Volunteers, part 1: Nonprofits face big challenges

By Todd Cohen

A surge in service in the U.S. has handed the giving sector the huge job of gearing itself to match its needs with those of volunteers.

And as government shifts its investment and role in engaging volunteers, a critical task will be to better match volunteer resources with the urgent social needs facing our communities.

That is the perspective of Michelle Nunn, CEO of the Points of Light Institute, an organization created by then-President George H.W. Bush to boost volunteerism.

Since 1989, when Bush formed what then was known as the Points of Light Foundation, the number of Americans volunteering has grown to 61.8 million last year from 38 million, while the rate of volunteering among Americans has grown to 26.4 percent last year from 20.4 percent.

The number of volunteers and the rate of volunteerism also have grown across demographic groups.

Last year, for example, 8.24 million people ages 16 to 24 volunteered, up from 3.53 million in 1989, while the volunteer rate for that age group grew to 21.9 percent from 13.4 percent.

And the volunteer rate grew in the same period to over 29 percent from 22 percent for adults ages 45 to 64, and to 23.5 percent from 16.9 percent from 16.9 percent for adults age 65 and older.

Contributing to that e growth, Nunn says, has been a combination of leadership by Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama; leadership and investment by Congress; the work of the Corporation for National and Community Service and the Points of Light Institute; efforts by the nonprofit community that “raised the sights around service and sector engagement;” corporate volunteerism programs; and service-learning programs at colleges, universities and schools.

The recession also seems to have spurred more volunteerism, Nunn says.

Volunteerism over the last year has grown 40 percent, for example, across all age groups at Point of Light Institute’s HandsOn Network of over 250 community centers that connect volunteers and community projects throughout the U.S. and abroad.

Yet the increase in volunteerism also has created big challenges for nonprofits, Nunn says.

“Corporations and individuals are increasingly looking for how they can best use their skills, professional experience and passions and hobbies and put them to good effect,” she says.

Yet there is a “disconnect” between volunteers’ skills the nonprofits’ capacity to put those skills to productive use.

“We really do have a capacity problem right now,” she says. “We do need to figure out how to increase the capacity of nonprofits and volunteer connector organizations.”

And that problem is growing as volunteerism soars.

After handling orientation for 2,000 volunteers in 2008, for example, the HandsOn affiliate in Boston handled orientation for 2,000 volunteers this past August alone.

Without additional investment and “new ways of doing things,” Nunn says, “either the system implodes or you basically end up turning people away and deterring and discouraging service over the long-term.”

Next: Obama targets impact, innovation

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Corporate givers regroup in recession

By Todd Cohen

Charities trying to figure out where corporate citizenship may be headed should look at new study by The Hitachi Foundation and the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship.

The study, “Weathering the Storm: The State of Corporate Citizenship 2009,” says 54 percent of over 750 corporate executives who responded believe corporate citizenship is even more important in a recession.

Companies increasingly are trying to build corporate citizenship into their business strategy and to link their actions and investments with principles of corporate citizenship, the study says.

And despite the recession, most businesses maintained their attention to corporate citizenship and their budget for it, while others increased their commitment.

While cutbacks and misconduct have eroded trust in business, “business leaders understand that corporate citizenship in our country entails great responsibilities as well as extensive rights,” Barbara Dyer, president and CEO of The Hitachi Foundation, says in the report. “Most are diligently working and investing toward improving their efforts to more fully meet these responsibilities.”

With 70 percent of executives who responded saying reputation is its main driver, the study says, companies have increased their internal and external communications about corporate citizenship.

Fifty-four percent now communicate with employees on the issue, and 39 percent talk about it with stakeholders.

While most U.S. companies are not making changes in their corporate citizenship practices, the study says, 38 percent of those that are making changes have reduced their charitable giving, 27 percent have increased layoffs and 19 percent have trimmed research and development for sustainable products.

And 83 percent of large companies support employee volunteering.

Rated by executives as the top three areas of corporate citizenship are ethical business practices, treating employees well, and managing and reporting company finances accurately.

Most senior executives believe business should be more involved in taking on major public issues, the study says, with 65 percent saying business should get more involved in the national debate on health care.

Big companies are responding differently than small firms, the study says.

Large firms are making big increases in their investment and involvement in citizenship work but are more likely to lay off employees, while small firms have limited layoffs but made big reductions in other areas of citizenship.

Corporate citizenship certainly is more than money, although money certainly matters to nonprofits.

