5 Best Practices Behind Community-Centered Volunteering and the Tools You Need to Make It Happen

Discover how to shift to community-centered volunteering along with peer-recommended nonprofit tech tools to help you grow your program with ease.

Volunteers gain valuable experiences that enable them to shed some of their bias and begin to view issues in your community through a systemic lens — if your program is structured in a way that supports these outcomes. 

By becoming community-centered in your nonprofit’s volunteer engagement efforts, you can bring people together around service to their communities, something they can bond over, something they feel that defines them. It’s deeper than a day of “giving back.” Community-centric volunteerism invites participants to make it a lifestyle. And it’s more than possible when your organizational leaders work to change your mindset around the purpose of volunteering and the incredible opportunities it can offer.

At Camp Impact, we delved into best practices for changing your volunteer mindset with nonprofit leaders who’ve been there:

  • Rob Pabon, Partnerships Manager at Chicago Cares 
  • Alexia Klatt, Community & Volunteer Engagement Manager at United Way of King County
  • Joe Tatum, Volunteer Manager at Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia

Check out what they have to say, and tune in to the tech tools recommended by nonprofit leaders who’ve adopted these practices and grew their programs in our session recording. 


1. Break Away from Disney World Volunteering

We need to deconstruct and dismantle the tradition of saviorism in volunteering, because the outcomes result in the opposite of what we want to achieve. Recognition-focused engagement programs can feel like “Disney World Volunteering.” You're coming in, you're welcomed, everybody's giving you a high five, and you get picked up and carried to the project. And while you may have good intentions in creating or participating, there's a power dynamic within this construct that harms communities, perpetuates bias, and distracts from your mission. 

That’s why it’s critical to break down those white institutional racist artifacts of volunteering and shift to a mutual experience of relationship-building opportunities to build a bridge between volunteers and who they serve. Now, we can all serve with empathy, shed that bias, and move people towards action that is actually impactful and centered around community goals.


2. Move from Transactional Volunteer Relationships to Transformational Ones  

Many organizations' main focuses are fundraising and grant-making. Naturally, their volunteer program may lean on corporate partners who want a project and define their needs for the project. Then the organization delivers it in return for a donation of some kind. But that transactional approach demands the Disney World experience directed by the volunteer group’s stated desire that they want to see their impact, which is really just coded language for a kind of tourism that allows people of privilege to see these systemic issues and their devastating effects up close, pitch in for a day, get that social media moment, and then dip back out. 

In transformational volunteer programs, the transactions or donations take a backseat to relationship-building that empowers your nonprofit and your corporate partner to co-design a program together in a way that truly benefits the community. In this model, it’s no longer a one-off, fuzzy “feel good” day. It’s about working together to achieve meaningful, long-term strategic goals and creating that transformational experience that changes hearts and minds.


3. Root Your Volunteer Program in Equity

When volunteering and fundraising intersect, it can affect how you frame your program. To shift to community-centered fundraising, you’ll want to move from a charity mindset to an equity one by moving the activity of volunteering out of charity.

In doing so, you’ll instinctively focus on service that addresses root and structural causes in a manner that inspires action from your volunteers beyond their time with you. Before you make a decision, ask the following two questions: 

  • Who does this benefit? 
  • Who made this harm? 

This sequence of questioning can serve as a guiding star for your organization as you work to live your anti-racist values and transformational values. Consider them project-planning musts. 


4. Take Time to Educate Your Volunteers…

When your organization approaches volunteering with an equity-focused mindset, you’ll bring your volunteers along in your journey to realize your mission. And this is where education comes into play.

Start with a volunteer orientation that teaches volunteers about the systems involved in your work and the community members you serve, so they can enter the community in a way that honors its members. For example, if you send volunteers to work at your food pantry after this type of orientation, they have the context to challenge their assumptions and think about food insecurity and its root causes.


5. … So You Can Agitate and Activate Them

Rather than those fleeting, feel-good charity mindsets, you want your volunteers to leave their experience fired up and ready to have those harder conversations. Volunteering starts with the individual, but with the right educational opportunities in place, it can result in a collective spirit that motivates them to join the charge for change on a long-term basis. 

When volunteers are prompted to critically analyze these situations, they move from good citizens for the day to true agents of change who become embedded in your organization and the community you serve. Look at it this way: When you go to a food pantry, instead of volunteers saying, “Hey, Rob's family comes here all the time. You know, he's such a good guy,” you want them to wonder about the whys behind his situation. The whys behind the food pantry existing in the first place. 

And although setting up your program this way requires a shift in your mindset and culture, the traditional volunteer engagement method of thanking people a hundred times will never have the impact of an experience that makes your volunteer feel changed and inspired to do more. 

Volunteer Management Success Stories: Follow the Lead of These Nonprofit Leaders

Community-centered volunteerism invites your nonprofit to identify authentic partnerships within your community with people who want to join together and progress change. Learn from these nonprofit leaders who joined Camp Impact to share how they supercharged their volunteer programs with nonprofit tech that streamlines, enhances, and even automates aspects of their volunteer management and experiences. 



Simplify your tech stack

Director of Development at Habitat for Humanity of Kansas City, Melissa Jones Kon-Mari’d her tech stack from six platforms to one using Giveffect. Her volunteer services team now supports over 4,500 volunteers annually and they’re 100% paperless.

Boost volunteer recruitment

Executive Director at Kelly Center for Hunger Relief Warren E. Goodell collaborates with HelpAction to seamlessly recruit volunteer drivers to deliver food.

Bring it all together your way

Development Manager at SheJumps Vivian Robbins discovered Keela, a one-stop-shop fundraising and donor management CRM that perfectly flexed to meet the many needs of her organization’s unique structure, including their volunteer program. 

Save time with a dedicated system

Program and Volunteer Manager at Austin Diaper Bank Heather Trent gained 35 to 40 hours per week using the POINT volunteer management system.

Let the tech do the work for you

Operations Manager at Feeding Families Steve Sheard lets volunteers come to him using the volunteer self-service app Volunteero, saving him 40 to 50 hours of work each week.


Optimize Your Volunteer Program Today


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