Local governments benefit in a number of ways when they make volunteering a part of their culture. Citizens provide a variety of important services that range from administrative support to emergency response to community beautification. When citizens take ownership in their communities, it creates a better image for the city, people understand their local government better and a greater sense of advocacy is created that leads to further citizen involvement.
However, there are challenges involved with attaining these benefits and making these programs work smoothly. Any organization that relies on volunteers faces certain difficulties, but there are challenges that make local government volunteering unique.
Retaining volunteers can be particularly difficult, especially since people have so many options competing for their free time. Because time and expense are invested in recruiting, training and overseeing volunteers, cities need to make sure that their volunteers know they serve an important purpose and are valued by their community.
Christine Nardecchia, volunteer resources administrator for the city of Dublin, Ohio, underlined the importance of volunteer appreciation.
“Civic engagement isn’t about banquet dinners, buttons, plaques or certificates — it’s about inclusion. It means keeping connected with volunteers year-round, not just when you need them. It’s usually about a sense of purpose, knowing that your efforts have an impact and maintaining a clear line of sight to that impact.”
She continued by emphasizing how retention efforts affect every part of a volunteer program.
“Once volunteers know these things through the city’s consistent effort, everything from the application process to the onsite management to the volunteer experience itself is directly correlated to retention efforts. If done properly, it’s a natural pipeline to forms of leadership within your municipality and community, a terrific way to keep your pulse on the beat of so many things and a great way for staff to feel good about their own efforts of public service.”
Legal issues also need to be taken into account, especially risk management and liability. According to a publication from the National Association of Counties titled “The Volunteer Toolbox,” many volunteer programs do not have or have less than adequate liability insurance that will protect the county from lawsuits brought against volunteers.
In addition to the need for proper insurance policies, it states, risk management procedures must be put in place to reduce the likelihood that a volunteer will be the source of a lawsuit. By reducing the risk of county volunteer programs, as well as being aware of state, federal, and local laws that govern these programs, the county will greatly reduce the likelihood of any legal problems and challenges.
A significant issue cities face is the fact that the paid staff members who manage and work alongside the volunteers are often members of a union. As Tibby Larson, volunteer coordinator for the city of Salem, Ore., explained, this requires training the staff to alleviate their fears of being replaced by the volunteers, as well as supporting them while they learn to manage and supervise volunteers.
“It is very important for local government leaders to engage paid staff, equip them for maximum success and provide a clear message that volunteers are there to enhance and not to replace employee capacity.”
Another substantial distinction between private nonprofits and local governments concerns resources and personnel. Kay Sibetta, president of the National Association of Volunteer Programs in Local Government, noted that nonprofit organizations are often primarily operated and managed by volunteers, which can often mean smaller staff sizes. This, along with their more restricted budget capacities, makes it difficult to attract talented employees and leadership. Municipalities may share similar resource limitations, but have larger staffs. The challenge comes in, and is heightened, when that staff has to make the time and effort to work with volunteers on top of their regularly assigned duties.
Municipalities are also required to have a much broader scope and set of initiatives than nonprofits. Sibetta observed how local governments are in a better position to offer unique possibilities for civic engagement.
“Government programs offer countless opportunities for volunteers to be involved. Nonprofits are mainly cause-driven and will have one or few initiatives for residents to become involved. This limits the nonprofit’s engagement with citizens because many of their programs are cause, population or audience specific. Municipalities have to engage everyone in their community — youth, seniors, families, diverse groups, businesses, etc.”
Sibetta also spoke about fluctuations in volunteer programs that are sometimes difficult to control, such as unpredictability in leadership. “These shifts in top management often change the organizational culture, focus and priorities; they create staff reorganizations and eliminate or reduce staff responsibilities. Government programs are known to operate at a slower pace than nonprofits because of the internal functions of how government operates. However, this is changing every day, thanks to technology. More and more municipalities offer online options to actively engage their residents today.”
There are several ways for municipal leadership to sharpen the focus of its volunteer programs in the face of these challenges. Nardecchia recommends defining the vision of what you want to achieve and how you plan on achieving it.
“Develop a vision for the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’ with staff and with the community. Unless everyone has a collective vision, local government agencies are setting up volunteerism as an uphill battle.
“Define what volunteerism means in your culture and what it could mean in a perfect world. Define who will the lead effort. Define what local or service issues you’ll address with volunteerism and how you will measure its impact and know it’s a success. Volunteers will teach the municipality things staff never would have even thought, so keeping them involved during the process is key. But it’s a process that should be continuous, not a vacuum or one-time event.”
Organizations like NAVPLG are also available to provide city governments with information and resources to establish and expand volunteer programs. Founded in 1997, NAVPLG promotes ways in which volunteerism can strengthen a municipality’s diverse programs by sharing best practices, training and networking opportunities. Its website provides links to useful resources, such as a directory for each state’s service commission and a comprehensive listing of other national organizations that promote volunteering. Visit navplg.org to learn more about how this and other organizations can help with the vision, implementation and expansion of a municipal volunteer program.