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Self-Disruption: Evolving from traditionally-managed volunteer events into full-spectrum programming

Originally Published in Engage Journal Q4 2020

For decades, running a strong volunteer program meant clearly defining roles and responsibilities, sourcing the right volunteers, and managing consistent project delivery. Today, the same considerations remain true, but the practices of delivering them in a modern setting have dramatically and irreversibly changed. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is a watershed moment both in strategic positioning to deliver essential services and in operating capability under mandatory social isolation restrictions. Organizers who have approached service delivery via their legacy, top-down structures are losing both their ability and their authority to operate. Volunteer Engagement Mangers (“VEMs”) who have empowered distributed stakeholders to interact one-on-one - online and in-person - on behalf of their organizations are experiencing a surge in engagement while improving the circumstances of vulnerable populations. Post-COVID-19, the lesson will remain: organizers who employ an array of methods to deliver services are poised to dramatically scale their impact, and those who purely practice command-and-control volunteer management are destined to fade into obscurity.



If you are reading this article, there is a pretty good chance you have strong ideas about what constitutes an effective volunteer program. You probably also have conviction in your experience running such a program yourself. And you are probably correct.

But the challenge of modernity is recognizing that what has been correct in the past might not be in the present. When those gaps in suitability are sufficiently sizable, a burgeoning opportunity appears, not for mere competitors or substitutes, but instead for Disruptors - providers whose value proposition is so compelling that the market changes around them. 

Disruptive Innovation Theory has been a staple of 21st century business education since its introduction in 1995 by Harvard Business School Professors Clay Christensen and his collaborators, and later expanded in his 1997 business classic, The Innovator’s Dilemma

As Christensen argues, Disruption happens because an incumbent company (or non-profit!) is targeting their highest value customers and does not prioritize serving mainstream or low-end customers. That leaves room for a new entrant - a Disruptor - to target those unserved customers with a new product offering - valuable functionality with a lower cost (i.e. easier to access).

The Disruptor starts with the low-end customers and slowly expands their offerings to target mainstream customers, and eventually begins targeting the high-value customers - completely changing the dynamic of the market and eroding the incumbent’s business.



An overwhelming number of VEMs today focus on the types of high-value volunteers who will:

  • Repeatedly return and deliver high-value services
  • Become regular donors

In doing so, VEMs advertise programs like:

  • In-person volunteer opportunities with long-term commitments
  • Corporate volunteering options with bespoke, structured activities

In doing so, they emphasize workflows like:

  • In-depth screening through applications and interviews
  • Trainings followed by required, sustained commitments
  • Specialization and formal reporting procedures

There is no question that volunteers who successfully complete these tasks  offer more value per person compared to those who do not - those are your high-value volunteers.

But do these processes produce the most value for your organization? Or do they inadvertently deter potential volunteers, effectively reducing the total productivity and volume of downstream donations that could have been realized by an even larger number of volunteers who may also become donors?

Three major challenges are making it harder than ever to recruit “high-value” volunteers using traditional recruiting processes:

  • 50% growth in the number of American nonprofits means that volunteers have more choices than ever
    • Millennials volunteer just as much as other generations at their age, but they have more they tend to “shop around” before making a commitment.
  • Corporate volunteering programs are increasingly driven by employees’ interests and no longer return to the same nonprofits year after year.
  • COVID-19 relief work necessitates dynamic and nimble service delivery - like peer-to-peer support - which is exceedingly difficult or logistically impossible using traditional, structured programs.

Beginning with my academic studies of volunteer management in 2004 and enduring through my professional experience managing a volunteer software platform over a decade later, I suspected that implementing involved, on-site, asynchronous volunteer onboarding processes was a hallmark of the largest VEMs with the most resources, not one of the mass market - aka smaller VEMs looking to scale the reach and output of their programs. 

When Clay Christensen and his investing partner, Bill Hambrecht, observed our team’s plans to automate sourcing and allocating volunteers, we became the first investment made through their Disruptive Innovation venture capital fund. Their belief was that serving the entry-level of the volunteer management market would eventually shift the demands of VEMs and volunteers in both general and specialized market segments.

