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The Democratization Of Volunteering

Forget top-down management: Volunteers aren’t just drones, they can be managing themselves and finding their own projects. Let them free and they can become leaders in their own right.

The Democratization Of Volunteering
Drew Anthony Smith

More than 20 years ago, citizen volunteers in places like Atlanta, Chicago and New York City, came together to invent a new form of volunteer engagement for a new generation. These bootstrap start-ups–like Chicago Cares, Hands On Atlanta and New York Cares (which together became HandsOn Network under Points of Light’s umbrella)–were powered by the energy and idealism of a group of committed volunteers. Central to the model was asking volunteers to lead others in serving.

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This post is part of a series on the future of service in America, in conjunction with Catchafire.

With limited capacity to manage volunteers, these new organizations asked volunteers themselves to step up as leaders. This ensured projects like tutoring, food bank sorting or refurbishing schools were well-managed through the extra muscle of the volunteers themselves.

What began as a practical approach to getting more done with less has proven to be a powerful lever for impact and growth. HandsOn Network has grown from dozens of projects to more than 257,000 projects each year. Today, HandsOn Network trains and mobilizes 88,000 volunteer leaders each year who direct the work of 2.1 million volunteers, representing a powerful force multiplier for change.

Along we way, we learned that volunteers have the capacity not only to manage volunteer projects, but also recognize unmet needs and create new ways of helping. After Richard Goldsmith read a newspaper article calling Parklane Elementary the lowest-performing school in Fulton County, Georgia., he met with the principal and discovered what the students needed most was attention from caring adults. He launched The Discovery Program, a Saturday school run by volunteers who contribute to the academic and life success of students who might otherwise fall through the cracks. Twenty years later, Goldsmith still spends his Saturday mornings at Parklane and has taught all who have served with him the value of compassion, commitment and sacrifice.

New technologies–many developed by volunteers–are also creating powerful ways to engage volunteers. Jake Bernstein, a 17-year-old from St. Louis and a member of the Youth Advisory Council of generationOn, Points of Light’s youth service enterprise, worked with his sister to launch a website devoted to community service for young people. They have held volunteer fairs, created an online database and helped thousands of families find volunteer opportunities ranging from maintaining nature trails to serving at hospitals.

To increase participation in service, we must re-imagine and recommit to tapping into the civic impulse of people who want to create change in their communities. A new generation of volunteer leaders is forging new civic pathways for creating impact and scale. Here are few ideas for growing the legions of volunteer leaders:

  • Offer specific ladders to increase the skills of volunteer leaders. Individuals can earn certification from Points of Light’s HandsOn University in skills ranging from recruitment to project development to management to build their capacity to effectively engage others in service.
  • Enlist a volunteer leader or “coach” at local institutions ranging from schools to small businesses to manage service projects and engage students or employees in volunteer activities.
  • Expose young people to volunteer leadership by making a senior project an expectation for high school graduation. The state of Washington is experimenting with a model for this to push the boundaries of students’ soft skills, making use of what is commonly “dead time” in the senior year and provide motivating opportunities to explore a subject of personal interest.
  • Institutional philanthropists with a stake in the sustainability of their investments should consider matching crowdsourced investments in volunteer-driven projects to not only add financial capital, but also the rich human capital of volunteer leadership.

At a time of increasing fiscal constraints and increasing needs, volunteer leaders are a unique and powerful force to unleash the creativity and energy of our human capital – our volunteers – to meet the critical challenges before us.

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Michelle Nunn is CEO of Points of Light

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About the author

Nunn is the CEO of the Points of Light Network.

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