05/15/2014 01:27 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2014

Impact Leadership -- A New Era of Volunteering in the United States

Volunteers have played a vital role in the United States since the founding of our nation. The spirit of neighbor helping neighbor is prevalent in all facets of our society. Non-profit organizations including the American Red Cross and the YWCA play a vital role in every community by providing critical services of health, education, disaster relief and other areas.

Non-profits rely on volunteers to accomplish their mission and therefore must establish strategies and the bandwidth to effectively attract, engage and manage a volunteer workforce. Establishing clear priorities, defined outcomes and a strong foundation for soliciting and engaging financial and volunteer support are critical to the success of a non-profit.

The private sector plays a vital role in enabling and supporting the mission and operations of non-profits. Individuals and corporations provide the financial and human capital necessary for non-profits to deliver their services. This partnership requires clarity of need and a shared understanding of expectations of both groups.

Many non-profits rely on private sector partners who see the support of communities and causes are part of their civic responsibility. The formation of a relationship between non-profits and businesses is based on understanding where each is positioned and how the private sector partner or funder's goals align with those of the non-profit. The non-profit should assess and be decisive about the type of support it requires including board leadership. Mutual understanding can arise as the relationship grows, and can be strengthened when non-profits educate partners' senior leadership on its goals, needs and accomplishments.

When a non-profit is unclear about what it wants to achieve, how it will achieve its goals, or cannot concisely communicate what it is engaged in, it risks deflecting a potential partner or failing to effectively utilize an existing partner's skills. Private sector entities assess the non-profit sector in the same way that they would approach a business acquisition, and then identify those who are best in their area of focus and who can offer the most value for their investment.
The recognition by a non-profit of its own needs and constraints is a first step to understanding how volunteers can help. Non-profits should not seek support for things that do not address specific needs and its capacity.

The private sector can enable non-profits' recognition of needs and constraints by providing operational analysis and helping non-profits set a reasonable number of realistic goals in areas that are a high priority. An outcome can be a larger plan that associates measurable outcomes with the organization's goals, methods for identifying needs, and a strategy for training and obtaining volunteers.

Calculating the impact of volunteers can drive volunteer engagement when individuals and their employers know that they are making a difference. A non-profit should define the impact being made, and then communicate the who, what, where and how that is being influenced. Sharing successful case studies that show impact on a community or an issue rather than simply reporting on a project is one communication tool that can enhance perceptions of impact.

One step in the calculation of volunteer impact is recognizing the variables and factors that influence what a non-profit is trying to achieve. This positions the non-profit to be realistic about its impact and the role that volunteers perform. Once this is understood, communication strategies can drive realization and motivate current supporters as well as the enlistment of additional volunteers. Recognition and appreciation shown for volunteer participation are additional motivational tools.

Additional issues critical to engaging and managing volunteers are the creation of the next generation of volunteers, understanding each volunteer's unique skills to ensure the effective use of talent in alignment with a non-profit's needs, minimizing the cost of volunteering especially when competing with the ease of "doing good" via online support for causes as well as weekend volunteering fatigue, setting expectations for the role of volunteers as crucial participants "outside" of the non-profit's own employees, and being sure that training volunteers is in the mission of the non-profit.