038: Stop apologizing and start volunteering with @NewYorkCares

nycares-sqGary Bagley, the Executive Director of New York Cares discusses how they use data and technology to increase the amount of New Yorkers that volunteer. New York Cares is the city’s largest volunteer management organization, running volunteer programs for 1,300 nonprofits, city agencies, and public schools.

The conversation reveals how NY Cares deals with conversion to volunteering, how they weigh the importance of different volunteering activities, and why the nonprofit sector should stop apologizing when they ask people to take action.

Stop apologizing when asking your stakeholders to take action. Podcast w/ @NewYorkCares Click To Tweet


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Episode 38

Speaker 1 : This is Using the Whole Whale, a podcast that brings you stories of data and technology in the nonprofit world. My name is George Weiner, your host and the chief whaler of wholewhale.com, thanks for joining us.


I want you to think about the last time you volunteered. Were you planting a tree? Were you maybe at a soup kitchen, or were you mentoring, perhaps? Now, think about how you found that volunteer opportunity. Maybe it jumps to mind, maybe not. Believe it or not, that interaction is incredibly hard. To actually get somebody to get from that couch to the volunteer spot, and it’s something that New York Cares spends a lot of time thinking about, analyzing, and improving. I’m excited today, because we’re talking with Gary Bagley, the executive director of New York Cares, and about their approach to dealing with some of the challenges and opportunities and ways that they can use, and have used data to improve the way New Yorkers volunteer. So, let’s jump into it, and find out how he does what he does. I’m here with Gary Bagley, the executive director of New York Cares. Gary, thanks for coming on, tell us a bit about yourself, what gets you up in the morning?


Speaker 2 : At first, thanks for having me here, George, it’s a great topic and we obviously think a lot of you and Whole Whale, so I’m glad to be here. Being the executive director of New York Cares, you know, as we say we’re the city’s largest volunteer management organization, which I think sounds, you know, pretty businessy of us. We do each year, we fill 195,000 volunteer positions in the city, and that number has been going up steadily over the ten years I’ve been honored to be here. I think, you know, when you say what gets me up in the morning, I think the thing that’s most exciting to me about volunteerism, and then to work in an organization who’s 100 percent focus is mobilizing volunteers as well as we think it can be done. You know, the folks that volunteer bring their best to us. We need people when they want to give back, when their desires are some of the most altruistic. So, no matter what the, you know, the business side may entail, and like any business, there’s days that are frustrating and there are days that are not. But I’m fond of saying a bad day at New York Cares would be called a very good day anywhere else. What gets me up in the morning keeps me going. I would also say, and this, you know, I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, we’ve really tried to design New York Cares so that there’s an infrastructure, if you will, an organizational structure that empowers people to be creative and innovative. And to do that, we have a lot of really talented program managers with a lot of great ideas about new programming, exciting programming that can be happening throughout the five boroughs, and we’ve tried to build a structure where they have very strong metrics, they know what they’re aiming to achieve. And then, this is the old artist in me, we encourage freedom in the form, right, once you know what the structure is then go to town. And, you know, well, so the mission and then the innovative approach, and the sort of ability to innovate that we’ve always worked to maintain here are both exciting, they’re a great reason to get up in the morning.


Speaker 1 : Yeah, so I guess you’re having a good day, or even a great day today, so I’m glad we caught you on one of those days.


Speaker 2 : Absolutely.


Speaker 1 : You started to talking about some of those top line metrics, and you’re looking for the number of volunteers that you’re connecting with great organizations in the city, the number of hours those volunteers provide, can you tease out maybe some of the other metrics that you feel are the guiding rods of your work day to day?


