To Reinvent the Wheel – or to Develop Something Totally New? That is the question.

These days, when someone asks a question about a best practice or tool, all it usually takes to find the answer is a quick online search… or, perhaps, a phone call to colleagues. But last year, when I was coaching a team from Colorado’s Community Resource Center (CRC), an organization dedicated to strengthening the state’s nonprofit sector, along its path to becoming a certified Service Enterprise, the team recognized that they paid some of their volunteer mentors a stipend and others not, depending on the region and program. They asked me if any best practices or tools existed to guide their future practice.

I got to work seeking the answer, as I hadn’t ever researched this before. Yet, after online searches and calls with fellow consultants and volunteer engagement leaders across the US, no one clear answer turned up. One of those calls was with Karmit Bulman, the Executive Director of the Minnesota Association of Volunteer Administration, who suggested we work together to create such a tool. As a result, a cross-state working group was formed with members from Colorado and Minnesota who have spent that last year collaborating to research the issue, gather input from practitioners across the field, and share resources back to the field.

Next month, I along with working group members from CRC and MAVA will be cofacilitating a session at the 2019 Points of Light Conference in St. Paul, MN. At that session, we will share the results of our national survey, review sample policies on volunteer payments/reimbursements, and engage participants in dialogue about the challenges, risks, and benefits to providing reimbursement and/or stipends to volunteers. We will also gather input on tools that could benefit the field so that our working group can determine our next steps. If you are attending Points of Light, we invite you to participate in this session, “Paying Volunteers:  How, When, and Why.” (Note: We at VQ Volunteer Strategies will also be presenting four other sessions, and you are invited to join us in those as well.)

In addition to the questions about policies for paying volunteers through reimbursements or stipends, this whole process has been quite fascinating and refreshing. Representatives from multiple organizations with no formal mutual affiliation came together to help the field with a question we believe is important to explore and address. We share a commitment to engagement – and have all contributed resources, time, and thought to exploring this topic, gathering input from the field and eventually sharing back the results and some tools. Yes, the core team members all work to build the capacity of constituent organizations or clients, so the work relates to our missions. Yet, we have simply collaborated, trading off who does the heavy lifting throughout various points of the process as we have had no designated lead or sponsor. In other words, we are a self-organized group of volunteers.

It has been refreshing to work with this team to develop an answer to a compelling question. What questions do you have for the field? Have you encountered gaps in practice or tools? While we don’t advocate for reinventing the wheel – the field and our needs are ever evolving. So, after researching and discovering that no “wheel” existed for this particular question, it has been refreshing to simply convene an ad hoc working group of respected colleagues to fill that gap. We encourage others to join with peers to collaborate and address other needs as they emerge. If you are attending the Points of Light conference, this will be a great opportunity to reconnect with colleagues, meet new peers, and explore emerging – as well as age-old – issues facing the field. What wheels will you discover? What new wheels might you need to develop with a network of like-minded colleagues? We can’t wait to find out.