View Full Version : What non-profits do well

10-13-13, 11:51pm
I had an interesting time on Saturday observing the differences between two volunteer experiences. I have gone several times to do fire restoration work with a local organization after bad wildfires last year. The group organizes the following way: there is a head person (paid staff) and then a set of crew leaders (volunteers who have undergone some training); the crew leaders each lead a small group (5-7) other volunteers who may or may not have any experience with the type of work. Before work starts each small group assembles, has name tags and participates in a little ice-breaking and safety talk. The crew leader observes the first couple of hours of work, making corrections and encouragement as needed, before going whole-hog with the work themselves so that everyone is doing things pretty well. This works very well because the work gets done correctly, people feel like their time is well-spent, etc.
So Saturday I volunteered with the city to clean up flood debris from one of the city-owned open spaces. The city, however, does not normally have to organize dozens of random volunteers to do stuff like this so as expected, it was a little less organized. There were like 3 city employees who were trying to organize, plus people driving front-loaders and ATVs to gather trash piles and put stuff in large dumpsters. There were some supplies provided, such as masks and water, but tools were whatever you brought. Emails suggested stiff rakes and/or shovels. In practice, most brought rakes but would have been better off with a few more shovels (the email suggested some would be provided). In the end we got a lot done and nobody got hurt or anything, but it was pretty interesting to me to see how different but similar kinds of work occurred between a non-profit who is basically dedicated to organizing volunteers for a particular purpose, and a government agency thrust into that role unexpectedly. I don't want this to become some sort of criticism of how the government can't do anything, because if it depended on random volunteers to do the job of the city government, I'm guessing not too many of the breached roads would be open, and a whole lot more than 8 people would have died in the floods. Also, that's a discussion for public policy. But it is an interesting look at what happens when organizations do what they are created for, and I think sometimes it's easy to forget what non-profits often excel at. I've been happy to have given time and money to the restoration group, and there is also good evidence that the fire work we've done over the past year held up well during the floods and possibly prevented worse damage in that area.

10-13-13, 11:58pm
Doesn't seem to me this is a non-profit vs. govt. issue. It's more about the specific organizations you saw, and their pre-existing skills and organizations. If you'd called up a local fire/rescue company to *fight* that wildfire, for instance, I bet they'd know how to organize Some Things Required a lot better than a random civilian non-profit :-)

10-14-13, 7:44am
I agree with Bae.

It also depends on who shows up to do what. Some will be organized themselves and understand the need for an organized approach. Those who rarely do such things will not understand the process of being organized. it also depends on the leaders, some will be trained in organizing/leading and some not but willing to help out as best they can. LOL- just ask me how I know this difference, sigh.

10-14-13, 9:45am
Yes. Habitat here varies from defunct to dysfunctional to incredibly well run. Does not depend on the money but the people. Some could build 50 houses a year and others cannot get their act together to do one.

But even churches have issues. Our friend was president of his church board and we got to hear some of the inner stories. Sigh.

10-14-13, 8:59pm
I've also seen organizations that were doing well with volunteers start to flail around because the leadership didn't bother to do much transitioning to the next crop of leaders. I think there's alot to be said for a simple internal manual on different aspects or scenarios that would be a Lessons Learned that the new group could easily utilize.

10-17-13, 11:07pm
Yeah, I see your point. I have seen poorly organized not-for-profits, and of course many of the government agencies actually do well. For this type of thing, ie disaster cleanup, it seemed to me that the government did its job well, esp coordinating with each different level and also with some ad-hoc neighborhood groups and such. No non-profit would have been capable of some of that, such as flying >1000 people to safety or rapidly assessing hundreds of bridges and miles of roadway. OTOH, it also seems like the city is not as well-organized for this specific type of thing (and they need not be, normally) compared with a group already set up for this sort of situation. It was just interesting to me to see the difference, is all.
For a different comparison with which I do not have direct experience, volunteer fire-fighting vs federal fire fighters: I know our local volunteer guys do their very best but really work as a method of local, immediate front-line attacks. Some small fires have been stopped before they got going due to the volunteers' efforts, though once the fires get big it is way beyond the control of the local people, and even with a large number of federal fighters it's still a difficult effort. I know at least one volunteer fire station and several of the volunteer firefighters' houses burned in the High Park fire, even as they were involved in fighting it :(