Posts Tagged ‘volunteer leaders’

Back to follow up from the National Conference on Volunteering and Service for a moment….

Besides the professional volunteer managers and national service members, there were for profit companies and celebrities at the conference.  As the service movement gains popularity, and volunteering is seen as cool, many companies and brands are looking to partner.  Last fall, the Entertainment Industry Foundation worked with individual celebrities as well as TV producers to promote service through their programming and PSAs.  In most cases these partnerships are win-win.  The celebrity or company gets good PR and the organization has greater visibility and may receive donations, volunteers, or free marketing.

At one of the first sessions that I went to, CauseCast showed this video from Ben Stiller:

This video and the type of civic activism that it represents is seen as a win for the service movement.  This model rests on the following assumptions:

Assumption: celebrities will be perceived as more trustworthy than the average joe and therefore a better spokesperson for your cause

Assumption: having a celebrity promote your cause will help your cause

Discussion / Reflection Questions:

Are those assumptions always correct?

Is Ben Stiller a volunteer leader?

Most volunteer policies say that you can not volunteer to do the same work that you do for pay.  For instance, a County social worker can not volunteer to screen homeless clients.  Ben Stiller is an actor and he is now acting on behalf of a cause.  Is he being paid?  By whom?

If he is not compensated are there labor law considerations?

Can you be paid or receiving material benefit and still be a volunteer leader?

Is the definition of volunteer leadership more about your actions, or about your intentions?

Is the concept of “being” the same as intentions?

Do celebrities who are promoting causes while also promoting their own brand muddy the waters of volunteerism or is this a great innovation in the social sector that changes the paradigm of giving?

That’s a lot of questions I know, but I have far more questions when it comes to this model of volunteer leadership than I have answers.  I would appreciate your insight or suggestions for other reading on this topic.


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At the National Conference on Volunteering and Service this morning, Beth Kanter and Allison Fine introduced a new model for volunteer leader engagement (though that is not how they referred to it).  Kanter and Fine, in their new book, The Networked Nonprofit, describe a new phenomenon that has accompanied the rise of social media.  They coin the term “free agent” to describe social media savvy and socially minded folks who raise awareness, money, support, or elicit action on behalf of a cause or organization which they support.  These free agents are able to mobilize their networks using free tools for causes they care about.

With the rise of social media, there are new ways of connecting to each other and new ways for individuals to demonstrate leadership.  Social media savvy, well connected folks can leverage their online networks to support a cause that they are passionate about.  Or, as in network weaving, individuals can play a critical role within their social network by connecting people and ideas to generate new partnerships and action towards social change.  In the first example, which Beth Kanter and Allison Fine refer to as “Free Agents”, the individual is often front and center.  He makes a commitment, speaks out about his cause, or even pledges to ride naked (almost!) in the DC area if his connections will follow him in his effort. (see video for a great example)

Most of the time the individual is moved to act, but may or may not have extensive knowledge of the cause or solution he is trying to help.  I see the growth of free agents as a push back against the professionalization of the service movement.

How do these free agents fit into the overall picture of the service movement?

Are free agents the volunteer leaders of the future?  How do nonprofits embrace free agents while also continuing to create more structured opportunities for volunteer leadership?

How does the connection someone has with their online networks affect their relationship to local in person networks?


Network Weaving, http://www.networkweaver.blogspot.com/ June Holley

The Networked Nonproft, Beth Kanter & Allison Fine

The Networked Nonprofit session, National Conference on Volunteering and Service

Nonprofit Network Building, Case Foundation

The End of Nonprofits as we know it session, National Conference on Volunteering and Service

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It’s only the opening day of NCVS, but already there have been an outstanding number of volunteers noted and organizational shout outs.  I have met some great volunteer leaders; making new friends and reconnecting with old.  Conference is all about making these connections and re-energizing around service and so far NCVS is meeting its mark.

You can find quotes from the opening plenary on Twitter under #ncvs and can even watch the action at: http://www.volunteeringandservice.org so I will not recap what went on.

