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June 19, 2019
On a Wednesday in June, the Swift Youth Foundation team has been home at their office in Scottsdale, Ariz., for just a few days after the first session of Camp Swift, their annual summer camp in Prescott for economically disadvantaged youth.
After hosting a week of outdoor adventure, creative arts projects and fun learning activities for some 150 kids, the team of three is still sifting through piles of camp equipment at the office. One small room is filled with just sleeping bags.
“This is a lot better than it looked 12 hours ago,” said Mike Evans, the assistant director. "You can see the floor again."
With just three staff members, the team can’t do its work alone. Along with the summer camp, a huge undertaking itself, Swift Youth Foundation offers after-school and out-of-school programs and mentoring throughout the year. To make it all possible, the organization relies heavily on volunteers, with more than 500 volunteer opportunities available each year. But how does such a small team effectively manage such a large volunteer force?
That question led Swift Youth Foundation to the Service Enterprise Initiative (SEI) in late 2018.
A new offering from the ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation in partnership with the Arizona Governor’s Office of Youth, Faith and Family, SEI is a national volunteer-management program from Points of Light. Swift Youth Foundation was part of the first cohort at the Lodestar Center and in May became the first of the participants to achieve SEI certification.
During the SEI program, participating organizations receive a diagnostic evaluation, 16 hours of training on change management and volunteer engagement strategies, and up to 20 hours of individualized coaching, all working towards certification with Points of Light. Nationally, 92% of participants said their organization was better equipped to engage volunteers, and the program helps organizations find innovative ways to utilize volunteers in all areas of their operations. At the Lodestar Center, 25 organizations have completed or are enrolled in the training.
“The Swift Youth Foundation represents a growing number of Arizona nonprofits who desire to enact exemplary volunteer management practices in their operations,” said Dr. Robert Ashcraft, executive director of the ASU Lodestar Center and Saguaro Professor of Civic Enterprise. “The foundation is to be credited for intentionally taking the steps necessary to assure volunteer effectiveness in meeting their important mission, and I applaud them for becoming fully certified as a 'Service Enterprise' through our program.”
“The work that SEI provides really aligns nicely with the work that we're trying to do,” Evans said. “[We are] becoming more efficient with how we utilize our volunteers and engage our volunteers.”
Swift Youth Foundation has come a long way since its informal start in 1980 as a summer camp run by a group of teenagers trying to give back to their community, eventually growing into a formal, standalone nonprofit organization with a variety of year-round programs. Their early volunteers were almost entirely high schoolers, just as Evans himself was when he first volunteered at camp. (He continued to volunteer throughout college and his early working years before joining the Swift staff.) Over the last 10 years, they’ve developed additional youth programming to become the organization it is today, needing to grow its volunteer pipeline to match.
Today, they provide over 500 volunteer opportunities in numerous roles, from teenage volunteers and youth mentors for the after-school programs to the support staff, lifeguards, nurses, doctors and chefs for the annual summer camp.
This year’s summer camp was Swift Youth Foundation’s first with their new SEI certification.
Evans said they have a great need at Camp Swift for specifically skilled volunteers. For example, they need healthcare professionals and social workers; many of the kids are away from home overnight for the first time, and the prospect can be stressful for parents and the kids.
“For a lot of the parents, knowing that we have certified, registered doctors and nurses on site that if anything happens, their kids are going to get first-class service and healthcare right away, is a big peace of mind,” Evans said.
He said SEI was able to affirm what the organization was doing well in its volunteer engagement, while also showing them areas that could be improved – and then giving them the framework to improve it.
One change they’ve made is adding a “volunteer needs assessment” to their biweekly staff meeting. This has helped them identify projects and potential leadership roles to help the volunteers feel more valuable and fulfilled.
“Every staff member has a chance to bring potential volunteer projects to the table,” he said. “Any time a volunteer is in the office or expressing interest in wanting to help out, we have that resource to look at and say, ‘Okay, here's what we have for you to do.’”
SEI has also helped Swift quantify its impact on the community with a tool called ROVI, or Return on Volunteer Investment. ROVI has shown them that for every $1 they spend, more than $2 is being returned to the community.
”Being able to communicate that to our donors, to our board members, to our community as a whole, to let them know that the work we do does have value, and that the work that our volunteers are providing is important work,” Evans said. “The [SEI] certification really validates the work that we’ve done. Not just to feel good about ourselves, but to also know that what we’re doing in the community is having the impact that we say it is, that we can prove that.”
Evans said that, while they’re still just beginning to implement all they learned from SEI, they are excited to see what the future holds as they engage with volunteers, their lifeblood, even more effectively. A team of three can’t put on a summer camp alone, after all, and those piled-up sleeping bags at the office won’t wash themselves.
Working with the Arizona Governor's Office of Youth, Faith and Family, and Points of Light, the ASU Lodestar Center offers nonprofits access to the Service Enterprise Initiative (SEI). SEI is a national program that provides training and certification to nonprofits that are committed to implementing exemplary volunteer management practices to achieve their missions.
As of summer 2019, more than two dozen nonprofit organizations have completed or are enrolled in the Lodestar Center's SEI training. Participating organizations receive a diagnostic evaluation, training, and coaching on volunteer engagement and change management. After completing the program, they can apply for the nationally recognized certification from Points of Light.