Speaker 2 : Sure, I think, you know, I was thinking a bit about this before we spoke, and there are metrics that we have that are very much about, you know, as I always say, keeping the business running. We’re always keeping our eye on how many volunteers are coming through the door, how many new volunteers, that is, and for us that’s about 17,000 a year, so we can really sit and watch trends. When are they coming in, you know, what time of day, what location. We have locations throughout the five boroughs. And then, from there on we’re watching activation rates, because volunteer engagement and motivating volunteers is core to the business, so we’re looking say what percentage of people come to orientation go on and do a project. How many of those people do one project, three projects, five projects. How many stay with us beyond a year. And, so, some of that is about driving impact, right, in many regards you’re counting outputs, like how many, how many, how many, but the deeper information under there is also, so in my view the customer service info. Have we inspired you to take action. Are you taking action. Was the first experience one that makes you want to take action again. You know, has New York Cares done absolutely everything to maximize the experience of getting to know you. The other thing that we do is then on the program delivery side, we are, you know, every program manager here has very specific goals for how many programs that will engage, you know, a certain number of volunteers they will manage over the course of a year. Excuse me. And then, after, they sort of take care of that, you know, what I would call basic output information. We’re also, by the way, monthly tracking, you know, what is our fullness rate. I often joke that we’re in the hotel business, you know we overbook projects.


Speaker 1 : What is a fullness rate for, for those of us at home?


Speaker 2 : A fullness rate, for instance, if a program requires ten volunteers in our mind to be optimal, the the percentage of ten that actually show up on the day. So, we actually aim for a fullness rate of 90 percent plus, overall on all our programs. Now, certain kinds of programs, and I think, you know, the average person could probably figure this out, certain kinds of programs almost have waiting lists involved here, things like meal service, right. A lot of people think of that when they go to volunteer, and those programs run at 100 percent fullness. When you get around, more client based service, more direct service, education work, then, we can, depending on the program area be running at 80 percent. And so we’re watching those metrics to say, you know, one of the things we’re always trying to balance here is where volunteers want to go and where they’re really needed. Right, and the two do not always align.


Speaker 1 : Oh boy.


Speaker 2 : Yeah, well, so then, by tracking that fullness number, we can look and say, well, where we need to put more work, and then this starts to interact with our website presence, we push out programs through the website as we work to develop more ways that people can search to find the projects that we, you know, sort of most eager and passionate about them finding.


Speaker 1 : Yeah, I am wildly fascinated by all of these things. I mean, you’ve got a perfect funnel here of people that find you at first, go to an orientation, find their first project, and then it continue and you look at the abandonment rates, you’ve got leading indicators saying if there’s not enough people being trained we’re gonna have a problem in two months. Its fantastic, I’m picking up though, a little bit of this what people want to do versus what is needed to be done. So, I would like to ask you, are all volunteer opportunities created equally in your eyes?


Speaker 2 : Wow, that is a great question. You know, I think one of the ways we’ve begun really thinking about our work, is because first we offer program, 14 program areas that have multiple offerings in each, you know. So, how do we, with a multisurface platform decide how to balance that portfolio of programming, and then how do we from that decide how we’re going to allocate resources. So, the short answer is no. All programs are not created equal. There are a few ways in which that’s true, if we take our three big areas of programming, about ten percent of our work is work in public spaces. Parks, gardens, revitalizing schools, etcetera. The second bucket is 30 percent of our work, and that’s what we call immediate needs, and serving a meal, visiting a senior citizen, doing animal care, something that is important, certainly, but is not considered to have a long term impact. It’s often seen, as I was saying, an immediate need in the first step in a continuum of services that someone needs. And then, 60 percent of our work is education, starting in elementary school and going all the way through to adulthood and educating folks to get back in the workforce, develop English language skills, GED prep, etcetera. So, the, what’s interesting is the, to me, that the more impactful the work, the longer term the impact, the harder it is to recruit volunteers to do it. In one regard that makes sense, right, if I’m going to go serve a meal, I can feel good about that, I can do it once, I can go in, you know, we serve breakfast, we clean up, its done.


Speaker 1 : Gary, I feel good just thinking about that impact. I’m like don’t even need to go.


Speaker 2 : Well wait a minute, I don’t want to, I don’t want to make you feel that good, I want you to go. But then on the education front, you know, as we know in our own education, if you have children, or if you’ve ever done tutoring, you know that, you know, lightbulbs don’t go on every ten minutes as we’re working. And so, the profound impact that education can have is to me immeasurable compared to other program areas, but it’s much harder to drive that, so from a business perspective, we put a lot more resources into educational programming than we need to put into the other program areas because recruitment’s harder, retention is harder, program development is harder, and relationships with our partners are harder. Or more to manage, not difficult, but there’s more management involved. So, I would say to folks, we’ve often said to volunteers if you really want to make sure somebody does not come back to the soup kitchen then you should work on adult education programming. Because, by helping somebody get their GED, by helping somebody get into the workforce, you’re insuring that they won’t need to come back to the soup kitchen again.


