Recognising Racism in Volunteer Engagement

I recently read and shared an excellent article by Lisa Joyslin, Inclusive Volunteerism Program Manager at the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA). It was a challenging and thought provoking read on the systemic racism that is pervasive in so much accepted good volunteer engagement practice. I asked Lisa if I could share her work as a guest post on this blog and she agreed. So, here it is. Be prepared to be challenged, to feel uncomfortable and to be inspired to act.


In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, followed by protests and riots across the nation calling for racial justice, many people are experiencing discomfort. Discomfort at the unfairness and injustice experienced in the Black community. Discomfort in our own actions, or lack thereof. Discomfort regarding how to move forward.

Discomfort is a vital part of growth and change. Systems and structures across the nation – from law enforcement to education and everything in between – need to change. They need to be centered around equity.

But for nonprofit leaders and, in particular, volunteer engagement leaders, discomfort should not be something we only feel about other systems.

Volunteerism needs to change, too. Small tweaks to our already-existing structures are not enough. Big, overarching change is needed. Why? Because volunteerism is built on systemic racism.

That’s not comfortable. But it’s true.

How do we know that systemic racism is embedded in volunteerism? Because modern volunteerism – the formal structures and processes by which most organizations engage volunteers – is built upon multiple characteristics of white supremacy culture.

Consider the following characteristics, originally developed by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun in 2001 and outlined by Okun in her essay white supremacy culture, and how they are embedded in volunteer engagement:

Sense of urgency

Okun describes this characteristic as a “continued sense of urgency that makes it difficult to be inclusive,” and a practice that “frequently results in sacrificing potential allies for quick or highly visible results”.

How it shows up in volunteerism:

  • Acting upon demands of organizational leaders or program directors who need ‘more volunteers now’, forcing quick recruitment instead of thoughtful outreach
  • Recruitment goals that call for an increase of volunteers over a course of months or one year when building authentic relationships with new communities takes much longer than that

Defensiveness

This characteristic appears when “the organizational structure is set up and much energy spent trying to prevent abuse and protect power as it exists rather than to facilitate the best out of each person”.

How it shows up in volunteerism:

  • Strict risk management practices centered on protecting the organization and its power/reputation, not on bringing out the best in each individual. Examples include rigid background check rules, requiring multiple references, paperwork not easily completed by a non-native English speaker, etc.

Worship of the written word

Okun describes this characteristic as “if it’s not in a memo, it doesn’t exist,” and “the organization does not take into account or value other ways in which information is shared”.

How it shows up in volunteerism:

  • Insisting on a written application as the first step to volunteering
  • Heavy reliance on written rules and regulations, as outlined in volunteer handbooks, policies, performance reviews, etc.
  • Expecting written memorandums of understanding to define partnerships

Quantity over quality

This characteristic appears when “all resources of an organization are directed toward producing measurable goals,” and “little or no value is attached to process”.

How it shows up in volunteerism:

  • Individual and department goals are centered on measurable outcomes such as volunteer recruitment, retention and evaluation
  • Volunteers who ‘don’t work out’ are seen as a waste of time instead of a learning opportunity for both the volunteer and the organization
  • Building new relationships and growing trust are not recognized as successful until volunteer numbers increase

Only one right way

Okun describes this characteristic as “the belief there is one right way to do things and once people are introduced to the right way, they will see the light and adopt it”.

How it shows up in volunteerism:

  • The volunteer engagement field is filled with ‘best practices’ that are held up as the one right way to do volunteerism
  • Most programs have one pathway to becoming a volunteer (perhaps with an abbreviated pathway for episodic volunteers that eliminates a few steps)

Paternalism

This characteristic is described as, “those with power think they are capable of making decisions for and in the interest of those without power”.

How it shows up in volunteerism:

  • Nonprofit and volunteer engagement leaders make decisions about the volunteer program without consulting community members and those who receive services from the organization
  • Those with money are provided special treatment as volunteers; i.e. creating a customized volunteer opportunity for a funder’s employee group. For more examples see Sue Carter Kahl’s recent blog post Power, Privilege, and Volunteerism
  • Prioritizing the feelings or reactions of donors instead of the community when making decisions about programming, volunteer services and messaging.

