Diversifying Volunteer Programs
Many organizations find it difficult to build diverse and inclusive volunteer programs, and Christian nonprofits are no different. Why does it seem so hard to attract a diverse base of volunteers? And how can organizations overcome this challenge?
It all starts with listening
Larry James, a social entrepreneur and the executive leader of the nonprofit CitySquare, shared a story about an encounter that transformed his perspective on volunteer recruitment.
One day, while interviewing three women who had come to the center, he found himself struggling to overcome the language barrier. He asked a passing customer, Josefina, for help. James recounted what happened next:
“Josefina didn’t just translate. She conducted the interview, consigning me to play with the kids while she took care of this group of neighbors who were in need. The three women left as happy as can be, strangers who had instantly become friends. I thanked Josefina for her help, not realizing the asset that I had right in front of me. When she reached the door she turned and said, ‘I can come back tomorrow—I have time.’”
Josefina came back every day for the next nine years. That one encounter led the organization to make radical changes. Instead of assuming the needs of the community, as they had done previously, they began to ask and listen. For 45 days they went through training with the 15 to 20 people who made up their volunteer base. All of those volunteers lived outside of the community and were from a different socioeconomic background.
A willingness to change
In just weeks the program grew to include over 300 volunteers from the community.
Together, they decided to add a line to the customer assistance application that read, “We need your help. Could you come back as a volunteer?” The response was overwhelming. In just weeks the program grew to include over 300 volunteers from the community. CitySquare went from serving people to listening to people, and everything about their programmatic strategy changed. One simple modification transformed the entire organization and increased ministry effectiveness.
But did you know that diversity is also a biblical principle?
When we are diverse and unified, we reflect the Trinity.
God himself is diverse. The three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Spirit—are each distinct in personhood and role and yet they maintain a perfectly unified relationship. Genesis 1:27 tells us that we are made in the image of God, so as unique beings, God desires that we be unified as well, (John 17:21-23).
Volunteering can provide a platform for us to cooperate in spite of our differences.
Volunteering can provide a platform for us to cooperate in spite of our differences. When we serve with a spirit of unity, we reflect the image of God. This pleases his heart and brings him glory. It also builds our faith.
Diversity in volunteerism reinforces our faith.
We were created to serve. Ephesians 4:12 says that we have been equipped for “works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.”
In 2006, a group of social scientists studied volunteers from 35 Protestant Christian congregations to see how volunteering impacted their faith. In their paper entitled The Impact of Volunteering on Christian Faith and Congregational Life: The Service and Faith Project, they surveyed more than 7,000 people, and reported the following:
“Volunteers who encounter broad diversity in social, economic, racial, or physical attributes in those whom they serve, i.e., working with persons who are different from themselves, score higher on measures of faith. It also is more likely the volunteers will experience changes in their values and behavior.”
One congregational leader described his experience like this:
“You begin to recognize the common humanity that we have. When they suffer, you hurt too, because you can’t fix it, and you can’t change it. All you can do is be there with them. Part of the deepening and understanding of faith is that that in itself is a ministry.”
Ways to build diversity
So how can we promote diversity in our volunteer programs? We asked several nonprofit leaders to share tips that have worked for their organizations. Here’s what they suggest:
- Build partnerships with community stakeholders.
- Make sure your leadership team reflects the diversity you want to see in your volunteer program.
- Recruit from those who use your services.
- Focus on your common mission.
- Provide team-building opportunities that promote awareness and understanding of differences.
Incorporating diversity into your volunteer program is not easy, but the benefits of doing so will far outweigh the challenges. Psalm 133:1 states it best: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!”
Some questions to ask yourself:
- Does our volunteer program foster a warm, inclusive environment?
- Does our volunteer base reflect the diversity of the community around us?
- Do we make our program accessible to volunteers from various backgrounds and cultures? (For example, are we aware of and sensitive to cultural taboos?)
- Are there any areas of our program where tribalism or invisible barriers might be inhibiting participation? (For example, facilities that are inaccessible to those with disabilities, language barriers, etc.)
- What aspects of our program have we modified or adapted based on feedback from our constituents?
Christian nonprofits that embrace diversity will grow their volunteer program, become more effective in their communities, and mirror the heart of God. Diversity must be a foundational principle for every faith-based organization.
Karen Rathman is the Vice President for Partner Success & Business Development at VOMO. The mission at VOMO is to power a movement for good by connecting people to existing needs in their community and around the world. VOMO experience cloud-based volunteer management software and integrated iOS and Android apps power more than 250,000 projects globally. Learn more at VOMO.org