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Choices About Time: Re-Thinking Voluntarism

By Tom Watson on March 13, 2009No Comment

Manipulating decimal points was befuddling even when we were in 4th grade and our neural synapses were firing more efficiently than they are now.  With age, the task has become a burden.  Part of the reason we are all looking for an economic turn-around is to spare us further personal arithmetic embarrassment.

So, let’s just use words.

Something on the order of $21-30 trillion in global market valuation worldwide has disappeared since October 2007, as measured by the MSCI World Index.  That is a 55% decline in a little more than a year. 

In the U.S., retirement account losses are nearly $2 trillion, a decline of 20% since the middle of 2007.  Moreover, Americans are ceasing to put new money in those accounts.  An AARP study found that 20% of workers over the age of 45 had stopped adding funds to their company-sponsored Individual Retirement Accounts.

Unemployment is flirting with 9%, which is an under-estimate if we include those who have stopped looking for a job.  It is likely that more job cuts are coming and that employment may not recover until well into 2010.

For nonprofits, financial resources are critical, but human resources are even more critical.  Volunteer leaders sit on Boards, open doors, host events, give hours and hours of time and intellect to nonprofit management.  Other volunteers work on the front lines in hospitals, schools, social service agencies, and museums.  They ladle food, sell napkins, transport patients, and deliver meals.  Indeed, it is volunteers who often power much of the service provision of nonprofits in local communities.

The economic news holds good and bad harbingers for the foundation of nonprofit voluntarism.  People have changed availability of time, and must make newly different choices about time.

First, the good news.  The economic crisis has reached its boney hand into the top echelons of corporations.  Whole firms have disappeared.  Executive suites have been downsized. But, fortunately no one (or almost no one) died.  This brain trust is still resident in its communities; it simply has more time on its hands than a year ago.  Now is the time to capture that time, and with it capture attention and commitment.  Now is the time for nonprofits to carefully examine their Boards and advisory bodies, to identify areas of needed strength, and to reach out to the newly unencumbered executives to recruit their involvement.  There is an entire cohort of extraordinary talent available at this very moment to become intellectually engaged in the work of nonprofits.  Intellectual engagement, if fully welcomed and employed, will ultimately lead to financial engagement over time.

It is true that economies can and do fall off a cliff and never recover.  Caesar’s Rome comes to mind.  Ancient Greece.  The Scythians.  But not many and not often.  And certainly not this one.  At some point in the next two years, all of this intellectual talent will once again be working 20 hour days on three continents for significant remuneration.  Now is the time to find and engage that talent in nonprofit missions, for the benefit of its near-term expertise and its long-term loyalty. 

Now the bad news.  The combination of devastated retirement funds, a period of lost income, and a failure to continue investment in retirement means that fewer Americans will be able to retire as planned, and few in retirement will be able to continue living on investment earnings.  The ranks of nonprofit volunteers were aging before the economic crisis.  They will, at least in the medium term, become unavailable for volunteer work at anything approaching past hours or flexibility.  Single-earner families may have to become two-income families in order to recover savings.  Another cohort of volunteers will be lost.  True, in the immediate period, voluntarism may increase with unemployment.  But nonprofits should not be lulled into a false sense of security.  The crunch is coming.

What is needed is strategy.  Nonprofits should begin now to re-think their volunteer programs.  Three dimensions should be part of the adjustment strategy. 

First, how can the hours of volunteer use be adjusted?  Can the work that volunteers do be re-organized to accommodate increased need for remunerative employment?  After all, what will have changed is not the ethic of commitment in civil society.  What has changed is the structure of time.  Accommodate time, and commitment is empowered.

Second, how can location be adjusted?  Can valuable roles or jobs for volunteers be carried out at home rather than at the nonprofit’s place of operations?  How can voluntarism and the essential community engagement that it creates be made compatible with the economic imperatives of remunerative work?  This will not be easy. After all, it is the long-standing frustration of many who wish to volunteer but also must work.  Still, the wise nonprofit will think creatively about how to retain its volunteers and their engagement with mission even though the place of volunteering may need to change.

Third, how can the realities of aging, irrespective of economy, be accommodated?  We may be an aging society, but we are not a dying society.  The younger generations those in high school and college especially represent an important leadership resource.  Life is linear.  They will be tomorrow’s leaders.  How can we reach them, with what communications tools, and with what roles?  Young people have no desire to be tokens.  They are smarter and better educated than generations that went before.   They want and demand meaningful and important roles when they volunteer.  How can they be added to the aging volunteer mix to invigorate a thinning volunteer corps and carry its mission forward, during the challenges of a weakened and recovered economy and beyond?

Neither the opportunities of volunteer leadership nor the challenges of volunteer service will be addressed by figuring out how we can more tightly cross our fingers.  As we have so often written, hope is not a strategy.  What is needed is purposeful and concentrated thinking.  It will require innovation.  It may require adjustment in the organization of work.  It may require entirely new approaches to services and management.  But, leadership and volunteers are the roots of nonprofits in their communities; without those roots growth is stunted, irrespective of how much or how little money is available.  A nonprofit is bound to community with Shakespeare’s “hoops of steel” of human resources, not financial resources.

The current economy’s impact on leadership and voluntarism should not be the tenth item on the nonprofit priority agenda, it should be among the top three.  The strategies to adjust to and/or take advantage of the current and mid-term economic picture will require concentrated and creative planning.

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