Volunteers, a critical ingredient in the banh mi of social justice


banh miHi everyone, I am in the beach city of Nha Trang right now. It is beautiful, the 100 degree heat making the ocean extra blue. So far, the vacation is going great, except that I am now overdosed on MSG, which the locals use in great quantity in everything. I’m not against MSG, but when you can see individual crystals of it in your spring roll sauce…

And I can’t find an adapter for my laptop, so I am in the hotel lobby typing this up and sweating gallons on the sticky keyboard (probably why the keyboard is so sticky, from all these sweaty people using it). Sorry in advance for typos and unedited rambling. And since I’m hungry, there will be food metaphors.

A highlight of this city so far, is a vegan banh mi stand we found. Banh mi, of course, is the Vietnamese sandwich stuffed with pickled daikon and carrot and various meats and is the humble and delicious meal of students, workers, and anyone on the go. I met a lady three years ago who has a vegan banh mi stand, where she works 16 hours a day. Her banh mis are arguably some of the most amazing sandwiches ever created and she’s been using the stand to pay for her kids’ schooling and even to buy a house. 

After a long walk, I found the stand and ordered four banh mis for 50 cents each. I bit into one, and it was magical, the combination of grilled gluten and shredded green papaya and Vietnamese cilantro and the secret sauce, all of it melding in my mouth and tasting like an unrestricted multi-year grant.

Anyway, I could spend an entire post talking about banh mi and the feisty and hilarious seller, but on to today’s topic, which is about the need for our field to better appreciate volunteers. In the US, 62 million volunteers contribute about 8 billion hours of service each year, the equivalent of $173 billion. The nonprofit sector would probably collapse without all our awesome volunteer unicorns.

And yet, it seems that as a sector, we haven’t really recognized this critical element of our work. For example, all of us are in agreement that fundraising is a non-negotiable. There is no way we can do our work if we don’t have funds. However, we all also rely on volunteers to keep our work going, and yet this area is not nearly as appreciated. Raise your hands if your organization has a development director. Now raise your hands if your organization has a volunteer manager. You probably didn’t raise your hands, since this is a blog post and it would be very silly for you to do so, but I am sure not many nonprofits have a staff solely devoted to engaging volunteers.

Time vs. Money

Maybe because not many organizations have a volunteer engagement staff, we have a no-good, very bad habit of treating imagesvolunteers and donors differently. We call and write handwritten notes to donors, profusely thanking them for their donations, and yet—and I myself am guilty of this—we often neglect volunteers who consistently devote hours of their time each month to our organizations. Donors, meanwhile, expect to be acknowledged for their contributions, as they should. But volunteers, because we haven’t made it a habit to thank them, often just humbly and quietly do their work, not making a fuss if they don’t get a call or written note thanking them.

We have as a sector unconsciously accepted the notion that money is the ultimate contribution anyone can give. Time, meanwhile, seems free and unlimited, so we often take it for granted. But as my vacation days dwindle, I know time is finite. Time is the most finite resource there is.

I remember in college, my friends and I were all sitting in the common room at 3am philosophizing, and someone said, “You know, every second that passes is a second closer to our death.” (We also discussed Jello as a metaphor for life, but that’s for a different post). 

Each of us only has a limited amount of time left. We can make more money, but there is no way we can make more time. We must then choose carefully what we do with the amount we have and not squander it. So when volunteers choose to give their most valuable posession, their time, to our organizations, we cannot take this for granted. But we often do.

Beefing up volunteer engagement

I recommend we as a sector seriously take a look at how we work with volunteers. We must more effectively and systemically tap into the amazing potential that volunteers bring. Let’s face it, many of us are great at volunteer engagement, but quite a few of us suck at it. And people still volunteer, because they’re awesome that way. If we can do a better job at using all the amazing skills that volunteers have, imagine how much more as a field we can get done. Here are some recommendations to start:

Support volunteer management staff: We could get more stuff done if every nonprofit had a full-time volunteer engagement professional. The few that I know are great, but always teetering on the edge of their positions being cut. Nonprofits, build this position and associated volunteer engagement costs into your budget, and foundations, please fund it. (And if you do fund it, NWB bestows upon you the coveted Unicorn status).

