The Intersection of Equity and Strategic Volunteer Engagement

“I started thinking about the breakdown that we face in our communities now with isolation and polarization and fear and distrust and (setting) equity as the goal (for moving forward). I’m wondering if equity is the goal—or is it the byproduct of people coming together who volunteer their energy? When people come together around a common mission, then healthy communities are formed because of their common interest, not because of their common enemy.”

Jane Leighty Justis, President of The Leighty Foundation, shared this insight in a 2021 conversation* with Marcus Walton, President and CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. The two were exploring the ways that efforts to advance equity aligned with strategic volunteer engagement. Both found roots for this work in their families and communities. 

Jane’s dad invited Jane and her brother to serve as directors in the foundation he created. Initially, the siblings were concerned about their differences: geographical, political, educational, spiritual. They found common ground, however, in their values, particularly on service and stewardship. 

Jane’s experience as a national trainer on volunteerism fueled her interpretation of service and stewardship. She witnessed how organizations that deployed volunteer energy well were healthier. So, she focused her philanthropic efforts on building nonprofit capacity to strategically mobilize volunteer energy. For her, stewarding the renewable energy of volunteers was just as critical as stewarding financial resources for nonprofit success. 

Marcus was also moved by a sense of stewardship. For his family, being engaged in the community was just something that you did from early on in life. It wasn’t framed as volunteering so much as taking responsibility for the greater good of the community. That ethic of service stayed with him through adolescence, into his college years as part of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, and beyond. It is now embedded in every aspect of his current professional and personal life. 

The Gaps 

Marcus and Jane recognized the potential of convening community and deploying volunteers as a pathway toward putting equity into practice. (Marcus described equity as access to resources or opportunities that contribute to thriving for all.) That recognition was not readily apparent to others though. 

Marcus noticed gaps with funders, for example, that hampered progress. For all the talk of being data-driven, he observed that many funders were not acting on the data that show that “diversity produces a stronger set of results across a variety of identities and intersectional groupings.” He referenced findings from a W. K. Kellogg Foundation study indicating that groups that were intentional about creating diverse work pools were able to produce a higher quality product with a higher return on investment. Yet “despite what the data have shown, there’s still something else that is driving our work.” 

After all, it’s humans doing the work of philanthropy. Emotions influence decision making in a considerable way. “That’s why we don’t always use the data,” Marcus suggested. “That’s why statistics aren’t as compelling as the stories. Narrative trumps numbers, right?”

Jane was disappointed that when she went to find other foundations investing in volunteer energy, she discovered the “list was…really short.” She knew that funders were often volunteers and that their experiences with service ranged from poor to “almost spiritual”. Her own involvement with volunteerism suggested that often the difference between good and not-so-good service was a function of infrastructure, or lack thereof. “It’s because (the organizations) haven’t made the matches where the right people are in the right positions and given the right responsibility.” 

It frustrated her that the link between volunteer engagement infrastructure and meaningful service experiences was not evident to others. Too often the power of well-deployed volunteer energy was lost in a belief that volunteers were “nice but not necessary” and that investing in volunteer infrastructure was in competition with funding programmatic areas.

The equity data pointed to the value of diverse groups coming together. The act of volunteering could be a vehicle and strategy to do just that. Marcus and Jane contemplated what it would take to invite others to participate and invest in this work. 

Bridging the Gaps 

It’s not about supporting equity or volunteering or a specific issue but about adopting a mindset that allows for multiple goals. Marcus elaborated, “The underlying culture, regardless of your issue, needs to be informed by the deployment of the energy of the people who have passion about those issues. If we find the people who are passionate about issues and shape a container, if you will, for those individuals to be able to connect into those issues in ways that they find meaningful—as a community of support, of influence, of connections”, then funders and nonprofits can better meet their missions. It made sense to him that strategic volunteer engagement provides a “very explicit pathway toward realizing a goal that matters, across a variety of issue areas.” 

Strategic volunteer engagement is not just a vehicle to activate the community though. It also provides a space to surface and express values. Done well, it helps reveal and sometimes even challenge thinking. Marcus talked about service as something that can be deeply personal. It’s an opportunity to ask the question, “to what extent am I operating in a way that reflects the highest expression of my values?” Jane added that volunteering “draws you from inside yourself to outside…to (show up) because of the care for others.” Marcus saw the power of a both/and mindset: “That is the magic of this strategic volunteer engagement approach to our work.” Volunteering is “both operating outside myself and is deeply personal. This element is critical to engaging the entire person in a way that is not always accessible in other ways.”  

That magic or unique power of volunteering makes it a potent force for funders and nonprofit leaders to deploy on behalf of their causes. 

Check out next month’s blog for strategies on investing in and engaging volunteers well.

*This blog is based on a conversation between Jane Leighty Justus and Marcus Walton as part of the video presentation for Exponent Philanthropy’s national conference held virtually in 2021.