Don’t Break Up With Volunteers Over Email

I recently saw an article about the Portland Art Museum essentially firing all their volunteer docents by email in favor of paid students with a suggestion that the docents weren’t diverse enough. I felt a sense of deja vu and couldn’t figure out why until I saw a brief mention of the Art Institute of Chicago doing something similar.  Sure enough, I had linked to posts Drew McManus and Lee Rosenbaum had made in November 2021 about the Art Institute’s firing of docents by email in favor of paid staff due to the docents not being as diverse as the organization wanted.

Drew suggested the Art Institute had created a PR crisis by fumbling the process pretty soundly. I haven’t seen a similar uproar about Portland’s decision to do the same thing. The media landscape has certainly changed in many ways since November 2021.

While working aggressively to achieve diversity goals are absolutely laudable, as Drew pointed out the Art Institute had established qualifications for docents that pretty much only wealthy, older individuals could fulfill. It appeared they both jettisoned the structure of the docent program and the participants without any thought of a gradual integration or transition to a new model that would parlay their experienced volunteers.

“Once the news went public, there was a good bit of blow back, especially after the docent group’s spokesperson said the organization’s membership supports reaching diversity goals. What they wanted to know is why they were tossed to the curb without a replacement program ready to implement nor a plan to aggressively diversify over the period of a few years.

Given that volunteers were required to maintain eighteen months of twice-a-week training to qualify as a docent and five additional years of continual research along with a laundry list of other requirements, it’s not difficult to see why there would be concern.”

The Portland docents are being encouraged to join a new program where they can act as educators, greeters and coat-check helpers. Some of the docents had already had a sense that this was going to be the direction of things and feel a bit betrayed by how the transition was being handled.

One former docent, who declined to be named, didn’t feel blindsided like Dacklin did by changes to the council. Based on what happened to the docents in Chicago and all the equity consultants PAM brought in, she had felt the “foreboding” for a couple of years. She laughed at the idea of going back to PAM as a volunteer educator: “They burned their bridge.”

Dacklin feels similarly alienated. “I’m heartbroken,” she says, her voice brimming with emotion. “Will I go back to the museum and volunteer? I don’t know anyone that’s going to do it. But I don’t know everyone.”

Non-Profits Didn’t Volunteer For Mandatory Volunteerism

It is likely you haven’t been able to avoid the seemingly incessant discussion about the negotiations to raise the debt limit. If you haven’t been able to muster the zen-like state of letting the details of those negotiations pass through one ear and out the other, you may recall that work requirements for those receiving financial aid some some sort has been one of the sticking points.

In a post on the For Purpose Law Group blog, Linda J. Rosenthal writes about how mandatory volunteerism is a bad idea. In her piece, which contains dozens of links to studies and opinion pieces on the topic, she applies this sentiment not only to government mandates, but graduation requirements for students as well.

Of all the pieces to which she links, a statement by the National Council of Non-profits provides the most succinct summation about why this is such a bad policy. (my emphasis)

Mandatory volunteerism is harmful because the policy imposes increased costs, burdens, and liabilities on nonprofits by an influx of coerced individuals. Few if any of the mandatory volunteerism bill sponsors ever ask whether nonprofits in their communities can handle an onslaught of hundreds or thousands of individuals showing up on nonprofit doorsteps for the purpose of doing time rather than doing good.

They go on to say that they oppose any efforts that tie receipt of benefits to a requirement to volunteer because they “impose increased costs, burdens, and liabilities on nonprofits by an influx of coerced individuals.”

A number of the articles linked by Rosenthal also address the oxymoronic nature of “mandatory volunteerism,” especially in the name of trying to engender a sense of civic mindness and charity in students by refusing to let them graduate if they don’t complete their hours.

Welcoming and Belonging For All

Last week I received an email from Arts Midwest noting that September 9-18 is Welcoming Week, an international effort to provide a welcoming experience at all levels. This includes government and social policy and action to make communities more welcoming to organizational efforts to provide a sense of belonging in workplaces and other social interactions.

The concept of creating more metaphorical doors through which people can engage with arts and cultural organizations is a frequent topic here so I wanted to call attention to the effort and some of the resources that are available. In addition to the Welcoming America website, Arts Midwest created a page of resources focuses on how arts organizations can create that sense of belonging for employees and community members with whom they interact.

Arts Midwest is also hosting a webinar on Wednesday, September 14 4 pm EDT/3 pm CDT/1 pm PDT on the topic with a focus on “how arts can transform, deepen, and enrich immigrant inclusion work. ”   Sign up if you would like to learn more.

 

Spend, Not Give Donations?

The folks on the Non-Profit Happy Hour Facebook group posted a link to a Ohio State University (I’m sorry, THE Ohio State University) post which claims that charities should not use the word “give” when requesting donations.

They say it is a matter of feeling in control of how a donation is used. According to an analysis of the responses by 2700 people who participated in seven studies, people would rather give their time rather than money. This conflicts with charities’ general preference for monetary donations.

Overall, the study found that people prefer giving their time to nonprofit organizations rather than their money, because they feel more personal control over how their time is used, according to Malkoc.

“It is not possible to separate ourselves from our time, the way that we can from our money,” she said. “When you give your time, it is still a part of you. You are still living through it.”

The suggestion they make is that using the word “spend” provides people with a greater sense of control and therefore makes them apt to donate greater amounts.

People approached for a financial donation offered more than twice as much when they were asked to “spend” their money ($94) than when they were asked to “give” their money ($40).

And here’s why: Participants were asked several questions that measured how much control they would feel over their donations. Results showed that people who were asked to spend their money reported feeling more control than those who were asked to give their money.

[…]

When given control, people were nearly equally interested in giving, whether it was time or money.

“If nonprofits gave more control over how donations are spent, or made donors feel like they were spending their money rather than giving it, that may alleviate some of the disconnect people feel about financial gifts.”

Having read this, I believe there would have to be a good deal more work done on messaging and terminology employed to give people a sense of control rather than using a term like “spend.” The sense of donations being a transactional relationship is already a big problem in terms of the belief non-profits need to be run like a business; conceiving results achieved in terms of return on investment; large donations providing access, perqs, influence, and naming rights; the last of which many organizations have been trying to disentangle themselves.

Not to mention the growing prevalence of donor advised funds which provide tax benefits and a high degree of control without the obligation to disburse.

It seems like employing terms like “spend” will only exacerbate current problems and serve to entrench the use of restricted giving. While there are ways to give donors a greater sense of control over how their money is spent and technology available to facilitate the process, I would be concerned that this would mean staff would be further diverted from providing core services to underserved communities.

The model the study seems to be suggesting feels like it would be along the lines of the ubiquitous TV ads that told you that for $4/month you could purchase a meal for a child and that you would receive a packet with updates about the child. As a donor to this program, you feel a high degree of control over how your money is being spent.

The better solution is probably to employ broader, more consistent messaging emphasizing unrestricted giving without the expectation of expensive benefits. People absolutely do deserve a sense of assurance and control. You don’t want to give to con artists who are going to run off with your money. But that can come from providing easier access to information attesting to the legitimacy of the charity.

While there are websites that provide that sort of analysis, people aren’t widely aware of them as resources. The metrics these sites have traditionally employed have been problematic. There has been a tendency to focus on overhead ratio as a measure of effectiveness. There are probably a lot of diversity, equity and inclusion issues with what data is used and how it is analyzed too. Ultimately, a complete overhaul over a long term will be necessary.