Recognize the role volunteers play in marginalized communities: Many organizations led by communities that are of color, LGBTQ, disabled, rural, etc. often do not have enough funding for robust staffing. Volunteers, then, are critical for these organizations’ work. Funders and donors can greatly help these communities by recognizing and supporting these organizations to build strong volunteer management infrastructure.

Change the philosophy around how you value volunteer contributions: At the risk of oversimplifying, we should make it a habit to treat volunteers like donors. Just as we should be appreciative for every financial gift big or small, we should be just as appreciate for every single gift of time and talent. An easy way to think of it, is to treat every donated hour as the equivalent of $20. If a volunteer gives 10 hours of their time, that’s like a donation of $200. How would you normally treat a donor who gave $200 in cash? Volunteers who are giving professional skills—lawyers, facilitators, website designers, for examples—should be considered as giving whatever rates they’d normally charge.

Make volunteer appreciation a regular part of the work: I don’t think it needs to be elaborate, just consistent and genuine. At every staff meeting, for example, spend a few minutes brainstorming the awesome volunteers for the week/month/quarter, and write or call to thank them personally, like you would a donor. The thing I’ve noticed about volunteers is that they often don’t expect to be thanked, which is a reason why they should be, and hearing from your team goes a long way.

Other tips, which may sound obvious, are provide clear and meaningful work, communicate how it helps your organization and the community, check in often with your volunteers, and watch out that you’re not burning out people, including your board, who are the ultimate volunteers.

I think it will be awesome when volunteer engagement is as formally ingrained in our work as development and programming.

Rainier Valley Corps

These past few days on vacation, I’ve been thinking about my organization’s start-up year and all the awesome things we’ve accomplished with endless hours of volunteer contributions. You may know that Rainier Valley Corps (RVC) is developing a pipeline of leaders of color in a placed-based program by recruiting cohorts of passionate emerging leaders and placing them to work full-time at communities-of-color-led nonprofits, where they help these organizations develop their organizational capacity, while the fellows develop critical skills that will eventually put them on the path toward a strong career in the sector, leading them to potentially being executive directors.

I’m proud to say that our first cohort of ten fellows of color will be starting this September!!! (I’m trying to stay calm, but it’s so fricken exciting!!) This would not have happened without our core of over 50 volunteers who populate several committees all working on hyperdrive to get us to this point. Thanks to our dedicated staff, board, and volunteers all working together, we developed organizational values, mission, vision; created and implemented processes and tools for selecting host sites and fellows; developed and are implementing a strong evaluation system; put dozens of communication tools like the website and social media into place; developed and will soon be piloting our unique leadership curriculum; planned several community events, including moving chairs and taking out trash; wrote grants, reached out to donors and sponsors, and are planning our first-ever fundraising event, a reception in September for our fellows.

With RVC having only two full-time staff this past fiscal year, I am certain we would not have been able to launch our first-year cohort without our volunteers. And I think we could do a better job thanking them. We haven’t even been keeping track of volunteer hours. Luckily, we just hired our full-time Volunteer Systems Director, who will not only help RVC develop our volunteer management system, but help our ten host sites to do the same.

The banh mi of social justice

Effective nonprofit work is like a really good banh mi sandwich. For the banhi mi, all the elements have to work together: The images (1)bread, the sauce, the pickled veggies, the fillings, the weird mayonnaise-like sauce, the cilantro, the three slices of jalapeno peppers, etc. Similarly, to do our work, staff, board, donors, funders, volunteers, consultants must all work in partnership. Without meaning to, we’ve been treating volunteers like the crunchy pickled carrots and daikon sticks. We don’t pay much attention to these critical ingredients, but anyone who has eaten a banh mi knows, it just doesn’t work without them. It is time we better appreciate and work with volunteers. Without the pickled daikon of volunteers, the banh mi sandwich of social justice just won’t be edible. 

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PS: Note that the NWB banner has changed. This is NWB’s official unicorn mascot, designed by my friend Stacy Nguyen, who has been NWB’s volunteer webmaster for years.