How it feels to work in a nonprofit where volunteers are considered as valuable as money

Volunteers and Strategic Plan - Twenty Hats“It was pure luck.”

That’s how CVA Karen Horowitz describes her good fortune to work as Director for Volunteer & Internship Engagement at an organization that recognizes volunteers at the very highest level   ̶  in the strategic plan.

The organization is Northern Virginia Family Service (NVFS), and I’ve written about them before. It’s rare for a nonprofit to include volunteer engagement as a strategic priority.

In fact, I tried to gauge the prevalence of this practice by floating the question in a LinkedIn strategic planning forum. Only five of the 74 respondents said they included volunteers in their strategic plan. Most people cited their board as evidence of high-level volunteer inclusion.

This lack of insight from Executive Directors, CEOs, and consultants makes me want to smack my head on the keyboard in frustration.

Clearly, there is work to be done.

Karen and Trina

Newly minted CVA Karen Horowitz (left) gets a hug from CCVA board member Trina Mayhan-Webb.

We know how essential it is for nonprofits to engage volunteers. We see how volunteers expand an organization’s capacity in exciting, mission-delivering ways.  But more often than not our leaders don’t fully grasp this potential. It’s up to us, the volunteer engagement experts, to educate our decision-makers about volunteer impact.

But let’s go back to Karen. Because assuming the role of advocate will make more sense when you understand how strategic inclusion simplifies your job.

Top-down support creates three big advantages:

  1. You need to spend less time and effort strategizing around buy-in – because you already have it.

Right now, Karen is working closely with Human Resources and a group of corporate volunteers to create a management development plan that will scale up the agency’s training program. The plan was easy to initiate because the VP of HR is comfortable turning to volunteers for support – in fact, she suggested the project.

“At another agency, I would have to build my support base one staff person at a time until I achieved agreement to move forward,” Karen observed. The project “would have been a much tougher sell without agency-wide buy-in.”

  1. You can make change happen on a wider scale.

NVFS is a large organization with over 25 programs and 17 sites.  The management development project will impact over 50 employees – and serve as an incentive for hiring quality staff in a competitive market.

There’s a ripple effect at a smaller scale, too. “Staff members see that volunteers are working out for other departments and want to start using them, too,” adds Karen.

  1. You spend your professional development time fine tuning your program – not putting out fires.

Karen is always on the lookout for ways to improve her professional skills.  She obtained her CVA credential this year, she attends conferences, signs on for webinars – and has coached with me. All of these resources help Karen think strategically about how to improve her program’s impact. Overall she is able to stay focused on her program’s goals and outcomes rather than learning new ways to get the work done.

What about the rest of us?

I suspect that high-level volunteer inclusion feels out of reach for many of us. When I talk with my clients, I see how important it is just to get the day-to-day stuff working better. It’s a big win recruit more volunteers or find a VMS system that works or expand the volunteer appreciation budget.

But – if you think of these achievements as steps on the path to greater acceptance, it’s possible to aim for something bigger. We don’t need to wait for our leadership. We can get things started from the middle. Change can occur from any direction.

Imagine a world where every nonprofit knows what it means to be a CVA and values volunteers as the powerful change agents that we know them to be. Imagine starting a new job just like Karen and knowing that your work is valued at the highest level. If you get thoughtful and strategic about your own personal goals – and figure out what kind of support you need to achieve them – you can make this happen, too.  Step by step.

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How does a #volmgr’s job get easier? By aiming for strategic inclusion of volunteers,