Speaker 1 : Yeah, the up the river thinking definitely applies.


Speaker 2 : Yeah.


Speaker 1 : Can you tell me a little bit about, perhaps, a campaign or project that you’ve been working on at New York Cares?


Speaker 2 : Sure, this is interesting, I thought back in time a little bit because I thought one of our, one our campaigns, you know, it was was a research project we were doing, built up many of the metrics that we now, if you will, we take for granted and that we keep our eyes on every day. But when we were first really trying to look at that problem of how many volunteers activate, you know, from a business perspective, we were facing sort of a huge drain, which is over half the people that came to orientation did not go on and do anything. And so, a huge amount of resource is going into that, and so, I think the thing that we did that I was, you know, hindsight and most pleased that we did, is we developed a measurement system called the leadership ladder. And the leadership ladder forced us, and it took a lot of work to develop six levels of engagement with the organization that were based on one of three things, or these three metrics together, which is how much you do, how long you’ve been with us, and then how much leadership you take in the organization, and there are concrete leadership roles that people can step up into here. So that one was very measureable. And when we looked at those three factors we found six levels of engagement, and then the question really became of how do we push someone up that ladder. The work, you know, was I think was transformative for the organization in a few ways, it gave us something to watch other than, you know, how many bodies went out year, right. Because you can feel good about filling 195,000 volunteer positions, nothing to be ashamed of there, but is it good, is it going in the direction we want, are we fully engaging people. If those 195,000 people last year are a different 195,000 people are we still and success, and we decided no. That some of this is about retention, the work gets better the more people do it. So I think that work has been driving us for a very long time. The, you know, from a sort of a campaign invisibility perspective, one thing that’s been very interesting is, for those who might know me, we have a very well known coat drive that happens every holiday time here in the city, and its very successful. Two thirds of New Yorkers recognize the images, it’s sort of a holiday tradition, which is, you know, it’s amazing that an organization of our size would have something that’s so well known city wide. As we think about that, you know, when we think of a sort of cool campaign that we have going on, one of the things because of the coat drive, we’re always working to do is increase people’s awareness of volunteer engagement. And we just released a campaign that I’m very, very proud of, I think everybody here did some really amazing work and we relied on pro bono resources. The concept of it is that we always look and, you know, when, especially here in the city we’re walking around and we say when is somebody going to help the homeless, when is someone going to do something about, you know, this park, when is someone going to help that child learn to read, and so the campaign is called Be The Someone. And it’s been getting a wonderful response, and its a great call to action, and it has been working, we’re so pleased with it, I think we’re going to be developing, you know, a campaign, and further the campaign throughout the whole year. Right now it’s alive on social media, so we’re very active and alive on our website and its really driving a lot of our event images this year, so we’re very proud of that.


Speaker 1 : That’s great. I mean, lots of impact there, I mean, the coat drive, but also I was more fascinated by the fact that you looked at an abandonment rate in your funnel, right where you have somebody indicate that they’re like, hey I’m interested in volunteering, like I guess to the lay person, you’re like great, job done, let’s just send you off. But, you realize, once they had, even after they invested in the training that you put on, you had a 50 percent abandonment rate, were you able to move that number at all, with any of your work?