Corporate giving, which falls under the umbrella of corporate citizenship, totaled $14.5 billion in 2008, or only 5 percent of overall charitable giving in the U.S. according to Giving USA 2009.

And corporate giving fell that year by 4.5 percent, or by eight percent in inflation-adjusted dollars.

With companies becoming more strategic in their giving and tying it more closely to their business and bottom line, nonprofits also should be more strategic in developing corporate partnerships.

Nonprofits should be working to team up with companies in ways that will generate not only the contribution of corporate dollars but also ongoing relationships that will build a pipeline of other resources that include in-kind support, employee volunteers and expertise, and corporate sponsorships and connections.

Doing good can be good business, and business can be a good partner for the giving sector.

Personally asking givers matters

By Todd Cohen

With the recession creating greater demand for charitable services and greater pressure on charitable giving, nonprofits should pay close attention to a new study that reinforces the long-held belief that fundraising is all about relationships.

Instead looking for quick-fix solutions for the financial crisis looming over the giving sector, nonprofits need to get back to basics and invest the time and effort needed to understand, cultivate and engage their givers and personally ask them for support.

The new study, commissioned by Chicago-based consulting firm Campbell & Company and conducted by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, found donors who were asked to give in person by someone they knew gave 19 percent more to secular charities and 42 percent more to religious groups than donors who were asked by phone, mail or email.

“Volunteers sometimes are reluctant to ask their own friends for donations, but this research confirms that donors are even more willing to give when someone they know ask them personally,” says Edith H. Falk, chair and CEO of Campbell & Company.

The study, based on a national sample of over 8,300 donors, also found that a typical household’s largest gift represented nearly two-thirds of the household’s total giving in 2006.

And while greater levels of recognition do not necessarily prompt givers to make bigger gifts, the study says, givers who received substantial recognition for their contributions made bigger gifts than givers receiving minimal or moderate recognition.

Patrick M. Rooney, executive director of the Center on Philanthropy, says if nonprofits expect to get givers’ most significant gifts, “they must build strong personal relationships, acknowledge gifts in accordance with the donor’s wishes, and communicate in ways that build long-term donor loyalty.”

Charitable giving is the lifeblood of nonprofits, which face huge challenges in paying their bills, delivering services and strengthening their operations and programs

Yet nonprofit executives and boards often are reluctant to ask for money.

But now more than ever, nonprofits need to ask, and make it personal.

Social change is hard work

By Todd Cohen

Social change is the focus of a growing number of foundations, which can do a better job trying to understand how to actually fix big problems.

Aiming to put their resources to strategic use to take on the underlying causes of big social and global problems, these foundations want to have a big impact on critical issues rather than simply trying to address them piece by piece.

That approach is critical at a time when the “systems” we depend on – government, the economy, financial services, health care, social services, education, communications — are in rapid flux.

As a new report suggests, however, many of those foundations seem to be confused about how to go about improving and remaking those systems.

“Foundation Strategy for Social Impact,” a report by the Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at the University of Southern California, says that while foundations increasingly are focusing on “system change” to shape social outcomes, “there is not a great deal of clarity among foundations about what exactly system change means nor what it takes to accomplish it.”

Many foundations, for example, can confuse “policy change” with “system change,” the report says.

Policy change, the report says, may be “one tactic in a large system to change strategy” but is not the only option for spurring system change.

Instead of thinking about “system” simply as a metaphor, the report says, foundations should understand the “framework” in which problems exist, including “the actors, the rules of the game and the environmental conditions – and the interactions and dynamics among them.”

Creating a model for system change should focus not on a single player or a particular rule of the game, the report says, but on an “expanded set of intervention points.”

By taking that approach, it says, foundations would be more likely “not only to appreciate the importance of public policy, but the importance of public policies that produce fundamental changes – policies that go beyond merely localized or incremental changes to achieve change that is transformative.”

Changing systems also involves changing “informal rules” such as professional standards or business practices, the report says, as well as creating laws, regulations and rules in the area of policy that help shape the behavior of key players.

Ultimately, the report says, foundations that care about system change need to do a better job working with together, recognize that change takes time, and show a willingness to take risks, while building those approaches into the way they develop their organizations, including their staff and board.

Many foundations rightly see their mission as addressing immediate needs that are the symptoms of big social and global problems.

For those foundations that want to change the systems that lie at the root of those problems, making a difference will require hard work, teamwork and long-term commitment.