In 2020, the demands of every market segment changed in an instant with the onset of COVID-19. Everyone was at risk of being infected, health consequences were significant, governments demanded their constituents, “Shelter-in-place,” isolated in the confines of their residences, offices shut down, the timeline for return to normalcy was totally uncertain. As infection numbers surged, needs for services spiked, and most organizers were unable and unauthorized to operate their services - either because facilities were closed, teams could not gather in person, needs for skills shifted, clients disbursed, health guidelines rendered typical delivery mechanisms impossible, or any combination thereof. The need for new tools was no longer an academic exercise in Disruption Theory. It was a practical emergency for organizers to fundamentally change their operations in order to continue delivering their traditional services to an explosion of constituents who were logistically an order of magnitude more difficult to engage. 

For the global practice of volunteer management, COVID-19 was the exact moment of self-disruption. Organizers had two options, sit dormant for an unforeseeable amount of time, or build anew to suit present demands. As I write this piece to be published in the closing months of 2020, there is no clear end in sight, but some regions are beginning to transition back to gathering in offices and schools. If and when the pandemic does pass, the new tools and practices adopted by organizers who chose to rise to the occasion will remain, and the market for volunteer programs will be irreversibly changed as a result of incorporating new workflows. 



The core challenges posed by COVID-19 to VEMs is that more people are vulnerable and isolated than ever, yet assembling on-site groups of volunteers to provide assistance is both unsafe and impractical. How can organizations who allocate resources meet the increased demand, in a timely manner, using unorthodox delivery methods?

Traditional volunteer management practice typically follows a command-and-control operating model that, without room for innovation, fails at critical points in service delivery. Formats of volunteer activities include conducting a calendar of on-site training activities, requesting potential volunteers commit to performing certain activities in advance of their occurrence, managing activities from a central headquarters, and collecting survey results after the activity has terminated. But what happens when an event is unforeseen, when volunteers have not been identified in advance, if the communications were not sent to needy populations, or when there is not sufficient infrastructure in place to respond? Every stakeholder pays a price for a system failing to meet pressing objectives.

While many lifestyle organizers have chosen to sit this challenge out, frontline responders have creatively searched for and rapidly adopted trustworthy solutions. During social isolation, vulnerable individuals’ acute needs have become more pronounced, access for providers to service them has been reduced, and visibility into whose needs are outstanding and their relative urgency has been obscured - even when these vulnerable individuals are our neighbors, sheltered in their homes across the street.

For disaster responders, identifying and delivering efficient services to vulnerable populations are standard operating procedures. For example, the ability and speed for fire departments to respond to calls vary widely according to distance from facilities, population densities, and funding. During wildfires, some of the most vulnerable areas are rural, where there may not be a fire station within several miles of a blaze. In these cases, fire responders rely on a portfolio of techniques to reach potential victims including, preparatory training, digital communications, partnerships with volunteer fire departments and third party organizers, and distribution of authority to field personnel.  All of these tools can and should be adopted in broader volunteer management use cases.



Inspired by the disaster responders’ approaches, Volunteer Engagement Professionals should consider adapting the following approaches to existing workflows in order to more nimbly and comprehensively serve their constituents:

Inventory System

Volunteer opportunities should be treated as live inventory, not as a concept of what becoming involved with the organization in the future might entail. This way, when that moment in the future occurs, there is no confusion and delay in defining objectives and allocating resources. 

Converting opportunities to live inventory is a straightforward shift. First, identify and define every conceivable touchpoint where a volunteer, skilled or unskilled, could add value to your organization through performing a specific function (imagine you are holding a yard sale - grab everything you want to move and place it in your driveway). 

Second, define how many volunteers from which specific cohorts (for example, the public, defined groups(s) or individuals who hold targeted third party affiliations) you will need, and attach it to the opportunity. This way you, as the organizer, can both track your progress toward fulfilling needs by observing capacity and take-rate and re-engage participants at critical junctures by increasing capacity and distributing it among existing audiences. 

Automated Intake

Asynchronous onboarding of volunteers is the single biggest driver of potential volunteer attrition. After shifting to an inventory-based model of volunteer opportunity content, there should be no reason to make a potential volunteer wait for a meeting where you can further assess their candidacy. Signups should be instant and binding, not merely an expression of interest in future discussion. Any delay can render moot the services potential volunteers could have provided during a crisis, and the needs they would be addressing will certainly shift between the time a volunteer expresses interest and fulfills a future need. 

