Volunteer Center Reimagines Volunteerism

Inside a couple of cramped rooms of a former high school, accessed via a hidden, unsigned entrance then a maze of corridors, works a team that just might reinvent volunteer deployment.

The Volunteer Center of Northwest Suburban Chicago has been channeling human resources to area nonprofits for more than 40 years. Its website at once reads like Google map of the north and northwest suburbs, a clearinghouse of volunteer programs assisting the nonprofit sector and a what’s what/who’s who of local corporations and individuals dedicated to offering a hand.

But what really has the center’s leaders excited these days is a grant-funded program to reimagine volunteerism called SAVE (Strategic Action for Volunteer Engagement).

Executive Director Mary Fitzgibbons says the program focuses on skills-based volunteerism, so it’s not a replacement for the traditional volunteer model. Instead, the program works to identify projects not traditionally considered volunteer work, and then matches community members with specific skill sets to accomplish defined goals. (Find more details about SAVE here and the latest studies on the importance of nonprofit volunteer management here).

“All volunteers are skilled,” Fitzgibbons says. “But most organizations don’t work at leveraging volunteers strategically to meet mission or improve return on investment. What we’re doing is trying to raise awareness because we’re all about connecting people and promoting the value of effective volunteer programs.”

The early results are encouraging. Begun last year with a focus on supporting nonprofits, SAVE is opening eyes. “We find a lot of times the leadership team has never sat around the table together—especially with the volunteer managers,” Volunteer Center Chief Operating Officer Chris Smith says. “Within three sessions, mindsets are changed and the potential benefit to the organization is tremendous.”

The SAVE consulting process simply summarized is, “Ready. Set. Go.” The ready stage includes enterprise assessment and setting a process to integrate volunteers into an organization’s mission. Set includes prioritization of projects and planning. Go is putting the right volunteers into the right place at the right time. (See the SAVE You Tube clip for more explanation here.)

Typical with most organizations today, funding remains the chief block to this redefined volunteerism spreading like wildfire. “The model is wonderful but very, very labor intensive,” Smith says. “We only have the resources to do it for one nonprofit at a time. If we could just find an angel like Bill Gates, so we could share it with everyone.”

In the meantime, traditional volunteers continue to search the Volunteer Center’s website and call for opportunities 847-228-1320.

“We’re one of the few full-service connector organizations in the region with several volunteer coordinators available by phone,” Smith says.

Member organizations have myriad training opportunities, including a three-day workshop coming up in January 2011, and resources, including access to the center’s extensive volunteer bank. The center continually welcomes new volunteers and member organizations.