Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Business of Volunteer Resources Management: A Conversation

The article below is reprinted from Charity Channel. I have chosen as a topic here for a variety of reasons;

A. Far too often I hear intelligent people assume that when I speak of nonprofits adopting a business-like approach, they assume that I mean that bottom line is the only important consideration. Martin's views help explain how a business-like approach can help a nonprofit.

B. I am concerned by the number of times I hear, "But that's not how we do things here," as though the organization must feel it has no room for organizational improvement.

C. The world is changing at an ever-quickening pace and the nonprofit sector is no absolved from this pace. In the absence of the ability to change nimbly, organizations become outdated. This caused poorer service deliver than desirable and even complete closure.

(Also see Nonprofits need to think more like for profits for some of my own thought on the topic.)

The Business of Volunteer Resources Management: A Conversation by Celeste Sauls-Marks

Recently, Volunteer Management Review talked with Martin Cowling, the CEO of People First-Total Solutions in Melbourne, Australia, about his views on the application of business techniques and entrepreneurialism in the field of volunteer resources management. His responses to our questions follow.

1. You have said that volunteer resources managers should use a business-like approach to their programs. Why do you feel this is becoming more important?

On one level I am not sure it is becoming more important as this has always been my view…the mission of the VRM is to ensure the organisation’s mission is met whilst providing volunteers with the best possible experience.

To do this within the limited resources and budgets we have requires us to employ a business like approach. Having said that the following changes are impacting on our field: In many places the resources available in the non-profit sector for volunteer development are being frozen or reduced…we need to do more with the same budgets we had …or less. Funders are demanding that we demonstrate we are targeted, efficient and responsible. They are looking for “returns” that match the funds they are investing.

“Baby boomers and Generation X” are looking for programs that meet their needs to give in particular ways within their specific time fames.

We need take a business like approach to how and whom we target in recruitment. The “scattergun” advertising approach if it ever worked is not an efficient way to harness the community in our work.

My only caveat is we must not let the “business” of doing the work squeeze out the human element of volunteering. Business techniques should be about enhancing the human element not minimizing it.

2. What role does entrepreneurialism play in volunteer resources management?

I believe it is imperative for Managers of Volunteers whether paid or unpaid need to see themselves as “social entrepreneurs” marrying innovative approaches and standard business skills to impact on social issues. This is a very different role to the traditional volunteer manager who in some organizations is seen as a babysitter or entertainer.

3. How can volunteer resources managers be more entrepreneurial?

We need to be clear about what our own personal vision is for the volunteer program. This requires us to take the time to articulate it…planning time is something volunteer managers neglect in their haste to be maintaining programs. We need to measure the effectiveness of what we do: e.g.… How does this program impact on the mission of our organisation?

We need to tell the organisation what the impact of our work and approach is. Organisational and government resources will only be available to us if we can demonstrate the return we make.

VRMS could recruit volunteers from the community who are entrepreneurial in their views and work to work with us in a “senior volunteer administration or management” role. This means exposure to entrepreneurial ideas and influences, the ability to multiply personal workload through deploying innovative thinkers and openness to developing or expanding entrepreneurial programs.

We also need to communicate what the impact of our work is on the organisation in terms people understand.

4. The work that volunteers engage in is changing. For instance, we are seeing an increase in episodic volunteering and youth engagement. How does this impact volunteer resources managers?

The not for profit sector is facing one of our biggest challenges. The people who founded many of our institutions and have kept them going in the west are aging, and retiring form volunteer work. The attitudes being brought in by younger people who are living in a 7 day a week work environment, with more entertainment and study options than at any other time in history and the most incredible communication technologies ever seen have a completely different attitude to how they want to volunteer. How non-profits will delver services in this new environment needs to be considered urgently as it will not be the same in the 21 st Century.

The key thing is we need to understand that our community is as passionate about the world as any other generation has ever been but they want to engage in a very different way. For example, kids under 25 in Australia are passionately concerned about the environment yet membership of conservation organizations in that country is at low ebb. We have to find a way to bridge this disconnect. For example in the wake of Katrina in the US and the Tsunami in Asia, millions of people sought to find ways to engage with helping people in need. How do we harness this passion?

We have been talking about episodic volunteering and corporate volunteering since Nancy Macduff coined the phrase in the early 1990s but we are acting as if it’s a new trend now.

5. If volunteer resources managers change their approach to their programs, what results do you anticipate they will see?

  • They will be seen as the lead part of their agency and a powerhouse.
  • They will have a more rewarding job.
  • They will not have a shortage of volunteers

"Copyright © 2005 Celeste Sauls. All rights reserved. This article is reprinted with permission from and the author of this article. The author holds the copyright to the article. To receive the entire issue by email each week, visit and use the subscription form. To seek permission for reprints, visit For more information, contact CharityChannel at"