A Volunteer Bill of Rights

Today, the DC Central Kitchen will unveil a new effort that we hope will push our own organizational envelope, while also jump-starting the semi-stalled dialogue about the future of philanthropy in America…..a Volunteer Bill of Rights.

I serve on the board or advisory board for a bunch of great organizations (including Charity Navigator, The Alliance for Effective Social Investing, The Philanthropic Collaborative and Great Nonprofits) which have convened some of the best minds in the biz to see if we can use our collective brain power to help free the sector’s finances (and future) from the grip of what we ALL agree is the intellectual tar of “low administrative overhead”.

To that great goal, we have devoted numerous meetings to discussions revolving around which metrics can or should be measured, in what order, and most importantly, to what ends.

Naturally, this led us to genuflect to the need for outside evaluation—to the proxy of an unbiased third-party that would “certify” that groups actually do what they say they do.

I dig this direction, as this would help donors see that sometimes, things that look good, sound good and feel good can actually be astoundingly lame (For example: serving LOTS of meals sounds good, but it really isn’t, unless the meals being served are healthy. One clogs the arteries, the other frees the mind…ya dig?)

Which got me thinking….

Back in the day, when I was running nightclubs, there were really only a handful of “great” restaurants in America, and they were all French, period. Now, just about EVERY city in America boasts a bevy of great dining establishments. How did that happen?

I’ll tell you. Restaurant critics (often women writers who, in the 1960’s and 70’s, were relegated to the “women’s page” of the local paper) began to explore a new way of reviewing restaurants. This generation of writers began with a simple concept—diners had rights—and they crafted a whole new set of metrics that used “diner’s dollars” as the sharp point of their critical pens. They championed a new generation of American chefs by telling an escalating number of diners that they did not have to take what was served and like it—they could send it back. They could demand better. And demand they did. Soon, restaurant managers were training staff to be more accommodating and to talk to customers about the ingredients of the food. Open kitchens began to appear. Soon chefs began to come out of the kitchen to greet increasingly sophisticated diners and sit with them to talk about food theory, locally sourced products, green practices and giving back to community. And now, with the advent of the internet, comes technology that allows ANY customer to review a restaurant. And, it is because of that customer driven system that just about EVERY community in America now boasts numerous great restaurants that continue to push the boundries.

So rather than set out on a course that would have us hire expensive experts to verify what we do at DCCK….we did what we always do—look right in front of us—and we found close to 14,000 potential evaluators waiting on deck: the men and women, students and families who volunteer with us every year.

Frankly, if DCCK volunteers, and America’s 60 million volunteers start asking…no, demanding that they be told, in detail, what they did and why its important to the community–what the investment of their time helped grow–THAT will drive innovation a whole lot faster than another “Y x Z x % of Pi = Good” formula.

So, as of tomorrow, the Volunteer Bill of Rights will be posted throughout ALL DCCK business locations (including the 26 amazing Campus Kitchens). It gets right to the point—ALL volunteers have the right to:

  • Work in a safe environment.
  • Be treated with respect by all staff members.
  • Be engaged in meaningful work and be actively included regardless of any physical limitations.
  • Be told what impact your work made in the community.
  • Ask any staff member questions about our work.
  • Provide feedback about your experience.
  • Receive a copy of our financial information or annual report upon request.

Some of these rights are, of course, pretty obvious….but by publicly committing to these standards, we hope that volunteers will see this list and will feel comfortable talking to ANY member of our team–that they will dig deep into our financial reports and they will ask us hard questions and push harder still for details, which we are, to a team member, double down ready to provide.

All of these rights are important….but the most purposeful of these is the one right in the middle—the right to “be told what impact your work made in the community”. THAT’S the kicker. We want, and think it’s critical, that every nonprofit in America be prepared to answer that question, in detail. No more fuzzy, feel good platitudes. No more bromides, brothers and sisters—it’s about facts and figures. Verifiable, Hard Core, Detailed Deeds.

Look, like a whole bunch of you, we are really excited by how much we pack into our 24-7-365 programs, and we WANT volunteers to ask LOTS of questions. To that end, we were thrilled to be a lead partner with our colleague and friend, Perla Ni at Great Nonprofits when they recently launched their new volunteer review project, which empowers volunteers to rate their experiences at programs like DCCK. She and her partners at Guidestar are way out front on this and they deserve big props.

But, this isn’t a time for talk, or theory or more meeting….this is a time for movement. The wheat is being seperated from the chaffe, baby….and the winds are blowing harder and harder everyday.

So see the future. Be part of making something bigger happen. We are an open source organization, so feel free to use this Bill of Rights in your shop. Add more rights if you see fit. If they rock, let us know so we can adapt our version. Call if you want and we’ll talk about how we trained our staff to translate talking to volunteers about these rights into opportunities to elevate the idea of what we are doing, together, so that folks can’t wait to come back—with friends, time and wallets in tow.

This isn’t about bucks…it’s about change….but we’re bucking the system to get us there.

Rights ON.