Any given volunteer program may not be guilty of all the white supremacy culture characteristics listed above. But chances are good that you recognize at least a few that are prevalent in your organization and those you work with.

It has been said about other systems in our society, but it’s also true here: Volunteerism is not broken. It is working exactly the way it was designed. It works well for those with privilege. It pushes away those without.

So, what can we do about it?

Here’s what I think. Start with the idea that there is only one right way to do things. Throw it out the window. In Vu Le’s recent blog post on Nonprofit AF, he discusses how lack of imagination is a barrier to equity and justice in the nonprofit sector. You can’t imagine new possibilities if you believe you’ve found the one right way. And when it comes to volunteerism, there are so many ways.

Consider, for example:

  • Neighbors helping neighbors within a community. People don’t often call this volunteerism, but it has the same spirit of care and compassion.
  • Protestors. Those going to a protest probably didn’t say they were heading out to ‘volunteer’. Yet, they gave of their time for a cause they were passionate about.
  • Community organizing. Again, grassroots efforts aren’t often labeled as ‘volunteerism’. They are simply people coming together to make things better.

There are far more people of color engaged in the three activities above than there are in formal volunteerism with a nonprofit organization. Communities of color are volunteering. Communities experiencing poverty are volunteering. Immigrant communities are volunteering. They’re just not doing it with formal programs.

And the reason why should be pretty clear by the characteristics listed above. Formal volunteerism has built up countless barriers to keep people of color away.

So let’s learn from these other ways of supporting communities. Let’s learn from the people of color who are giving of themselves every day to make this world better. Let’s have hard conversations but, more importantly, let’s take action that we never thought possible.

I can’t tell you what that looks like. It’s going to look different for each organization and each community. No right way means more work. But it’s the only way volunteerism has a chance of becoming equitable. And if volunteerism – a field that prides itself on helping others and making the world better – isn’t about equity…then, honestly, THAT should be the source of our discomfort.


Lisa Joyslin is the Inclusive Volunteerism Program Manager at the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA). Her work is focused on learning how to address systemic inequities in volunteer engagement systems to better engage communities of color as volunteers at nonprofit and government organizations. Lisa has worked in the field of volunteer engagement for nearly fifteen years, including four years as the Volunteer Services Officer for the Red Cross Minnesota Region and positions at multiple volunteer centers. She holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the University of Minnesota.

Lisa is a white woman. While MAVA’s work is done in partnership with communities of color, it is vital that you also read the viewpoints of those with lived experience as people of color. We recommend the following as a starting point:

The Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) connects, educates, strengthens and advocates for volunteer engagement leaders and their organizations to positively impact communities. Learn more about MAVA and our Inclusive Volunteerism Program here.

We’ll be exploring racial equity and volunteerism further at MAVA’s Virtual Conference this November on Re-Defining Volunteerism. Join us!

Practical tips for volunteer diversity – a new resource

Diversity is one of those areas that many leaders of volunteers want to give more attention to but it is sometime hard to find practical advice on how to achieve real diversity amongst our volunteer teams. Helpfully, the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) has a new resource to help.

MAVA’s Inclusive Volunteerism Task Force was set up to to explore barriers to volunteer engagement within diverse communities and identify successful strategies for overcoming these barriers. They published their report, “Engaging Volunteers from Diverse and Immigrant Communities: 8 Strategies for Creating a More Inclusive Volunteer Program,” in March 2018. The executive summary is available for free to all whilst the full report costs USD$20 (but is free to MAVA members). Both documents can be accessed here .

The MAVA report provides approachable steps that all leaders of volunteers can take to make progress on engaging a volunteer team that reflects the diversity of the communities they serve. While a small part of the report is focused on Minnesota, the majority of it can be applied in other settings and I found the content highly relevant for a UK setting.

