Where Can Volunteers Do the Most Good?

Jul 15, 2014

This post is by Gary Bagley, executive director of New York Cares – an affiliate of HandsOn Network and Points of Light. He provides a great example of how a volunteer action center strengthens local volunteer engagement. For more about HandsOn Network and local volunteer action centers, go to www.handsonnetwork.org. 

gary_bagley_for_blog.jpgGary Bagley, second from right, works with volunteers on revitalizing Riverside Park on New York Cares Day.

Since the report in February that volunteering numbers are down in the U.S., I have spent much of my time telling well-meaning people poised to make a call to service to please put down the bullhorn. A call to service is important, but a greater problem needs to be addressed first – improving the ability of nonprofits, schools and community groups to use volunteers strategically to drive impact. 

At New York Cares, we think of volunteers as employees who get "paid" with something other than money. That "something else" may be different for each of us. Regardless, the same tenets that make for top-notch HR practices hold true for volunteer management. If a business mismanages its employees, it will lose them. New York Cares was founded in 1987, expressly because so many schools and nonprofits lack staff, money and know-how to use volunteers effectively, if at all.

Our strategies are twofold:

  • We provide free volunteer management to our Community Partners, allowing them to outsource their volunteer needs to us, at no cost to them or their clients. We have full-time staff who manage every program detail. They diagnose community partner needs, develop programs, create curricula, buy supplies and recruit and train volunteers and volunteer leaders.
  • We also train Community Partners to grow programs by leveraging volunteers. In 2012, we launched our Volunteer Impact Program (VIP) to go beyond our outsourcing model. During the three-year pilot phase, we developed multiyear volunteer management plans with 15 Community Partners and provided ongoing training and staff support for achieving the goals. The results were dramatic. Our VIP participants from year one had a 138 percent increase in the number of volunteer projects, compared to a 29 percent increase in nonparticipating Community Partners. We are committed to scaling up our VIP work by expanding to more nonprofits through a combination of training and consulting services with New York Cares. These VIP results reaffirm our belief that the question is not whether volunteers are willing and available, but rather, how to better prepare organizations to use volunteers well.

By the way, the numbers may be down nationally, but this is not the case at New York Cares. We orient approximately 18,000 new volunteers annually, and this number is holding strong. Thank you to all of New York Cares’ volunteers, current and future, who are committed to making NYC a better place to live for all New Yorkers.

If you would like to read more of my musings, go here or follow me on Twitter at @GBagley_NYCares.