tapped citizens to power recovery efforts and to help prevent future flooding. Using volunteers, Nashville planted over 800 trees in strategic areas and built almost 100 rain gardens to help reduce the build-up of storm water. Similarly, nonprofits must tap volunteers to administer programs that may otherwise be cut.
Skills-based volunteering is another example of using volunteers strategically. Individuals with industry-specific skills are an underutilized resource for nonprofits that need assistance in specific areas. Nonprofits like Catchafire and Npower specialize in recruiting and placing such volunteers, but nonprofit volunteer departments can build such a strategy into their operations. This matching model has proven successful; through Taproot’s Professional Services program, the Mentoring Partnership of New York was paired with volunteer website developers and graphic designers who updated the organization’s website and produced new marketing materials.
By definition, innovations challenge conventional wisdom and thus require intellectual courage. Their implementation almost always requires moral courage. As the economic recession continues, this courage will be required by even more organizations. Nonprofit leaders must identify new and untapped resources–we make the case here for volunteers, but there are surely others–to maintain and even increase the impact of their organizations.
Though volunteerism itself is not a new concept, using it as a serious strategy to meet critical community needs is still in an experimental phase. NYC Service has proven its effectiveness and encourages nonprofits across the board to pursue a similar approach.