THE BLOG
06/25/2013 09:23 am ET Updated Aug 25, 2013

Unleashing the Power of the Volunteer Is a Great Idea!

Voluntarism in the U.S. has long been a powerful model for creating change at the national level and community impact at the local level while, at the same time, helping to bring together our citizens in a common goal.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report, Volunteering in the United States 2012, some 64.5 million Americans volunteered through or for an organization at least once between September 2011 and September 2012. Activity came in many categories, but volunteers were most likely to volunteer for religious organizations, followed by educational or youth service groups. About 41.6 percent of volunteers became involved with their main organization after being asked to volunteer, most often by someone in the organization, while some 42.1 percent became involved on their own initiative and approached the organization.

That style of voluntarism has long been at the center of the American experience, particularly in the context of development and growth of the nonprofit sector. Consider the decades-long impact of national organizations like the United Way, the American Red Cross, or Big Brothers/Big Sisters that depend on volunteer power to survive and thrive.

As one of the largest and most effective volunteer organizations in the world, The Junior League has more than 11 decades of experience in harnessing the power of the volunteer in creating change and community impact.

So, from our own vantage point as well as from the leadership examples of other great nonprofits, we agree that there is enormous potential value in creating an expanded national service model that harnesses the energy of young and old citizens alike to help solve pressing societal issues, ranging from children's welfare to adult literacy to public health.

But one size does not necessarily fit all.

Based on our experience in harnessing the power of more than 155,000 volunteers in four countries, we suggest the following guidelines for achieving success in a national service model:

Capture the volunteers' imagination from the start with the idea that what they are doing is incredibly important in ways that go beyond themselves as individuals.

  • Junior League members draw on the example of millions of women who have, over 112 years, put themselves at the service of their communities.

Consider the potential for impact around one or a few broad, nationally focused issues--say, education for at-risk populations--but look for ways to advance a specific issue with initiatives that are intensely grounded in the needs of the communities that are being served.

  • A key AJLI initiative, for example, is our Kids in the Kitchen anti-child-obesity initiative, now in its seventh year. While the program is currently being run by more than 200 of our 293 Leagues, how it is implemented is left entirely up to individual Leagues and their leaders. That gives them the freedom and flexibility to customize the program to meet their own community's needs.

Provide even the youngest service members with hands-on training in areas like volunteer management, project management and partner coordination.

  • For Junior League members, leadership training is an integral part of their membership experience, both within their Leagues and through AJLI's online learning programs. This training serves them well in all elements of their volunteer experience, including leadership in community organizations, school boards, or politics or even in starting their own nonprofit organizations.

National service benefits all nonprofits, so it's important to find ways to engage the broader nonprofit sector and other community partners from the outset, both in terms of implementation of joint projects and activities as well as creating community support for the initiatives.

  • Any major initiative by a Junior League almost always involves the active participation or support of community partners. And often the League initiative, once brought to maturity, is handed off to a community partner to run on a long-term basis.

Encourage service members to become lifelong volunteers and catalysts for civic entrepreneurism. When their national service is over, we (the many nonprofit organizations in this country) need to leverage that experience and create continued opportunities for all to serve.

  • The Junior League organization is multigenerational, and we celebrate the different skills, energy, time and interests each member brings. None of this is to suggest that an expanded national service initiative needs to be run like The Junior League. Far from it. But what we have learned in 11 decades hold true to this day--and we believe they are deeply relevant to the work of the Franklin Project.

First, Americans like to volunteer and do so in substantial numbers. This provides an enormous pool to draw on.

Second, effective volunteering requires an effective structure that funnels their work to productive ends.

And third, the critical element in the ultimate success of any project or initiative, as well as the organization that sponsors them, is that the people involved at all levels must truly believe that the work they are doing has a purpose and has the potential to produce lasting results.

It's a simple formula, but it works!

This post is part of a collaboration between The Huffington Post and The Aspen Institute, in which a variety of thinkers, writers and experts will explore the most pressing issues of our time. For more posts from this partnership, click here. For more information on The Aspen Institute, click here.

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