Volunteers, decision-making and power shift in civil society organizations

By April 26, 2021 CSO Standard, NMedia

We recently talked to Nichole Cirillo, executive director of the International Association of Volunteer Effort (IAVE) about empowered and effective volunteers, which is part of the commitment #9 of the Global Standard for CSO Accountability.

With members in over 70 countries, IAVE consists of a global network of leaders of volunteering which shares the belief of the power of volunteering for solving the world’s most pressing problems. IAVE’s four areas of work are: advocacy; knowledge development and dissemination; network development and mobilization and convening. Among IAVE’s priority areas is providing support to national leadership structures for volunteering. The UN Volunteers (UNV) have recognized that the best way for volunteering is through volunteering structures, that is, participating in a structured way to be more effective. Therefore, volunteering leadership structures are particularly important.

GS: Why is volunteering important for CSOs work?

NC: There is a wide range of benefits from volunteering -from mental and physical health benefits to preparing for a job and making a person feel connected to a community. In this regard, when a person volunteers, she becomes more connected to a particular community which, in turn, helps increase awareness about the issues upon which they do not often come face to face. For instance, when volunteers plant trees, they become more aware about climate change issues.

There are also benefits for the organizations recruiting volunteers. Thus, it is important that volunteering becomes mutually beneficial. For this to happen, an impactful engagement of volunteers is required.

Volunteering also entails benefits to society at large.  When a volunteer goes out, she will engage and develop relationships in a community, take action and tackle local issues. Thus, volunteers become aware of issues and empowered; all of which encompass a virtuous cycle of democratic values. In conclusion, there are benefits at the individual, organizational and societal level.

In 2015, the UN Secretary General issued a statement on the imperative of volunteering for advancing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, that is, recognizing the importance of integrating volunteering into peace and development.

People volunteer time, treasure (money), talent and voice (which is related to activism). While volunteering voice tends to be louder within civil society, there are also private corporations increasingly taking a stand in terms of racial equity or climate justice, and using their corporate voice in this regard.

GS: Concerning the Global Standard commitment #9 on empowered and effective staff and volunteers, which actions or practices could be promoted in this regard?

NC: There are a few resources available for managing volunteers. For instance, Volunteer Ireland, in cooperation with other organizations, developed quality standards for managing volunteers, as well as a volunteer management health check guide.

I would like to highlight a few elements. First, it is important that volunteers are kept safe. For this, an organization must assess risks and put in place safeguards to ensure that the people who are volunteering get protected. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, this became an issue, and some people were less willing to volunteer due to the lack of sufficient safeguards in place. However, we also witnessed other people volunteering who kept themselves safe during the pandemic, for example, through virtual volunteering (for tasks that could be conducted remotely) or by delivering groceries or medicines at a person’s house who was in self-isolation. The other side of the coin is the safety of the beneficiaries when promoting volunteering, that is, where an organization must have safety standards to which volunteers are subjected to as well. It is important that both staff and volunteers commit to a set of behaviors to deliver a service to the people, particularly to vulnerable people such as the elderly or children.

In addition, volunteering must be conceived as any other project with a well-developed plan, clear goals, activities and a specific timeline, while also manage people to achieve them. Thus, successful volunteering entails effective management and communication, so volunteers understand how their contributions fit within a project or organization. This is important in situations where corporations contact CSOs and indicate their interest to have their employees volunteer and the CSOs must be tempted to say yes, but there is not a sufficiently clear mutual benefit for both parties. If so, everyone may end up disappointed. Further, it is important communicating the results from volunteering, that is, have the organization communicate the results back to the volunteer.

One of our IAVE’s guiding principles is inclusion -in particular- by ensuring that opportunities for vulnerable groups are available and valued. In other words, organizations must create an inclusive volunteering environment, in particular, from all ranges of vulnerable populations. In the USA, the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) have reflected on how to create a racially and ethnically diverse volunteer programs while eliminating barriers for people who might not be traditionally engaged in volunteering.

When promoting volunteers abroad or recruiting foreign volunteers, organizations must also ensure that they are the right fit and sensitive to the local culture, and that work is done in a true sense of partnership.

GS: Can you share examples of volunteers participating in decision-making within organizations?

NC: Unfortunately, not many organizations recognize volunteers as a key stakeholder group to whom they must be accountable nor do they engage volunteers in decision-making. Volunteers tend to be overlooked within civil society, which reflects a lack of understanding of the importance of volunteering. However, it is pretty standard that an organization conducts an evaluation of its own volunteering experience by asking what did volunteers enjoy and how can it be improved for the future.

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