2 great off the cuff moments:

  1. Mika Brzezinski calling out “Morning Joe” for dropping F-bombs on live TV
  2. Mo Rocca stumbling over the “Cougar” Kids Club name wondering if it engaged a certain population of older attractive moms.

What I thought might be helpful is a rundown of the people and organizations represented during the plenary as well as a few observations.

First the observations and then the run down after the break.

  • Large for profit companies come across as having a very different understanding of the service movement.  They used different language and seemed to focus on different priorities in addressing social problems.
    • The CEO of JP Morgan Chase used a lot of language that did not resonate with me.  Although I think I support a lot of his overall message, he came across as both defensive and accusatory, defending big business’ role in providing jobs, paying taxes, and providing retirement investments; as well as insisting that organizations use their “brains” and base decisions on “facts” (which to him is the bottom line).  … More on this in a future post.
    • The exception to that is when the company put its community relations person in charge of the talking points (Target).  Laysha Ward connected with me around Target giving back 5% of income, partnering with the school for a library makeover that they really wanted, and having a 3 part strategy towards partnering in the education space including volunteerism, arts, and social services.
    • Ben & Jerry’s also provides a great example of partnering with the social sector in a win-win project.  Scoop it Forward is fun, creative, and uses what Ben & Jerry’s does best (create & market delicious ice creams in inventive flavors) with what VolunteerMatch does best (connect people with opportunities to volunteer).
  • “Morning Joe”, Joe Scarborough, seemed to be the least of a good fit of all of the speakers and moderators.  When he referred to Millennials (my own generation) as “babies” Twitter lit up with great folks like @menista & @ngongang of mobilize.org, @socialcitizen with Case Foundation, and @AtlasCorps speaking up for the role Millennials are already playing in social change.  My major disappointment was that no one actually on the panel put in a plug and spoke up about the huge proportion of the audience that actually are millennials taking a lead in making a difference.

Ok, if you want the run down of organizations/Campaigns that were mentioned in the opening plenary (mentioned, not featured), check it out past the break:


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For my Leadership in a Diverse World class, I am supposed to reflect on this question and look at different perspectives and conceptions of leadership. Since my passion involves volunteer leadership, I will focus the question on what it means to be a volunteer leader.  What are different conceptions of volunteer leadership?

In my daily work at Volunteer Arlington (see note in About Me re: this work not necessarily reflecting the views of Volunteer Arlington), we look to HandsOn Network (HON) for our definition of volunteer leadership, so I will start by reflecting on this definition of volunteer leadership.

HON states on their website:

HandsOn Volunteer Leaders drive social change.  All across our country and our world, people are investing their time, ideas, resources and experiences to lead others in service for social good. HandsOn Volunteer Leaders are trained to lead well managed projects and programs that build on community assets, meet community needs, and provide volunteers with a positive experience so that they continue their journey of service.

Some of the explicit characteristics of volunteer leaders in this statement are:

  • They have followers who are volunteers – they are at least partially responsible for the experience that those volunteer have
  • They are trained by HandsOn Network affiliates
  • They lead projects and programs

Also, the page that lists this quote is “Become a volunteer leader” and includes a link to a toolkit for would-be volunteer leaders.  This implies that volunteer leadership is defined by what you do rather than who you are or what characteristics you have.

Why is it necessary for volunteer leaders to have followers?

  • Is it because we define volunteer leaders by how the act rather than their “being”?  If they recruit and manage other volunteers, then they are volunteer leaders by definition!
    • What about someone who leads by example, by being a good neighbor or a good citizen?
    • We have struggled with this in our volunteer award program in which it is difficult to award people who are dedicated to service, but do not recruit or manage other volunteers.
  • Is it because our metrics in the volunteer management field emphasize the quantity of volunteers mobilized rather than the outcomes or the quality of their experience?
    • Since we are required to distinguish between volunteers and volunteer leaders in our metrics, we must define them differently.  In each situation, it is implied or stated that our goal is to increase the total number of both volunteers and volunteer leaders.

What are the effects of defining a volunteer leader as one that is trained by an organization?

