How the Service Enterprise Initiative Drives Nonprofit Capacity Building

Sep 13, 2017

By Karen Baker, Chief Service Officer, CaliforniaVolunteers

Karen Baker

Nearly a decade ago, we noticed a troubling trend in California: one out of every three volunteers was leaving their service site within the first six months of their experience. Simply put, California nonprofits were not providing solid recruitment, on-boarding, training and recognition of volunteers. Simultaneously, volunteer centers that had this knowledge lacked the investment dollars needed to put together a business model that would allow them to assist nonprofits in their markets for a reasonable fee.

At Points of Light’s Conference on Volunteering and Service in 2009, companies, volunteer centers, service commissions and nonprofits learned about new research reported from the TCC Group confirming that only 15 percent of nonprofits were operating as “Service Enterprises.” These were organizations that engaged volunteers, and which outperformed their peers in every measure of organizational capacity, including leadership, management, adaptive and technical capacities. At the same time, the Corporation for National and Community Service happened to announce a new grant opportunity, the Volunteer Generation Fund, which could potentially put these seemingly disconnected developments together into one grand idea by providing the funding needed for nonprofits to create a business model to scale Service Enterprises.

It was the perfect storm. By bringing together four leading volunteer centers — OneOC, The Volunteer Center Serving San Francisco and San Mateo Counties, HandsOn Central California and The Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership — CaliforniaVoluteers was able to provide the resources needed to create the Service Enterprise curriculum. The program now had a strong foundation, but wasn’t national. In 2012, Points of Light joined the initiative to further develop and scale the program.

Today, the Service Enterprise Initiative is a national program that helps organizations transform the way they engage human capital for social good. Through an assessment, training, coaching and certification model, selected nonprofits are equipped with the tools and technical assistance needed to transform their operations to better meet their missions. In fact, research shows that Service Enterprises are just as effective as their peers — yet they operate at almost half the average annual budget. For every $1 they invest in effective volunteer engagement, Service Enterprises can also expect $3-$6 in return through more effective program delivery. More than 300 nonprofits across the country have become certified Service Enterprises, joining a growing movement of organizations dedicated to meeting their missions more effectively using the power of volunteers.

This is true for Connolly Ranch, a nonprofit in Napa, California, that connects children and family to nature through farm-based education to inspire the next generation of environmental stewards. By becoming a certified Service Enterprise, “our leadership and staff has learned … that our return on volunteer investment was $4 for every $1 invested! This allows us to maximize what our community contributes to our organization and helps us better achieve our mission,” said Jennifer Fotherby, executive director at Connolly Ranch.

Habitat for Humanity in Fresno has also transformed the way it engages volunteers through the Service Enterprise Initiative. Now, volunteers are key to the success of the organization’s core mission to provide affordable housing. They are integrated into operational areas like fund development, and drive critical parts of Habitat’s programming, including their Neighborhood Revitalization and ReStores programs. This has helped shape a culture of volunteering at the organization. “When I think of the Service Enterprise Initiative,” said Matthew Grundy, CEO of Habitat for Humanity in Fresno. “I think of two words: investment and focus. It was an investment to participate in SEI that focused our efforts to build on our solid foundation, making sure our organizational culture embraced volunteers 2.0. Service Enterprise asked the right questions and we have experienced significant impact in moving our organization forward.”

For CaliforniaVolunteers, our proudest moment over the years was recognizing that not only was the Service Enterprise Initiative going to happen, but that it played to everyone’s strengths. We knew that the volunteer centers in California had the know-how, that researchers – such as Sarah Jane Rehnborg and Peter York – had the wisdom to develop a diagnostic tool, and that Points of Light was the right player to ensure credible national expansion. Our role was to put the deal together and get out of the way, and the rest is history.

The Service Enterprise Initiative today stands as a powerful tool to build nonprofit’s organizational capacity and is a resource they can use to help them better engage volunteers. Last year, more than 80 percent of Service Enterprises reported an increase in both volunteers and skills-based volunteers, which represents an additional 207,000 volunteers and 31,000 skills-based volunteers helping nonprofits and communities. And California? Far from being a laggard in volunteer engagement, the nonprofit sector in California now leads the national Service Enterprise movement and is on the cutting edge of innovative volunteer service models.

To learn how your organization can become a Service Enterprise, or how you can train your affiliates or partners to become certified, visit or email [email protected].

Amanda Knowles