Converting good intentions in to greater impact

Volunteers and Government, Working Together

Volunteers and Government, Working Together

By Katherine Tice, summer 2014 Bank of America Fellow

Today’s hot topics, like strategic philanthropy, skills-based volunteerism, social enterprise, and corporate responsibility, tactfully sidestep our democratic tradition of government by the people and for the people.  When we do consider the social impact of our government, we tend to fret over whether our modern public sector is dysfunctional, unfashionable, or both.  Meanwhile, volunteers are hard at work in all levels of government, improving service delivery and increasing the capacity of our public institutions.   From municipal programs to national initiatives, public sector volunteers are converting good intentions into greater impact.

Reimagining Service strongly believes in the importance of volunteer engagement coming to life in multiple sectors (Principle 1).  Attention to the nuances and challenges of each sector provide a more holistic and more accurate depiction of volunteer engagement.  With this multi-sector approach in mind, we launched our 2014 public sector project.  Through an interview-based study of public sector volunteer engagement across the United States, Reimagining Service hoped to uncover what sets apart government volunteer initiatives from nonprofit and corporate efforts.  We found that much of what creates social impact in nonprofit and for-profit environments – for example, inspired leadership and leveraging technology – is critical to volunteer engagement in the public sector, too.  We also tapped into a long-running discussion among practitioners and experts in the field about the unique history and challenges of government-associated volunteerism.

Nuanced by the incredible diversity in program size, mission, and organizational culture, public sector volunteer engagement invites further research into many different arenas.  Yet, interviews with leaders who lead public sector volunteer initiativesand experts across the country indicate that successful efforts share common characteristics, even across different levels of government.

Stability and Innovation working together

A common thread among our public sector interviewees was the – often surprising – interplay between stability and innovation.  The best volunteer initiatives take root in public institutions and grow by investing in and adding value to their public sector environments.  A stable bureaucratic environment certainly requires its coordinators who oversee volunteer engagement to practice patience and persistence, but if you think public administration necessarily stifles innovation, think again.

Institutional momentum is a powerful force, indeed, but for those volunteer engagement professionals with the stamina and desire to “learn the ropes” within an organization, innovation through incremental change is achievable.  In fact, the public sector professionals we interviewed tended to embody an inspiring mix of perseverance and flexibility.

Once a public sector volunteer strategy finds its niche, the stability provided through public sector organizational momentum is unparalleled.  Constantly decried as overgrown, immovable, and opaque, public sector stability actually offers two fundamental advantages to its volunteer initiatives: consistent resource allocation and an organizational culture of accountability.  Having established clear return on investment in volunteerism, top-performing government volunteer programs earn a place at the table as constituent supported and cost-effective means to increase capacity.  It is here, within public sector volunteerism, where stability and innovation can combine to create greater social impact.