Speaker 2 : Yeah, and that was the exciting part of the leadership ladder work, really understanding what happens when somebody walks in the door. And, you know, we did focus group surveys and really tried to figure out, you know, who are the, why are folks abandoning.  And you know, one of the things we found out which is so interesting, and now, you know, I think we translate this into our, you know, eight years later into how this all impacts the web experience, but you know, we found out some basic things, like people that come to our orientation thinking they were going to sign on and then we didn’t end up having a sign up at the event, we told them how to and then sent them home to do it. People are overwhelmed by choice, and that is one thing that plagues us at all times, whether its web platform or a paper calender, which is what we used to send out when I first got to New York Cares. And so, first, by understanding the reasons for abandonment we were able to redesign orientation to better handle that. The other, you know, such an interesting customer service thing is, you know, by and large the biggest comment was, it was not clear to me what I should do next. Right, and so just making the obvious statement of, we want you to go home, we want you to sign up, or there’s a computer here, stay, I can answer questions, whatever it may be. But, a series of different tactics like that as well as more training for the people who are leading orientation in person, on how to deliver that bump those activation rates now to between 65 and 70 percent. When you’re orienting 17,000 people


Speaker 1 : That’s huge. Big move, that’s a big move.


Speaker 2 : Yeah. And by the way, one of the other metrics we keep our eye on is annually we look at the number of projects volunteered annually, and that number has gone from 4.2 up to about 6.2 for this year. So if you look at, you know, 10,000 people who all do two more projects a year, because we’ve also increased the amount they do, we’re filling another 20,000 volunteer positions in the city, just with those 10,000 people and that number is actually much higher, so.


Speaker 1 : Yeah, and you’re inculcating it seems like, one of your primary impacts. Inculcating a culture or habit of volunteerism as opposed to a group of want it done. Like I’m just going to volunteer for Thanksgiving and then I’m done for the year.


Speaker 2 : Yeah. I would say also, by the way, the other things that we’re watching is, you know, the leadership ladder, I think, because of where we were in terms of our ability to analyze what was happening through our website and how much of the lead up to orientation happened through e-mail and web experiences. Both have increased. We’re now backing up even further, because, and I know we did some of this work together, and really understanding, you know, when somebody hits our website. It is fascinating and concerning to see the drop off from the number of people who go on and create an account to who then actually show up to orientation, and I believe I’m not going to be able to rattle the number but I believe we have almost 50 percent drop off between the people who come to the site and then actually go through what is a rigorous process of filling out volunteer information, then they have to sign up for the orientation date, then of course they have to show up. So, I think one of our big questions here, is, first can we change that experience so that more people go from creating an account to actually coming to orientation, cause, in addition the 17,000 people who show up there are another, 4 or 5 6,000 people who went part way through the experience and never came. And then, after you go through all that effort and actually show up an orientation the fact that 30 percent of them might not do anything after that, is then, frankly mind boggling to me after the amount of effort they’ve gone through. You know what I mean, like


Speaker 1 : Do you understand how hard you work to be here? It would be insane not to continue.


Speaker 2 : Exactly. Like, you have worked harder to get to this room than, you know, we make getting to the projects, so we’re first trying to make it less difficult to get to the room. But also, you know, that old question it’s the customer service, you know, sort of mantra, for us is the, you know, what is the next thing you need to do to work with New York Care, right. And as a multiservice platform we can be a little guilty here of throwing out the menu of 30 things you could do instead of telling you the one thing we want you to do next.


Speaker 1 : Yeah, paradox of choice, completely.


Speaker 2 : Exactly. And so, how many of those people are we losing on the way to orientation because they’re a little confused about what’s next, they forget they created an account, whatever. And so, we’re really trying to back up and take care of that, that element of this.


Speaker 1 : Yeah, so you kind of started mentioning it, about, you know, the website and some of the things you’re looking at there. What role would you say technology plays in the way you deliver services?


Speaker 2 : Yeah, it’s such an interesting question, I think it’s got a lot to do, the role of technology it’s funny, it’s so integrated into how we think of program delivery and how we think of bringing people in here that, that sometimes it’s hard for me to articulate it as a succinct role. But, you know, I would tell anybody outside the organization that almost 100 percent of our interactions with volunteers before they either come to an orientation or are volunteering on a project are web based. Right, they’re all going through website, finding orientation and once they’re oriented they’re searching for their experience online. So we need to, we need our web experience to be as close in quality, efficacy, and tone, if you will, to be as much like what the hands on experience with New York Cares will be as we can. And I think that’s where, you know, I think that’s one of our ongoing challenges, I think we’re actually doing a pretty good job of that now. And that has been evolving over the last few years. I would say, you know, the other, just from a practical, you know, manager’s standpoint technologies at the table for almost everything we do. Right, because everything we do is going to come through, you know, first, you know, just from a visual channel, you know, it’s gonna come from multiple channels of web, social media, etcetera. Because our, the business side of what we do is driven by, you know, we uses Salesforce and, you know, our programs are recorded there, all our records are there and soon all of our fund raising data will be there, is that programmatic decisions have frontend and backend implications. Everything we do. So, understanding that, thinking of technology as really being, you know, a foundation of what we do. You know, it’s a long answer.


