Reader gripes lead to a fresh look at coordinating volunteerism efforts


November 01, 1993|By LESTER A. PICKER

Reader response is what keeps any columnist fresh. It provides perspective and humility to what otherwise might be a one-sided exercise in verbosity.

Every week readers like you write or call to represent opposing views on issues raised in this column. In other cases, you suggest items which you feel should be covered. In still other cases, you tell me what are your pet peeves. Three recent entries in the gripes category caught my attention, so I'm sharing them here -- no opinions, just passing them along for your comments.

The first gripe deals with diversity. After I finished a recent speech to a group of executives, an African-American businessman approached me with this quandary. Every board he knew seemed to sincerely want diversity within its ranks, a movement he heartily endorses. This successful corporate executive told me he was already serving on several nonprofit boardsand being actively pursued by others.

The problem, he reported to me, typically starts after he begins service. Suddenly, white board members don't know what to do with him or his diverse viewpoints. Having been born and raised in an economically deprived urban setting, and after receiving an advanced degree in business from an excellent school, he tends "to tell it like it is." He calls it his "personal brand of reality therapy."

His problem is that these boards don't often want to hear him tell it like it is. It's not his outspokenness that's at issue, he told me in frustration. Rather, it's the content of what he says that often creates awkward moments in a board's discussions. According to this man, his comments on racially insensitive remarks and behaviors make the board nervous and defensive, even though his comments are meant to instruct, not chastise. His suggestions on ways to improve program events to make them more inviting for minority clients often conflict with the group's good intent but, according to him, lousy execution.

How do other area boards handle diversity within their ranks in a positive, proactive manner that is ultimately rewarding to all members?

The next gripe concerns government support for nonprofit organizations. The tales of woe actually came from two different sources, each with its own unique story.

What is the ideal interface between the nonprofit and government sectors? Using one of these cases to illustrate the ++ point, a nonprofit agency had a long-standing, annual contract with the city for services to indigent people. Anticipating the recent recession, the board of this agency started an austerity program that resulted in significant cost savings.

The problem was that the following year the city cut the agency's bare-bones contract by the same amount the agency had saved through its internal cost-cutting measures. According this chief executive, through this and similar actions, the government actually levies disincentives forcost-cutting. Save a dollar and lose a dollar in the form of reduced contracts. He wondered if there might be a better way to encourage savings, while supporting the nonprofit contractually in a manner that would allow for program strengthening. I wonder, too. Have other agencies been through this route and emerged financially better off? Are there government programs which encourage savings without offsetting contract cutbacks?

Finally, I can't seem to put this gripe in perspective. Over the past couple of years, I've received maybe a dozen calls, letters or comments at meetings from executive directors and board members expressing their need for more help with volunteers.

Now, you need to know that there are some fine agencies and people out there offering help with volunteerism. The Resource Center of United Way of Central Maryland comes to mind. It links opportunitieswith warm bodies looking for volunteer experiences, and offers workshops on developing volunteer programs. Volunteer Maryland!, part of The Governor's Office on Volunteerism, offers training for volunteer coordinators, sponsors internships and offers first-rate conferences on volunteer issues.

At a recent meeting, one trustee told me that was fine and good, but what he wants is one organization that comprehensively addresses all aspects of volunteerism. Using a computer analogy, he referred to "a systems approach to volunteerism."

Would you agree? If so, please share with me what that ideal system would include. Contact me at the address below. I'll even start a new gripes list.

(Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md., 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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