In the meantime, the organizer’s job is to set fair expectations and capture optimal capacity of the inventory of opportunities. This approach reduces barriers to engagement, builds a roster of capable resources, shortens fulfillment times, and establishes a cadence of two-way trust and responsibility at the onset of the volunteer-organizer relationship. Privacy and distribution of opportunities can be managed through controlled distribution to targeted groups, and providing evergreen, general market opportunities can facilitate initial connections between your organization and potential new supporters.

Living Volunteer Profiles

In contrast to static volunteer profiles, which are simply paper records or database entry fields, manually updated by an administrator to approximately reflect personal details and capabilities of volunteers, living volunteer profiles are real-time views into the current and complete picture of the volunteer. Just like a Facebook profile, volunteers control the completion of a comprehensive set of declared facets, like Date of Birth, Languages Spoken, and Dietary Restrictions, from any device that can access the software system of record. When the volunteer adds or modifies information, the system immediately is aware of the update. 

Live profiles are also aware of the history of engagement and ascribed credentials of the volunteer - both of which the volunteer cannot self-manage. Adaptive systems record activity completions, authenticate administrators and verify memberships, and use the awareness of fields like these to curate private opportunities for volunteers according to their eligibility. For example, if the system knows the volunteer has completed an orientation, it can automatically show the volunteer private opportunities accessible only to qualified participants. Benefits of living volunteer profiles to VEMs include reduced administration time, greater accuracy of profile, higher security, and quicker response time in activating volunteers to fulfil urgent needs. 


Packaging training materials, posting them online, enabling viewers to self-serve, and tracking completion has become the best practice for educating volunteers because it shortens delivery time, improves information retention, accommodates different learning styles and abilities, and can be accessible from anywhere. Whether for orientation or continued education, publishing videos and hosting regular or recorded webinars will better equip volunteers for ongoing and emergent service use cases.

Virtual Meetings

When volunteer activities are not designed to be physically engaging, providing a virtual venue reaches a broader audience and decreases participant churn. This practice is more inclusive of volunteers who may have conflicting outside responsibilities or encounter unplanned logistical complications. Offering an online venue reduces the need to schedule additional occurrences of the same activity. The benefits to the organizer and the organization’s constituents are the work can get done earlier, more often, and with more throughput. 

Variable Timeframes

By defining parameters around activities, organizers can more accurately ensure successful delivery time-sensitive of objectives. Traditional volunteer opportunities often occur at a defined place and time. Virtual opportunities may occur at a defined online place and time. Flexible opportunities allow volunteers to schedule activities on their own time, once, repeatedly, before a deadline, or on a recurring basis. Enabling greater performance flexibility, within defined time parameters, empowers volunteers to complete critical tasks with more velocity and as a background operation, so organizers can focus on managing core activities. 

Templated Opportunities

Conceptualizing, defining, and seeking approval to publish new volunteer opportunities can often be uncomfortable and time-consuming processes for organizers - but they need not be. Largely, opportunities share a common structure of purpose and role, with slight permutations of contextual difference. Organizers should begin by creating skeletons of their core and high-frequency opportunities, and adjust those templates to accommodate slight differences pertaining to specific contexts. Each of the permutations can be submitted to a supervisor or colleague for a quick review before publishing. Maintaining standard templates expedites and professionalizes iterating, publishing, distributing, and fulfilling tasks.

Distributed Management

Not every activity requires centralized management. In fact, many highly-replicated activities can actually be adapted to more appropriately target local communities. For this reason, many enterprise-scale organizers charter local chapters and local organizers empower field organizers to create and manage activities on their behalf. Benefits include tighter relationships with volunteers and constituents, greater awareness of community needs, more personal contacts with third party partners, and more nimble decision-making as new needs arise in the field. 

Transitioning to distributed management can be handled through identifying capable stakeholders, preparing them to succeed in fulfilling your objectives, and empowering them to engage volunteers and deliver programming on your behalf. Developing trusted actors in the field delivers more timely and accurate information back to headquarters for strategic review, adapts the organization’s competencies to address local needs, and establishes connectivity with third-party operators whose objectives are aligned with your organization. 

