We recently presented a webinar, Empowering Volunteers to Lead, along with our friends at Y-USA. Emily Holthouse, National Director, Social Responsibility for Y-USA, and Andrea Lee, Project Manager for Social Responsibility at Y-USA lent the expertise they have gathered through their leadership of the Y’s Togetherhood program. The Togetherhood program connects people from all backgrounds to plan and carry out volunteer projects that address a real need in their community. Emily and Andrea’s goal is to have as many of those projects be volunteer-led and managed. That’s a goal many organizations with volunteer programs share so it was no surprise that, at the end of the session, there were TONS of questions for our presenters. We didn’t get to them all…so Emily and Andrea were kind enough to weigh in on some of the more commonly asked questions here.

1. It's often said that volunteerism benefits the volunteer in many ways — physical, social, emotional, spiritual, etc. Do you have any names of academic studies at your fingertips which speak to these benefits?

Yes, there are many studies that we refer to when citing these benefits. We’ve listed a few below. We haven’t looked into the impact of volunteerism on spirituality.

For physical benefits:

For social and emotional benefits:

  • Wilson and Musick, “The Effects of Volunteering on the Volunteer,” Op. cit., p.153.
  • Greenfield, E.A. and N.F. Marks. “Formal Volunteering as a Protective Factor for Older Adults’ Psychological Well-Being.” Journal of Gerontology, 59B:5, 2004. P.262. http://www.midus.wisc.edu/findings/pdfs/147.pdf
  • Musick, M.A. and J. Wilson. “Volunteering and Depression: The Role of Psychological and Social Resources in Different Age Groups.” Social Science and Medicine, 56, 2003. p.259. Accessed via Elsevier.
  • Meier, S. and A. Stutzer. “Is Volunteering Rewarding in Itself?” Discussion Paper No. 1045, Institute for the Study of Labor, March 2004. p.19. http://repec.iza.org/dp1045.pdf

2. What about youth-led volunteer projects? How are they different from adults? It seems that there are more resources needed for this kind of effort.

Our desire is to bring diverse people together, so youth have often worked alongside adults to plan projects. There may be things that youth have never done before, like run a meeting, but they are quite capable when provided with coaching and support – and the youth receive the opportunity to lead others. The benefits of what adults learn from a youth perspective are worth of any accommodations that adults may make to help the youth succeed. We believe our Togetherhood model can also work for groups of young people – and a few Ys have run group projects in school-based settings. Another similar and promising model for empowering youth to volunteer is run by an organization called Youth Volunteer Corps. You can learn more about their model and see their resources at http://www.yvc.org/.

3. How do you engage different cultures?

YMCAs begin by establishing relationship with individuals. We speak to someone of a racial or ethnic background different from our own about the goals of the program, that it’s an opportunity for people to come together and share a vision for our community. We talk to people about how we’d like their perspective on the Togetherhood committee. When we host service projects, we then invite each of our friends and networks. Our existing relationship with a diverse committee ensures that diverse volunteers participate in service projects.

4. How does the Y ensure volunteers' service projects align with YMCA mission, purpose, and vision?

In our toolkit, we have a tool that identifies the Y’s priorities and provides a starting point for community collaborations. Our cause is broad – to strengthen the foundations of community. But, if a project does not fit within that scope, a Y’s staff advisor will pose questions to prompt the committee to adjust a project so that it does.

5. Do you have staff to oversee and manage committees?

Yes, one staff person is responsible for guiding the committee, supporting marketing and communications efforts, and ensuring safety protocols are followed.

6. How are volunteers screened under this model? Who vets the volunteers especially those who will be working with at risk populations? Who holds the liability?

Togetherhood committee members are screened just like other long-term volunteers. Standard liability releases are signed by project volunteers. For vulnerable populations, we practice the same safety measures as we do anytime they are in our care, such as conducting background checks and not leaving anyone alone or out-of-sight with a vulnerable person. Our organization accepts the liability as we would with any other Y program, however, when partnering with another community-based entity offsite, the liability is shared and our Y volunteers complete any additional liability waivers that the partner requires.

7. How do you control quality of the projects? Is there some kind of an approval process for the projects?

We practice trust and accept that projects may look different than if staff had completed them. That’s okay, and, in many cases, projects are better than we could have anticipated. We do not advise an approval process, since projects are in full control of the volunteers, but if a project does not adhere to our cause of strengthening community, the staff advisor is responsible for guiding the group to amend the project or do something different.

8. How do you ensure volunteers show up whereas staff always will report for duty? How do you deal with coaching and development for those volunteers that need to do a better job at the task they have been asked to do?

We find that volunteers show up to lead their projects. Once someone or a few people “own” a project, we find that they feel an obligation to others to be there and do the best job they can.
Coaching does occur along the way, but no differently than it would for an employee. People generally want to learn and are open to feedback.

9. How does recruitment for volunteer opportunities occur and who manages volunteer training?

Recruitment for the Togetherhood committee happens through one-on-one conversations with individuals who have been nominated by Y staff.

For projects, committee members ask their friends and people in their networks to participate.

The committee chair is oriented by the staff advisor. Once oriented, the committee chair goes on to orient others into the program, teaching them how the program works and about the Y’s priorities in the community. For projects, the project leads or partner organizations are responsible for orienting volunteers to tasks.

10. With the Togetherhood program, have you seen an increase in volunteers donating to the organizations they volunteer with?

We don’t have data about how much volunteers donate to organizations that we partner with. We know that volunteers give their money where they give their time; if that generates more money for a partner organization, our whole community benefits.

11. Can you talk a little bit about how you got organizational buy-in and got the organization to a point where they were comfortable releasing/sharing total brand control? How do you get your staff on board around the idea of volunteers as leaders?

The Y was founded on small groups of volunteers coming together to address social issues. We suspect that’s true for many nonprofits. Remembering our origins makes it easy to convince organizational leaders of the need and benefit of adopting this program. Getting other staff involved in recruiting committee members is critical to their support. However, relinquishing control over projects and trusting volunteers is the most difficult part of the program. We have to remind ourselves that volunteers are responsible for directing our organization. We do provide boundaries to projects. Our staff advisors receive one-on-one coaching on how to do this directly from our team at Y-USA and are expected to redirect volunteers who do anything that is not in keeping with our organization’s cause.

12. Do you fund the projects 100%? Do committees do any fundraising or pay for costs themselves?

Ys don’t typically fund projects. Any funds necessary for projects are raised by the volunteers themselves, often by talking to other members and friends. They usually find that the resources for the projects can be found within their own communities.


Did you miss the webinar?

It’s not too late. Watch it here any time: Empowering Volunteers to Lead.

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *