Is there a Crouching Tiger & Hidden Dragon in Your Non-Profit?
A deep appreciation of the mission of the non-profit sector has kept me going for the last two decades; taking up various roles to resource the organizations I am in. Frankly speaking, it is not an easy sector to stay in. In spite of the wonderful good that the various non-profits seek to bring to humanity and the world we live in and the admirable stories of people called and who tirelessly and sacrificially pour in their skills, time and talents in supporting the causes, a naggy frustration makes giving up and leaving the sector all so tempting.
While non-profit management struggles to “make ends meet” and sustain operations, the fact remains that there is a constant frustration of “not having enough”; inadequate funds, manpower shortages, lack of access to relevant skills to help the non-profit level up their operations, as well as the ever-present challenge of being visible and sustainable. And these challenges will continue to plague non-profits and threaten their very existence. It thus becomes more urgent, now than ever, to think and rethink what we can do to counter this challenge before non-profits start ceasing operations. Think of the impact on humanity and our world when that happens.
Yet, as I journeyed around the sector on my tour of duty, I have come to appreciate a hidden potential that requires an intentional awakening. It has the power to resource non-profit organizations to level up their operations, become visible and sustainable, address manpower shortage issues, help retain already scarce manpower while at the same time growing support for the cause and also building the community and the individuals who come on board to serve. This hidden potential is found in an office which most non-profits would be familiar with, but which is, as the Chinese would call it, 卧虎藏龙 (wòhǔcánglóng, or “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). Most non-profits already possess this powerful resource but the question remains if its potential has been fully tapped.
The Multiplier of Capability and Capacity
Within the Volunteer Management office, the person who holds the key to unlocking the great potential for the non-profit is the Volunteer Programme Manager. He or she plays the role of a multiplier for the organization.
It is not “new news” that the sector is facing manpower shortage. With increasing social needs, falling birth rates, complexity of work, lackluster remunerations and career progression as well as staff attrition, non-profits are struggling to stay afloat; advancing their causes on one hand and ensuring there are sufficient manpower resources to advance that cause.
The profession of social work, for example, has an annual shortfall of 130 social workers1. Rather than going down the same path or trying to get enough non-profit staff, we need to rethink our strategy in resourcing our causes.
One such new strategy or “new mental models” would involve harnessing the potential of volunteers. After all, the volunteer workforce presents itself as an alternative pool of human capital. And who, other than the volunteer programme manager, have the ability to access this pool of skills, which would otherwise not be available to non-profits.
I remember a volunteer management practitioner once reminded me, volunteers differs from paid staff predominantly in regard to pay scale, not competency. And true enough, non-profits can access skills including legal, IT, marketing, research, medical etc through the volunteer programme. These skills are traditionally not as accessible through the non-profit’s Human Resources office because limited financial resources would make it literally impossible to put some of these professionals on payroll.
As such, besides service and event-based volunteers, non-profits now have the opportunity more than ever to engage pro bono volunteers.
And the numbers speak for themselves. The recent Individual Giving Survey (IGS) study2 conducted by the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) indicated that more in Singapore are volunteering; 1 in 3 volunteer and the total number of volunteer hours doubled from that in 2014 to 121 million hours in 2016.
A much more interesting finding is that there is a significant increase in volunteering in the 35-54 years old age range. These are working adults who may also bring with them their pro bono skills. 29% and 41% of the respondents also indicated that they volunteer with their colleagues and friends respectively. 19% volunteer through their employers. All these go to show the potential of accessing skilled based volunteers. The question is, are non-profits harnessing this potential through the volunteer programme to help level up the capability and capacity of their organization? This would, in turn, translate to increased impact of the work of the non-profits.
The Multiplier of Donations
While donations are never the primary focus of volunteer programmes, it is interesting to note that the IGS 2016 study also found that volunteers donate five times that of non-volunteers. This means to say that when non-volunteers donate $100, volunteers donate $500. One might guess that the engagement of volunteers helps the volunteers to better appreciate the needs and cause they support. The volunteer programme could thus be said to also help encourage sustainable giving over the long run for the non-profit.
The Multiplier of Reach & Support
Through the volunteer programme, volunteers can also become ambassadors for the causes they support. Other than access to their volunteers’ networks, non-profits can also count on their engaged volunteers to help spread the word about the cause and recommend giving, whether in time, talent or treasures, to the cause. Increasingly, I have also noticed a few corporate embarking on employee informed giving; they turn to their staff to nominate causes they support for consideration for adoptiong by their company for their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes.
The Multiplier of Passion & Staff Retention
Personally, I have always been very encouraged by my volunteers. While many will feel I am noble to work in the non-profit sector, I have the same admiration for my volunteers too. They inspire me because they are doing what they are doing as volunteers, over and above their own work. It humbles me when I think of how they still choose to offer their time and talents amidst their work and family commitment. And their passion does rub off on staff as well. I recall working with a group of volunteers who would, without fail, come every Saturday to help organize the book section in the thrift shop. And their effort, though it does not involve any direct work with beneficiaries, translated into much-needed funds being raised for the charity the thrift shop is supporting. One day, as I was having a meeting with the volunteer leaders, one of the other volunteers came in and cheekily remarked how their little effort of organizing the book section had also rubbed off on staff who are in charge of the other sections of the thrift shop.
Besides multiplying passion, volunteers do also help with staff retention. Having worked in the non-profit sector for some time now, I am aware of the job demands on non-profit staff; they have primary roles as well as many other secondary roles. Because of lack of funds and manpower shortage, it is not rare to find social workers having to be event planners for community events, graphic designers or even emcees. And if the workload is not managed well, it could cause non-profit staff to burn out or get increasingly frustrated with not being able to perform their primary roles and/or with doing something which they may not have the skills or experience for. It is here that the volunteer programme may help alleviate the situation. With more hands on deck and the access to the various skills and experience the community provides, non-profit staff may once again focus on what they need to do and keep burnout at bay.
Is your volunteer programme a Crouching Tiger & Hidden Dragon? Awaken the potential of your volunteer programme today.
1 Social work: One of the hottest mid-career options in town | The Straits Times | 19 May 2015
2 Individual Giving Survey 2016 Findings | National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre | 15 Mar 2017