Why the Loss Leader Approach to Volunteerism is not the Answer

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I, along with many other civic, philanthropic and corporate leaders, was recently honored to attend the Points of Light Institute's 20th anniversary ceremony at Texas A&M University where President Barack Obama and former President George H. W. Bush spoke. This historic event honored the enormous advances of the service movement launched two decades ago. It also served as a forum to encourage innovative ideas about service as a solution to many of the challenges facing our communities today. It was inspirational and thought-provoking.

As I listened to our esteemed speakers, two questions struck me: everyone has such good intentions, but are good intentions good enough? And is it enough to merely encourage Americans to volunteer? To both questions, I found myself answering "no." When it comes to making headway on critical issues through volunteerism, we must remember that this is not an area where we can make it up in volume alone.

Simply encouraging more people to step up - without giving serious consideration to the critical skills and knowledge needed to make an impact - will never solve our communities' most pressing issues, including hunger, homelessness, crime and disparities in education and healthcare. If volunteerism is to be a powerful driver of social impact and business value, government, nonprofit and business leaders must focus not just on more volunteers, but on more productive volunteering. We must look to reimagine service in a way that responds more deeply to the needs of the nonprofit communities and the clients they serve.

The nation's renewed excitement, engagement and commitment to citizen action is palpable. Voices from DC to LA, from President Obama and his wife Michelle, to Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashton Kutcher, are encouraging Americans to move from spectator to contributor. The message is pervasive, motivating and compelling. And it's working. The number of volunteer forces in the United States is on the rise. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, despite the challenges of tough economic times, roughly one million more people volunteered their time or services in 2008 than in 2007.

Our nation's impassioned plea to "give back" is being heard loud and clear. The Corporation for National and Community Service also reports that nearly 62 million Americans contributed eight billion hours of volunteer service last year. But unfortunately, all too often, too many people, with good intentions, are given volunteer tasks that are beneath their level of skill and knowledge and ultimately will not drive sustained change. The key to our success as a service nation is not just getting people to care, but also helping them figure out how they can make the greatest difference, given their time and their skills.

While we within the service community can be proud of the tremendous advances we have made over the course of the past two decades, we cannot limit the measure of our success to transactional metrics such as numbers of volunteers and hours of service. We must remember that countless volunteers and endless volunteer hours, in and of themselves, are not the goal, nor will they achieve the goal. They are a means to making a positive contribution to society, but it's what those people do with their time that's what is really important. We must design volunteer efforts that can truly make an enduring difference.

We -- government, business and nonprofit leaders -- must challenge ourselves to reimagine service. To do this, we must clearly define volunteer roles and expectations. We must focus on matching talents and skills of volunteers to the needs of nonprofits. We must place top priority not only on recruiting, but retaining, volunteer talent. We must invest in the time and the tools necessary to successfully manage volunteers and create a positive and impact-driven experience.

We can no longer be satisfied with simply growing our nation's volunteer forces. In order to drive good intentions to greater impact, we must reimagine what volunteerism looks like and can achieve. Join the dialogue on how we can, together, reimagine what volunteer service can do.