Adaptability, Volunteer Engagement, Chickens and Eggs: Which Come First?

Guest post by Beth Steinhorn, JFFixler Group

To learn more about leveraging volunteer talent, join guest blogger Beth Steinhorn, JFFixler Group President, for a free webinar at November 19. Click here to register!

Adaptability, Volunteer Engagement, Chickens and Eggs: Which Come First?Scan the shelves of the business section of a book store or scroll through the popular TED talks these days, and you’ll be sure to find a lot of information about innovation and flexibility, nimbleness, and entrepreneurship. So much so that your eyes may glaze over and you may get a bit overwhelmed by the jargon.

Nonetheless, there’s a reason that so many are talking, writing, and thinking about nimbleness and entrepreneurship and it is not limited to business. These concepts are equally important to volunteer engagement. In fact, there is a growing pool of data that demonstrates how strategic volunteer engagement is related to organizational innovation and adaptability. Paying attention to these topics is worth the time – and investing effort in implementing some of these strategies has a significant return on investment.

One place to start is the research upon which the Service Enterprise model is based. Originally conducted by Reimagining Service, TCC Group, and Deloitte, this research has informed the development of the Service Enterprise model, with a Service Enterprise being defined as an organization that fundamentally leverages volunteers and their skills to successfully deliver its mission.

According to the research using the Core Capacity Assessment Tool (CCAT), only 17% of nonprofits studied self-identified as having strong volunteer engagement practices, leaving the vast majority of nonprofits with at best satisfactory ratings or, in nearly 20% of the cases, weak practices.

When the researchers looked at the top performers in terms of volunteer engagement, they found that those organizations were also strong in other core capacities – namely leadership, management, technical, and adaptability. Adaptive capacity is the ability to monitor, assess, respond to, and create internal and external changes. According to TCC, leadership and adaptive capacities are the most critical, as stated by TCC Group, they are “the two capacities that separate effective organizations from those that are less so.”

Similar observations were made in the new book, The Abundant Not-for-Profit: How talent (not money) will transform your organization, by Lynda Gerty and Colleen Kelly. In this book, the authors paint a vision of what’s possible when organizations embrace strategic engagement as a core business value and practice. They refer to these organizations as “abundant not-for-profits.” Based on their work helping nonprofit organizations throughout British Columbia, Canada, to embrace skilled volunteer engagement, Gerty and Kelly share what they have observed to be the traits that characterize successful abundant not-for-profits. They are:

  • Exceptional Leadership with a highly collaborative work ethic
  • Strong Management with an individual with initiative to develop and champion projects
  • Communication that keeps staff and volunteers engaged and informed
  • Adaptive Capacity marked by a passionate, entrepreneurial spirit with capacity to take risks and manage change

Once again, we see “adaptability” as a key element relating to success. Yet, being adaptable means being open to change, effectively making the case for change, and being able to manage change effectively not only personally but among colleagues (both staff and volunteers) and other stakeholders.

For an organization to embrace volunteer engagement as a key strategy to the extent that would deem them a “service enterprise” or an “abundant not-for-profit,” it needs to engage volunteers at all levels of the organization, for their skills, and in leadership positions – as leaders of teams, as leaders of projects, and as leaders of initiatives. For most organizations, this means adjusting policy, adapting current practices, and changing the way they do business.

As we all know, change is challenging for staff and the volunteers who are already connected to the organization. We can all think of examples of groups of volunteers who are reluctant to change the way they engage with an organization, and we can think of staff who are equally resistant to change. Yet, there are also many who are excited by the chance to be part of change. There are many entrepreneurial volunteers today whose skills can help your organization be more adaptable. In other words, there are volunteers who can help you and your organization learn to be more nimble, more entrepreneurial, and more flexible.

The research on organizations and volunteer engagement show a strong correlation between adaptability and robust volunteer engagement – but the research does not reveal causality. Does one cause the other? Do we know which comes first? No. They are intertwined. I believe that they are intertwined because those organizations that embrace volunteers at every level of the organization benefit from the entrepreneurial skills and spirit of those volunteers. Entrepreneurialism of the volunteers both feeds off of and fuels the entrepreneurial culture of the organization. The two benefit and strengthen each other.

While there is no clear answer to, “Which comes first – the entrepreneurial volunteers or the adaptive capacity of the organization?” there are some proven paths to getting started on both. That involves being open to change and engaging volunteers with you as partners in developing and implementing innovations at your organization. What better place to start than with volunteer engagement?

For tips and ideas on how to engage entrepreneurial volunteers with you in piloting a new volunteer engagement practice, join me on November 19 for the webinar Leveraging Volunteer Talent for Organizational Change.

Beth Steinhorn is a nationally recognized leader, writer, and innovator in volunteer engagement and nonprofit management. As President of JFFixler Group, she leads consultations, facilitates workshops, directs research, presents keynote addresses, and publishes blogs and articles. Throughout her 25+ year career with nonprofit organizations, Beth has worked to help organizations and their leadership to achieve their missions through strategic and innovative engagement.

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