I was especially struck by the first strategy, “Shift Your Language”. MAVA make the point that the term “volunteer” is not universally understood and many communities don’t label the time they give as volunteering. This is a point I have made on numerous occasions – just because people don’t volunteer with us doesn’t mean they don’t volunteer. See my article from 2016 for more of my thinking on this.

MAVA suggest a few of ideas for tackling the issue of terminology. Here are my two favourites:

  • Consider using words beyond “volunteer.” “Help” is one good option, but other broader terms – like “support,” “benefit,” or “give,” are also possibilities. For example, say how people can volunteer, say how they can help – simple but potentially very effective.
  • When recruiting volunteers from diverse communities, focus on how the volunteers can assist their community instead of how they will help your organisation. Talk about how a volunteer can help by giving their time to their community through your organisation, or how they can organise a clothing drive for their community. The organisation is implied – it’s a part of the process – but it’s not the focus.

Of course, as MAVA note, changing our language isn’t enough on it’s own to realise a more diverse volunteer team.

From the fundamental importance of building relationships with different communities, to the importance of organisational culture and an understanding of socio-economic barriers to volunteering, the MAVA report contains lots of useful advice and food for thought. I especially liked this point about offering volunteers flexibility:

“Let’s make it okay for volunteers to have other priorities.”

Yes, volunteering for you may not be the be all and end all of someone’s life. They have other things going on, potentially including volunteering with other organisations.

The report concludes with a helpful “Inclusive Volunteerism Action Plan” to help readers implement real change. They encourage a focus on a couple of specific actions for each strategy, recognising that leaders of volunteers are busy people and achievable action plans are more likely to be implemented.

“With each step you’ll make progress toward a more inclusive volunteer program. The important thing is to keep taking those steps.”

As you can tell, I am a fan of this report from MAVA. In fact, I am a fan of MAVA’s work in general. They are one of the more active volunteer management associations I have come across and I’ve had the pleasure of working with them on a couple of occasions now, including attending their conference earlier this month. So watch out for another article next month which will highlight some recent work from MAVA exploring the status of volunteer management in organisations in comparison with HR, fundraising and delivery roles.

Is access to volunteering making a comeback in the UK?

In mid-April, Third Sector magazine reported that the UK Parliament’s Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement have, in their new “Ties That Bind” report, recommended creating an Access to Volunteering (A2V) scheme. This would be similar to the existing Access to Work scheme for paid staff.

It is, however, important to recognise that an A2V scheme would not be new.

In 2009, following a recommendation from the Commission on the Future of Volunteering’s Manifesto for Change, the then Labour government ran an Access to Volunteering pilot (which the new Conservative led coalition subsequently scrapped as part of their austerity cuts).

Whilst it’s just a select committee recommendation at the moment, I hope that if the new A2V scheme comes to fruition the government will take the time to read the March 2011 “Evaluation of the Access to Volunteering Fund”. This report outlined the operation, successes and learning from the A2V pilot and noted some key findings, including:

  • An estimated 67% of the disabled people involved in Access to Volunteering funded initiatives were new to volunteering.
  • The Fund has been successful in involving new organisations with no volunteering experience or experience of working with disabled people.
  • The majority of grant recipients were either disability-related or community and welfare organisations, suggesting that Access to Volunteering has not diversified the organisation types involving disabled people in volunteering.
  • The Fund was unsuccessful in attracting very small organisations (average annual income of under £10,000).
  • There is evidence that Access to Volunteering created sustainability amongst organisations that received funding. 25 of the 28 organisations spoken to in the evaluation said that they would continue to support disabled volunteers.
  • Access to Volunteering delivered flexibility by encouraging organisations to apply for funding for a wide range of initiatives specific to their needs and aims.
  • Access to Volunteering has primarily helped organisations remove logistical barriers, such as poor accessibility and lack of specialist equipment.
  • There is evidence to suggest that over time, attitudinal barriers, such as lack of understanding of the ability of disabled people to volunteer, have increasingly been removed.
  • Some funded initiatives implemented highly innovative programmes creating long-term means of overcoming negative attitudes to involving disabled people in volunteering or work, and of encouraging social inclusion.
  • Access to Volunteering has improved the wellbeing of disabled volunteers, helping them to ‘move on’ to a better quality of life.
  • Volunteering increased the confidence and sense of self-worth of the volunteers involved, which impacted positively on employability and health outcomes.
  • Where becoming employable was an aspiration for volunteers, Access to Volunteering developed employability primarily by increasing confidence and providing experience of being in a working environment. 11% of organisations indicated that their volunteers had found employment after taking part in Access to Volunteering.

