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Why Centering Equity in Volunteering Matters

Over the past couple of years, organizations of all kinds have been implementing diversity, equity, and inclusion policies and practices. They are taking steps to ensure that their internal operations and the ways they interact with the community support the changes they want to see in the world. Centering equity in volunteering is key. We looked at the work being done on equity and inclusivity in the nonprofit space and have ideas on how you can make an even greater impact. 

equity in volunteering

🧡 Centering Equity in Community Interactions 

According to Karmit Bulman Esq., the Executive Director of the Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement (MAVA), part of the problem is that many nonprofits have not devoted resources to making sure their volunteers reflect the communities they serve. “Many neighborhoods supported by nonprofits are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC), yet volunteers often are primarily white,” she says. This can create transactional relationships where one party, mostly white folks, is doing the giving, and the other party, mostly BIPOC, is doing the receiving. Additionally, Bulman remarks that in many cases like this, “Those receiving support do not have a voice at the organization regarding how support is offered.”

This is a crucial point! Whenever organizations are serving a community that their leadership is not a part of, there needs to be concentrated effort focused on listening to the community. People know what is best for their situation and their community. While organizations may be able to problem-solve with band-aid solutions, engaging with the community and asking for their perspective can help solve issues at the root. Or, it may be that the solution is good, but there are cultural nuances in how it can be implemented that a white leadership team may not see. And getting that community buy-in can make or break an initiative. 

🧡 Diversifying Your Volunteer Pool 

Another issue that Bulman points to is that “support is delivered by people who do not look like community members or have the lived experience of being BIPOC.” Diversifying staff and volunteers can go a long way towards building community trust and greater impact. While the community your nonprofit directly serves may not have the capacity to volunteer regularly, finding people who can relate to them creates a culture of welcomeness and inclusion. For example, say your organization serves a mainly Arabic-speaking population, but none of your volunteers (or staff!) can speak fluent Arabic. The community members you serve may feel less welcomed or connected to your organization. You’re not doing anything wrong, but making an effort to find Arabic-speaking volunteers or staff speaks volumes. 

And be sure to also listen to what they have to say. Once you have staff and volunteers who identify with your community, they will likely have ideas on how to improve. Their perspective provides incredible insight as to how you can reach more people, have a greater impact, and do more good in the community. As Bulman states, “Listening and centering the voices of BIPOC are essential steps we must take before we again move into action.” She notes that MAVA is actively seeking out “a wider array of community voices to evaluate the systems in place” by hosting listening sessions with BIPOC communities. 

🧡 Systemic change through equity work 

In Emergent Strategy, author Adrienne Maree Brown talks about how complex systems are really made of just lots of little simple interactions. Systemic change is a fractal that has to start within to spiral outwards. The same values that any nonprofit wants to see change in the world through their work have to start within the organization’s structure itself. So if an organization truly values equity, they have to do the work to be more equitable in their own systems.

Bulman shares that a central tenet of equity is to “first and foremost engage people from the communities most affected by the problem.” Listen to them tell you what their needs are, where they need support, and how they would love to see their community resourced. Once you have programs established, check in often with the people using your services and ask them for feedback. You can check in one on one, by doing surveys, or by hosting listening sessions. Most importantly, you give the community an avenue to be heard and follow through on making changes. 

🧡 Centering Equity in Volunteering at Your Nonprofit 

These are just examples of ways to begin centering equity in your organization. Every nonprofit is unique, so use this list as an inspiration to think more deeply about what true equity looks like within your organization. 

  1. Give a voice to the people you serve. Make sure you engage with the communities you serve in meaningful ways. Use their perspectives to inform your priorities and how you show up for them. 
  2. Diversify your volunteers and staff. Actively seek out people whose lived experience is similar to the people from the communities you work in.
  3. Treat community members as stakeholders. While your Board has important sway in how your nonprofit sets priorities, they are not usually the direct recipients of your programs. The community you serve should have a seat at the table when it comes to priority-setting. Engage with them, or even reserve seats on your Board for people from your community. 
  4. Look at your internal representation of your values. Compare your values of equity to how your internal structures are organized. Course correct and innovate to ensure that your internal practices are reflective of your DEI values. 
  5. Recruit staff and volunteers that speak other languages. Having people who are fluent in the language(s) spoken by your clients can immediately help them feel more seen and welcomed by your organization. 
  6. Regularly evaluate your equity goals. It’s great to say things and put initiatives out there, but implementing specific checkpoints for your organization to evaluate your progress is key. 

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This blog post features quotes from Karmit Bulman, Esq. Executive Director, Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement: www.mavanetwork.org. Please visit their website to learn more about their impactful work on advancing equity and inclusivity in the nonprofit sector.

Photo Brandy Strand
Brandy Strand
Nonprofit Partnerships Account Executive

No guilt trips, no sad stories. Just a chance to do something good.