[Photo credit: VolunteerMatch]
At a moment shaped by toxic social division and digital disruption, it is easy to agree that our communities and democracy would both be better off if we could persuade more good people to get involved and give back. With community service levels at historic lows, it’s time to pivot in a new direction. We must rethink our nation’s prevailing community engagement strategies and find new ways to use technology to bring communities together again in the digital age.
Challenge: Creating More Community Engagement
Politicians, businesses and philanthropists have all at different times stepped up to promote the virtues of service, but unfortunately none of the efforts have effectively addressed the underlying challenges.
We believe the reason so many well-intentioned efforts to stimulate greater community engagement over the last two decades have failed is because the problem is harder than it looks. When challenged with the issue of low engagement rates, many of us believe the solution is to inspire, persuade or convince more people to engage. It is for this reason that the conventional response to declining community involvement has been focused on either providing a greater incentive – a national service stipend, for instance – or launching high-profile campaigns to inspire more people to view community service as their civic, moral or patriotic duty.
But stimulating the “supply” of available volunteers is, at best, only half the solution. The other half is effectively connecting their interests and skills with a cause that needs their help. And doing that at scale is not easy.
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Effective community engagement is not simply a motivational problem, it is a much larger market problem.
Solution: Rethinking How We Use Technology
If low engagement rates are in part a symptom of a larger market failure, then we have the knowledge and tools to fix it. Craigslist, eBay, LinkedIn, Etsy, AirBnB, Uber, Kickstarter, and even Tinder are all useful examples of how technology has been used to reimagine and reshape our lives by creating and expanding new networked marketplaces. They bring people together in news ways and at a scale impractical without technology.
There is no doubt we can do the same for community engagement, but not until more people think about the problem differently so that we can rally the resources, talent, collaboration, and leadership needed to invest in better solutions.
Imagine if Match.com was just a national PR campaign encouraging more people to date, instead of a platform for connection? It would get people talking, but without the technology it would be just as hard to find a date as it was before. Dating, like volunteering, is about relationships. It is not just about an interest in connecting, it is about making the right connections.
Like dating, volunteering is a very personal experience. It’s only natural that different people will be drawn to different causes and opportunities to serve. So while nonprofits and community groups are looking for volunteers that match their needs and missions, volunteers are looking for opportunities that match their passions and skills. Without a framework to effectively align these interests you end up with a gap — or a market failure — that limits engagement, dilutes impact and too often leads to disappointing experiences.
In the 21st century we need to not only promote the virtues of community service, we need to design, fund and support digital systems optimized to meet the social capital needs of civil society at scale.
The Path Forward
What is most exciting about this challenge is the opportunity to bring the transformative power of new technologies to a social problem worth solving. There are more than 1.5 million nonprofits in the U.S., 100,000+ local schools and tens of thousands of municipalities and local groups that depend on volunteer support. It is a huge market that is universally underserved.
At VolunteerMatch we are working to change that. Over the past two years we have been surveying our nonprofit users to better understand the services they need to more effectively attract and engage volunteers in our rapidly changing world. What we have heard over and over, is a need for:
- Smarter mobile platforms
- Better social media tools
- Greater personalization
- Improved communication systems
- More peer-to-peer engagement and
- An open API platform where interoperability and innovation can thrive
In short, they want a taste of the digital revolution that is threatening to leave them behind.
We have already begun work on what we are calling VolunteerMatch 3.0 or what might be best described as a vision for transforming the web’s largest database of volunteer opportunities into a social network to build social capital in the social sector.
To succeed we will need to expand our network of talent to include the brightest minds in data science, product development, engineering, design, communications, behavioral research, and AI. We will need to build new features, expand our reach and diversify our mission-related earned revenue streams. We will need new allies, advisors, partners and funders who share our vision and values.
As a nonprofit ourselves we understand the power of generosity and are excited to be partnering with philanthropy for the first time in more than a decade to capitalize this transformation.
Original contribution by Greg Baldwin, President of VolunteerMatch.
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