• November 2010

Dr. Alice Waagen extols the value of strategic volunteerism

By Dr. Alice Waagen
Founder and President
Workforce Learning

When you can’t afford to hire someone to help your staff with professional development, help them grow personally and professionally by encouraging them to volunteer at the nonprofit of their choice.

But choose wisely.

The “right” organization to work with is one that matches the employee’s goals, skills, and schedule.

Whether serving on a task force for a professional association or giving time to a nonprofit organization focused on creating a positive social impact, volunteering can be a goldmine for skill building and professional and personal enrichment.

Consider the testimony that a colleague of mine recently offered.

“I always wanted to make a difference in my work, help people or the organization in some meaningful way, but the politics of my job frequently undermines the work I try to do,” she said. “So I seek out ways to give back in the community. I get much greater return for my investment outside of my paying job.”

My colleague has hit on a universal truth: giving back feels good to the mind, body, and soul. The key to success, however, is to match your goals with the needs of the organization you choose.

I know from experience that choosing the wrong nonprofit to work with can be as bad as picking the wrong full-time job.

A few years ago I rashly committed to a volunteer assignment without doing my homework. I quickly discovered that I wasn’t comfortable with how the organization was managed — and then found out that my assignment entailed a three-year commitment. I had bitten off more than I could chew and I had to resign. Unfortunately, all involved viewed my resignation poorly.

Since then I have followed the simple guidelines below and have had only positive experiences as a volunteer.

Before jumping into a situation, encourage your staff members to do their homework and ask themselves some tough questions.

  • Pre-engagement questions: What is your personal goal or objective in serving this group? How will it be met by this effort? What are the job duties? How do they match your key competencies and interests? What is the tenure of the engagement? How does one resign? Will you be expected to recruit your replacement? Will you be expected to do fundraising? How do you feel about that?
  • Throughout the engagement, ask yourself: Are your talents being fully utilized? Does the work match your pre-engagement research? Are you getting something back for your giving? Is this a valuable experience? Do you have a sense that you are making a difference? Are you making new friends? Learning new things? Having fun?
  • Post-engagement questions: Would you recommend this organization to a friend? And would YOU work for them again?

Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits

One of my first consulting clients was a small, struggling nonprofit. Being recently sprung from a career in the for-profit corporate world, I was certain that I could “fix” this organization’s internal issues. After all, I had a long career solving workplace issues for large businesses and believed the nonprofit world would certainly benefit from all this wisdom and experience.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Although there may be parallel functions and processes in for-profit and nonprofit enterprises, in truth, the two sectors are distinctly and profoundly different.

That is why I consider Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits such an important read. Authors Leslie R. Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant have produced a groundbreaking work that shifts the focus away from traditional metrics for measuring nonprofit success (such as operating ratios and management efficiencies) and looks instead at social impact.

Methodology: The authors went looking for “high-impact nonprofits,” and after conducting dozens of intensive surveys and interviews to determine which organizations had the most positive impact, they selected 12 organizations that are most effective in accomplishing their missions.

The Top 12: America’s Second Harvest, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, City Year, Environmental Defense, The Exploratorium, Habitat for Humanity, The Heritage Foundation, the National Council of La Raza, Self-Help, Share Our Strength, Teach for America, and Youth Build.

The findings: Interestingly, Crutchfield and Grant initially hypothesized they would find some distinct quality inherent in the leadership of successful nonprofits. Instead, however, they found that the real secret to these organizations’ success was their ability to work with and through other organizations and individuals — the “it takes a village” concept.

Try it for yourself: The authors encourage us to borrow from the best in the business and adopt these six strategies:

  • Work with governments and advocate for policy change.
  • Harness market forces and see business as a powerful partner.
  • Convert individual supporters into evangelists for the cause.
  • Build and nurture nonprofit networks, treating other groups as allies.
  • Adapt to the changing environment.
  • Share leadership, empowering others to be forces for good.

The bottom line: Crutchfield and Grant provide us with a new way to evaluate nonprofit management, one that will yield real results in the worlds nonprofits seek to serve. For anyone involved in the nonprofit sector — whether as a staff member, volunteer, or donor — this book is a must-read.

Click here to buy the book.


About Alice Waagen

Alice Waagen, Ph.D., is president and founder of Workforce Learning LLC, a leadership development company she founded in 1997. In the past three years alone, more than 125 leaders from 24 organizations have graduated from Waagen’s unique leadership-development workshop series. Learn more about Waagen’s work at www.workforcelearning.com.

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