Thoughts on where to start to diversity your volunteer program

There is a well-known expression in the organizational management world, ‘Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.’

I keep returning to that quote when I read Lisa Joyslin’s post on the MAVA website, ‘Recognizing Racism in Volunteer Engagement.’  If you’re a volunteer manager and haven’t taken a read yet, please do so.

In the most straightforward way, Lisa calls out volunteer managers for tolerating implicit racism in our profession. We like to think we’re the good guys – facilitating the service of volunteers to improve our communities. All too often, though, the uncomfortable truth is that we’ve created barriers to full inclusion.

As Lisa’s article makes clear, it’s our systems that create the barriers to full equity and inclusion in our programs – our policies, our procedures, and the low-priority we often assign to this question.

That was certainly the case when I was a volunteer manager. I recruited and trained volunteers for an advocacy program that relied on volunteers to deliver its mission. The program offered just one highly-structured volunteer role. Candidates had to be well educated, demonstrate good writing skills, and have plenty of available time (and the means ) to meet the sizable required time commitment.

In other words, the volunteer role was tailored to fit a mostly white, middle aged or retired volunteer corps.

Back then, it wasn’t that my program overlooked equity and inclusion. Demographics-wise, we knew that our volunteers did not represent the clients that they served. We were always encouraged by our national organization to increase diversity. To some extent, we tried. When grants were available to recruit more Spanish-speaking volunteers, we made that a focus and increased the number of native Spanish speakers in the program. With other groups, we made no headway at all.

There are multiple reasons why our program struggled to diversify – more than this post will explore. Here are two prevailing reasons, though.

First, there was the question of priorities in an under-resourced nonprofit. Although increasing diversity was important, it never rose to the top of the list. Fundraising and managing heavy workloads absorbed staff energy. This reflected the reduced “sense of urgency” that Lisa references in her article.

Second, there was the volunteer role itself. As I mentioned, the role as structured did not accommodate itself to a diverse pool of volunteers. Our standard was to accept only the most qualified candidates. The way the role was defined, “most qualified” looked mostly white.

If I were to go back in time and own diversity as the pressing concern that it was and is, I would have started by re-examining this volunteer role.

Were there ways to break down the role into smaller tasks – tasks that were available to a greater cross-section of the community? I imagine I would have received pushback to this idea. The position worked well to meet the needs of our clients. Why sub-divide an effective role into smaller, perhaps harder-to-manage pieces?

But was the role working effectively? The high demands of the position made it a tough one to fill – even within our typical demographic. Fewer volunteers meant that our mission was not fully achieved, not to mention the larger objective or representing our community.

Perhaps you see a parallel here to your own volunteer program. Even if you offer an array of volunteer options, there may be some system – the application, the training requirements, the length of commitment, that prevents greater equity and inclusion. Chances are, this barrier is already making it harder to meet your mission. Could it be that inclusive systems are the most successful ones?