Remote Evaluation

Field tools enable local operators to document service delivery in real-time, so strategies can be assessed and resource allocation can be adjusted on the fly. Across a portfolio of utilities like check-in kiosks, user-generated content collection portals, and productivity logs, VEMs eliminate lag time toward calculating cost and benefit per outcome to which they are targeting. 

Peer-to-Peer Facilitation

A more radical, but hyper-effective, version of distributed organizing can be activated in the form of Mutual Aid - open or closed communities wherein individuals exchange needs and offers to assist each other where standard programming would be too unwieldy to yield personalized results in an expedient manner. Mutual Aid can take many forms - neighborhood watch associations, skills exchanges, mentoring groups, and more. 

Organizers who recognize thriving stakeholder communities may be able to help manage and fulfil delivery of obscure needs by hosting a destination environment for discovering and following-through with isolated tasks. Neighbors have utilized open communities like Facebook Community Help and Nextdoor Help Map to take care of each other during social isolation. Hospital Groups have managed discharged patient care through private mutual aid communities comprised of pre-qualified volunteers. Every network has limits, and establishing a point of connection to peer-to-peer interactions that support your objectives can exponentially increase your footprint.

Partner Networks

Some objectives are too vast, complex, pervasive, or forceful to address on your own. In these cases, establishing shared objectives with operating partners within and beyond the nonprofit sector can make it easier for outcomes-oriented organizers to identify needs; itemize pursuits of resolving those needs; involve partner entities and their resources; introduce visibility to participating organizers in the network to the work of peer institutions toward improving focus, reducing redundancy, and identify outstanding objectives; and establish a sense of collective spirit in pursuing a lofty goal. 


The overall pattern we see here is that maintaining and modifying existing processes to accommodate safety and regulatory requirements is an approach that further complicates an already difficult protocol, and thereby reduces the throughput of a volunteer program. Instead, the contribution-oriented organizer should adopt an outcomes-driven approach to conducting operations - one that favors delivery of the intended output for the intended audience via whatever means appear safe, efficient, and effective. While workaround workflows may revert to traditional patterns if and when work environments return to normal, resourcefulness in program management is a competency that will persist beyond the pandemic.



A helpful way to think about self-disruption is through a simple “user-centered design” exercise: put yourself in the shoes of your constituents, and ask what the most efficient way to receive the service you need would be. Then, as an organizer, prioritize the needs of the constituent over your desire to manage volunteer process delivery. Adopt whatever practices accomplish the performance improvement objective for the constituent without compromising the integrity of your program. At the end of the day, a volunteer’s primary motivation is to improve the outcome of the constituent, so providing a clear, actionable path to do so provides the positive externalities of scaling your program and enhancing your integrity as a provider. 

We will get through this together when we treat volunteer programs like ecosystems rather than pathways. Many of us eagerly await a return to the in-person interactions of the pre-COVID-19 era, but the practices we adopt in the meantime will henceforth expand our established offerings to meet the broader, formerly-obscured needs of our stakeholders. Disrupting our own assumptions and processes to deliver simplified, more valuable offerings to our constituents may very well be the disguised blessing that emerges from this pandemic.


Introduction of the Author

Sam Fankuchen is the pioneering Editor of Ahead of The Curve, the Innovation & Technology section of the Engage Journal. Sam has been interested in making volunteering more approachable, meaningful, and productive for his entire adult life. He became the first undergraduate student to major in Social Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Stanford University, where he also founded Pinwheel, his first social venture in the online volunteering space. As a graduate student in the Design School (the “d.School”), he wrote his Masters Thesis recruiting, retaining, and optimizing the lifetime value of volunteers and donors. Thereafter, Sam managed Corporate Innovation for a global transportation services enterprise and led a management consulting firm specializing in corporate transformation around connected device data ecosystems and frontier technologies. He avidly mentors startups and social ventures through the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University, CleanTech Open, LaunchpadLA, and AmplifyLA and has lectured at Harvard Business School, the Marshall School of Business Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab at USC, the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and other institutions of higher education. Since founding Golden in 2015, it has become both the most popular app for volunteering and globally-awarded software for volunteer management across sectors.