The select committee’s recommendation to revisit Access to Volunteering is a very welcome and long overdue development. I hope the government heed their call and that any new scheme learns from what went before.

I shall be watching developments with interest.

NB. The evaluation of the A2V pilot is not easy to find. Like so many key documents on volunteering from the last fifteen years, documents that should be available to us all, they seem to have no online home. If you would like a copy of the report please get in touch and I’ll send it to you.

A different way to think of volunteer diversity

In my last article I updated a piece from 2015 which encouraged us to stop talking about amateurs and professionals when we refer to volunteers and paid staff. Thank you to everyone who has liked and shared it, the topic seems to have resonated with many people.

Here, I want to briefly expand on that theme, drawing from an excellent article by writer Charles Chu and tying it in with some thinking on diversity by MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito and writer Jeff Howe.

Let’s get started.

Examining GK Chesterton’s views on amateurs, Charles Chu makes a great point:

“Saying that professions are becoming more specialized is NOT the same as saying that there is no room for amateurs. And it certainly does not mean amateurs cannot contribute. Take the tech industry, for example. Google, Microsoft, Facebook — all of these big companies were started by amateurs. And then there’s Wikipedia, which, despite being run (almost) entirely by amateurs, has replaced the eminent and professional Encyclopaedia Brittanica. The Internet has shown us there are people willing to make things with no immediate benefit at all. And they do pretty damn good job of it. The amateur is back.” – Charles Chu

Modern technology, particularly through the internet, allows us to tackle issues we would never have previously been able to address. One example is crowdsourcing, my first experience of which was SETI at home.

Still going today, this initiative from Berkeley University of California gets participants to download software to their computer which then analyses radio telescope data from the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence project. There is just too much data for SETI staff to analyse on their own so they engage amateur astronomy enthusiasts – citizen scientists – to volunteer some of their computer power to help.

“The potency of the pixie dust in crowdsourcing is largely a function of the diversity that naturally occurs in any large group of people. Amateurs have always made contributions to disciplines like astronomy and meteorology that thrive on large numbers of observations.” – Joi Ito and Jeff Howe

Taking this further, in their article, “Why we shouldn’t underestimate the power of diversity”, Joi Ito and Jeff Howe look at how society needs to think and work differently to prepare for a future of unknown complexity.

They make a key observation in regard to Eterna (a game where players create designs for synthetic RNA, designs that are then synthesised at Stanford University in the hope of creating new cures for disease):

“Eterna represents a radical rethinking of one of capitalism’s central assumptions, that labor is best allocated through a command-and-control style of management. Eterna instead relies on an attribute – diversity – that has traditionally been underestimated.” – Joi Ito and Jeff Howe

All of which got me thinking. When we think of diversity in the non-profit world are we missing an important aspect? To be fully effective in our work we need not only a mix of people working with and supporting our causes based on gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity etc., but also a mix based on pay category – of paid staff and volunteers.

All this well-meaning amateur nonsense prevents that from happening. Imagine if we talked about any other group of people we want to diversify our workforce from in the way we do volunteers? “They are just disabled people, they can’t be trusted,” That would rightly be outrageous.

We need to see volunteers as key allies in the pursuit of our missions, not obstacles to getting work done or annoyances to be tolerated. Embracing the positive difference volunteers bring and harnessing that to maximum effect alongside the work of paid staff, will result in bigger and better impact on the world we want to create. Science gets this, hence initiatives like SETI at Home and Eterna.

Isn’t it time for non-profit leaders, boards, managers and paid staff to wake up to this potential in our own backyard and start changing the way they talk about volunteers? The work we do is too important not to harness the passion and dedication of citizen support through volunteering.