Data Driven and Mission Centered: Capturing Volunteer Contributions in More Robust Ways

Dr. Sue Carter Kahl, a national recognized expert on volunteer engagement, writes about gathering and making effective use of data on a precious resource : a nonprofit’s volunteer core.

“Not everything that can be counted counts. Not everything that counts can be counted.”

William Bruce Cameron

There is growing interest in and need to demonstrate impact in the nonprofit sector and beyond—a steady drumbeat reminding us to be data driven. What gets less attention is an important question: which data? We tend to select the data that can be counted, but those are not necessarily the data points that count. 

This is certainly the case when it comes to capturing the value that volunteers contribute to the organizations they serve. The industry standard data points include volunteer numbers, hours, and an hourly financial value of time such as the one assigned by Independent Sector. These metrics are easy to count. They also align with business assumptions that the best way to track progress is through quantitative (and especially financial) data. 

Yet, more is not always better when it comes to volunteerism. In a literacy program, it is more effective to have the same team of committed adults teaching kids to read than a new adult each week. In a museum with rotating exhibits, the number of volunteer hours needed to facilitate hands-on activities may differ by exhibit and need adjustment from year to year. In an event, too much of a good thing is anything but good as the Corporate Social Responsibility leader who brought a team of employees to serve at a fun run discovered. The host organization accepted too many volunteers, and the employees ended up standing around with little to do for the three-hour shift on a Saturday morning. 

Necessary But Not Sufficient

So standard numerical and financial data are not sufficient for a very diverse sector that deals with lives rather than widgets. That’s not to say that there isn’t a time and place for quantitative and financial data. Rather, it is to suggest that we need data expansive enough to tell the full story of an organization’s work and mission. One way to do that is to expand data collection from statistics that are driven by external stakeholders who prioritize industry standards to a mission-centered data approach that aligns with those impacted by the day-to-day volunteer experience. 

Mission-centered audiences include clients and participants, such as:

  • Patients and families visited by hospital or hospice volunteers
  • Kids who participate in volunteer-led tutoring or youth programming (and their parents and caregivers)
  • Participants who receive meals served or delivered by volunteers
  • Seniors in a transportation program who can get to doctor appointments safely and affordably
  • Families served in a disaster shelter

Other stakeholders who care about mission-centered data include the volunteers themselves as well as volunteer prospects. The staff who partner with volunteers also are a critical, but often overlooked, stakeholder in volunteer-data tracking.

Data That Reflect the Volunteer Experience

Taking a mission-centered approach to volunteer data selection requires a different set of assumptions or values to help determine success. Instead of volunteer volume and  financial value, we need to consider (or ask) what clients and participants care about. They are likely far more concerned with quality than quantity. For example:

  • Am I in good hands when participating in volunteer-led programs? Is my family member who participates cared for?
  • Do volunteers treat me with respect, dignity, joy, and welcome?
  • Do volunteers help me feel safe and nourished? Do they support my learning, growth, and curiosity?
  • Am I accepted for who I am? Are my strengths acknowledged? Am I treated as a person or a charity case?
  • Do volunteers look like me or understand my challenges? If not, are they open to learning?

Volunteers might care about the following:

  • Do my service and time make a positive difference?
  • Am I able to live my values through my service?
  • Am I learning more about my community and myself?
  • Does my service engage my talent and skills?

The paid staff may care about:

  • Are the volunteers partners in my work?
  • Do they help meet our program, event, or organizational goals?
  • Do they contribute unique capabilities that make our team stronger?
  • Do they complement the time and expertise of paid staff?
  • Does service help volunteers understand our cause or mission better? Does it help volunteers question their assumptions about our work or who we serve?
  • Will volunteer involvement mean I have to accept sub-standard work?

(If the answers to all but the last question are ‘no’, it might explain staff resistance to working with volunteers.)

Expanding volunteer data to include the volunteer experience provides a more robust way to assess whether volunteer engagement efforts have been successful. It often means moving from volunteer head counts to volunteer accomplishments and relationships, which makes more sense. After all, we do not measure organizational effectiveness by the number of hours employees work; why would we focus on it exclusively for volunteers?

Shifting to Mission-Centered Volunteer Data

Of course, this kind of evaluation is much harder than counting volunteer hours alone.  Many nonprofits are not set up yet to ask or answer these questions. However, as mission- and community-driven organizations, these questions—and their answers—are fundamental to the work of nonprofits.

Here’s the good news: there does not have to be an elaborate system for evaluation. Instead, nonprofit leaders can experiment to find the approach that works best for their organization mission. Here are a few guiding principles:

  • Pick a question or two that are meaningful for the organization’s unique context and type of volunteerism. What matters to key audiences involved in service? What questions and data points reveal progress? How do they align with organization mission and goals?
  • Ask these new questions and track data informally. 
  • Discuss what you learn from the evidence gathered. How do different audiences interpret the findings? How does this new information complement more traditional metrics?
  • If this evidence turns out to be meaningful and relevant, create a process to track these data points on a regular basis. If not, experiment with new questions and data.
  • Share your findings in reports and social and traditional media that will reach the audiences who care about them most. Help those who have not historically asked for this kind of data to understand why this information is important too. 
  • Use your learning to adapt and improve volunteer engagement strategies. 

The desire for more data collection in nonprofits can be valuable. However, defaulting to industry-standard data in a sector that is decidedly nonstandard limits our learning at best and distracts us from data that truly matter at worst. We have an opportunity instead to select and track data that align with mission. In doing so, we combine business thinking and organization values to demonstrate the unique power of volunteer contributions. 

Meet Dr. Carter Kahl; Sue Carter Kahl Ph.D.

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