Friday, November 09, 2012

The Bureaucratization of Volunteering

At Volunteer Ireland's national conference I was asked to be part of a panel on the bureaucratization of volunteering. Below were my introductory remarks that a few folks though I ought to share on my blog.

I see the bureaucratization of volunteering as a little like the changes that occur in the relationship of a  couple, beginning in courtship and dating, and through marriage and beyond.

In the beginning of the relationship, everything is new and exciting, and the possibilities seem to have no boundaries. Both parties might have some similar ideas about where the relationship is headed, but they might have different ideas about what the most important milestones are. One party might want to jump right in while the other has vetting process that has to occur.
Although the process might start with episodic encounters one of the parties eventually begins to feel that the casual nature of the relationship can only go on for so long that there ought to be some form of commitment.

And so we find ourselves in the engagement phase. There are still some freedoms but the boundaries are becoming clearer. Definitions of what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t might not be documented but frequently we learn that there are things we can’t do any more.

As the organization or relationship grows, a pressure emerges to follow the path that others before us have followed, that being to bring some form of contractual agreement to bear.  At this stage, while some boundaries become firmly documented, others  seem to simply grow over the passage of time.

In some situations, the rules that have become entrenched seem to get in the way of why the two parties came together in the first place. Sometimes a volunteer wonders if volunteering with another organization might bring back some of the fulfillment, seemingly lost in the current arrangement.

In other situations the two parties stay together, despite it not being good for each of them any longer. Without meaning to, or perhaps even realizing it, both parties stand in the way of what the other could accomplish and also, accept a lower standard for themselves in what they could achieve. 

In some situations however, the formalization of the relationship brings about a stability and foundation upon which something tremendous can be built. Despite the formalization, there is a conscious effort to avoid status quo thinking, and also to avoid restricting the aspirations and actions of the other party.

So if the bureaucratization of volunteering as a little like the changes that occur in the relationship of a couple, we ought to strive for just the right amount, and in doing, have the perfect marriage.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

How today’s “data is man’s best friend” attitude can lead you far astray

 While most of my posts are specific to volunteer management, this one reaches out more to fundraisers and IT folks. 

In business I can very easily justify spending $100,000 if it guaranteed (i.e. no risk) that  it  would reduce costs by $100,000 or boost sales enough that the profit from each sale would add up to be $100,000 a year for the next three years. (I get there is rarely a situation where there is no risk, but let’s work under that assumption to keep things simple for now.) By spending the $100,000 I would save/gain $300,000 over the three years and in the end, be $200,000 ahead!  .  It would still be an easy justification if the net effect on the bottom line was +$50,000 a year.  By spending the $100,000 I would save/gain $150,000 over the three years and, in the end, be $50,000 ahead!  One could even argue that if there truly was no risk, it would be justifiable to spend $100,000 once to create an extra $33,667 on the bottom line for three years. The business would then end up $1,000 ahead three years down the road.   It’s only $1,000 but that’s still $1,000 (remember that in this scenario there was no risk).

As a business owner, it would be easy to justify any of the above because I would be trading money in my pocket for more money in my pocket. That sounds simple and in business it is. I get the feeling though these days that the charitable sector sees this just like it would be seen in business. Although I am a big advocate of charities and nonprofits adopting appropriate strategies from the for-profit sector (and visa versa), this is one that I don’t see as appropriate.  While in the business case, I would be trading money in my pocket for more money in my pocket, in a charity’s case, it would be trading money in the donor’s pocket for both money in the charity’s pocket (the pocket that does the good stuff the donor wants to support) and also the pocket of the technology providers.

In some of the chatter I read and hear about donor databases connecting seemlessly to membership databases or volunteer databases and donor databases talking to each other etc. etc., I have seen too many examples lately where the mentality seems to be, “If we spent $X and we think it will generate donations anything greater than $X, it is worth pursuing”. I have various issues with this but there is only one I want to focus on today.

Picture for a moment that you have recently donated $1,000 to the ABC charity to help them _______ (insert your passionate thing here). If later you found out that it was a commissioned fundraiser who earned $990 parting you and your $1,000, you who likely not be very happy that only $10 went to (insert your passionate thing here). With just a slight change in the scenario, would you feel any better if there was no commissioned fundraiser but after the new data analysis technology that sought you out as a potential donor was paid for, the net result of your donation was that $990 went to the technology provider and staff time on the project and $10 went to (insert your passionate thing here)?

But it is still a positive return on investment for the charity. The data that was analyzed/shared/extrapolate etc.  suggested that you would give and you did.  In fact, it is the same ROI of the one   scenario above in the for-profit business examples. The 1% ROI was fine in the for-profit model but apparently not here.  Of course those are exaggerated numbers and everyone reading this likely already understands  the importance of infrastructure costs and how these need the support of donors. I get it too and that is not what I am at issue with here.

The big questions to leave you with are ….

•    When you are looking at a new expenditure for analyzing or sharing or extrapolating data for the sole purpose of raising more donations, what ROI is acceptable to your organization?
•    Perhaps more importantly, what would be acceptable to the donors making the new donations?
•    If the donors knew the portion of their donation that went into the analyzing / sharing / extrapolation of data that was spent getting them to consider donating, would they still have given?
•    Where do new infrastructure costs related solely to getting more donations cross the line?