  • It implies that there is training necessary to be a volunteer leader.  Does this create an in-group / out-group phenomenon?  Are we creating a divide between for example faith-based volunteer leaders that are not trained by a HON affiliate and non-faith based individuals who are trained?
  • Does the training serve to justify the role of the organization hosting the training?  When an organization depends on grants or donations for funds, they often must carefully and clearly define what their role is.  Unfortunately in defining what their role is, they inevitably define what their role isn’t which makes it difficult to be innovative or to partner with outside groups.
  • As volunteer management becomes a profession (see the Certificate of Volunteer Administration for a look at how the profession is defined), more volunteer opportunities become professionally managed.  With only one certifying organization, one national conference on volunteerism and service, a few professional journals and training programs; volunteerism is becoming more standardized.  For a large number of individuals in the United States, what it means to volunteer and to be a volunteer leader is being defined by a relatively small network of people and organizations.  How will this affect our experience and understanding of volunteerism and volunteer leadership?  What other perspectives are there and with whom do they resonate?

Why are volunteer leaders defined as leading projects and programs and what are the implications of this?

  • With project toolkits and a large number of national programs available through HON, volunteer leaders fill an important role in a network that is being defined and redefined by the staff and Board of HON.  When a volunteer approaches our office we encourage them to see where they fit into an predefined web of options for volunteers and volunteer leaders.  A few of the goals of this approach are to replicate best practices, maximize existing resources, and to eliminate the duplication of efforts.  These are strategies and goals that we are taught by the for profit sector.  Do they make sense for volunteerism?
  • One thing that this system sets up is a self-perpetuating cycle.  Most organizations that rely on volunteers are not working themselves out of business.  The volunteer roles are defined to support the organization, not to replace it or even to eliminate the cause of the organization’s founding.  To paraphrase Robert Egger, volunteers serve the soup, they do not make the line shorter at the door of the soup kitchen.

This conception of volunteer leadership is meant to be a more grassroots approach that encourages individuals to take the lead rather than relying on paid staff to define the needs of a community project and use volunteers to fill narrowly defined roles.

This model is meant to empower more individuals to follow their passions and become volunteer leaders.  Does the model encourage this?

Note: HandsOn Network is a large organization and actually embraces multiple models of service, including one called “neighboring” which is different from what I have outlined above.  The definition I worked with above is one that we adhere to within our work as a HON affiliate, so it is particularly relevant to my experience working in volunteer management.

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Well, my graduate program keeps moving and I am now in my 3rd semester, studying “Leadership in a Diverse World”.  For this class I will be writing a series of blog posts reflecting on my understanding of leadership and reflecting on the reading that we have regarding leadership.

For the initial post I will be addressing the question: Coming into this class, how did you understand leadership? Who were the people that you most strongly identified with leadership, both in your personal experiences and in the models you received and believed from others (in your education, culture, peers, organizations, media, etc.)?

When I hear the term leadership I think of someone inspiring others, being an exemplary community member, and standing up for their beliefs.  I grew up learning about leadership in the context of community groups and volunteer opportunities.  As I mentioned in class I have often thought as my mom as a good example of a leader.  Although my mom did not often take on roles with formal authority, she has a presence that compels others to contribute to a cause or to engage in the activity that she is involved in.  Since receiving feedback in group dynamics that I am influential in a group, I have realized that my mom and I share this trait.  Even when walking in a group, we often gravitate towards the front, walking confidently in a direction even if it turns out we do not actually know where we are headed.

That example gets into a distinction about leadership.  There are leadership traits such as confidence, communication skills, the ability to influence others, … and then there is the context that a person is in when demonstrating leadership.  What are their motives?  Are they aware that they are perceived as a leader?

Since reading about leadership in ODKM I am now more interested in how individuals perceive their own ability to take ownership and demonstrate leadership.  I am more aware of how frequently we talk about people giving us the authority to do something or empowering us, and I wonder why?  Why do I need to empower volunteers to be volunteer leaders?  If I am empowering someone it implies that I have the power and am transferring it to them.  Why do I have the power in the first place?  Do volunteers feel a need to be empowered or do they already possess the necessary conditions to embrace their own personal leadership and agency?

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