Speaker 1 : Yeah, it seems like you really, you really do bake it into the pie, that key thing there, you bring it to the table and different considerations. I have a term, around like tech dragons, right, the things you have to go out there and slay. Are there any tech dragons that you can sort of share with us you have either slayed or are in the process of battling bravely?


Speaker 2 : Well, I think one of them, and I’m not sure we’re unusual in this, but I think, you know, you know, five, even five years ago, you know, organizations generally speaking, especially non-profits, you know, would drop everything every three or four years, come up with more money than we knew what to do, you know, than we could ever get our hands on and did these sort of web overhauls, you know, soup to knots, and I think the dragon, you know, that we continue to daily wrestle with here is how do we make, it’s having technology at the table every time and recognizing that it is a fundamental element to how we not only present ourselves, but deliver our services, and therefore how do we makes sure it’s part of our ongoing operations, and you know, that, of course there will be times when you want to do a new look, a new feel, etcetera, but how is it that we make sure that what we’re doing is evolving in the same way that the world is evolving. The dragon to slay is that we’re not resourced like the for profit world. Right, so how nimble can we be on a technology platform compared to, you know, companies that, you know, have twice as many people and twice as much money to throw at some of these things. So, I think that is something we are always trying to balance. I’d say that’s from an operational sort of managerial perspective I’d say that’s the big dragon I think we slayed.


Speaker 1 : Quite a dragon, a game of thrones, sized dragon, I’d say.


Speaker 2 : Exactly.


Speaker 1 : So, give me an idea at a larger picture, now I know that you’re a professor at Columbia, you wear many hats and definetly thoughts on this sector, can you give us some advice as to what you think other non-profits tackling digital impact, should be doing or could be doing better out there?


Speaker 2 : It’s funny, I sound a little, this could get a little professorial, but I, you know, I think one of the things we do in most sectors is, you know, all the sudden I remember the era, like oh my God every organization has a Facebook page, we have to have a Facebook page. Everybody runs and creates a Facebook page, and then 90 percent of them just sit there with no content because it’s really not part of the business, it’s really, either, one of two things happen. You either did something to follow the pack and somebody, a fund or a board member, somebody said why aren’t we on Facebook, and you just, you know, so you ran and made a Facebook page. The other side of it is, I think, I would call it a lack of strategy, or the time to stop and say what role, you ask me, what role does technology play. What would drive our business, right. And if twitter’s not going to drive your business, then it’s a bad allocation of resource to have somebody sitting on a twitter account all day, right. Or spending any time on it. So I think, deciding the role technology plays and how it really drives your business, and then stopping to resource it accordingly and you and I have talked a lot about this, you know, and nobody wants to pay you for the technology work that everybody acknowledges needs to happen. And I think, you know, when I flip over and think about, you know, the funding community or how we think of overhead in a non-profit, you know, our donors our constituents all expect New York Cares to have a very dynamic web presence. And then, to under resource that endangers the business. I think that’s something I struggle with personally. You know, because as you know, in nonprofit it’s like every time you add a person on the, you know, in the quote, unquote, back office, you’re not hiring a program manager who’s actually going to create, you know, another 10,000 volunteer spots in the community. So, how do we balance that, make sure it’s resourced enough and that the other side isn’t, you know, it doesn’t become the tail wagging the dog, and we’re sort of resourced on the technology side to keep up with the Jones’s when it really may not be what we need to do for the business.


Speaker 1 : Yeah. So the advice and then some here is making sure that technology aligns with what the core mission of the business is and making sure that what you’re building actually relates to that.


Speaker 2 : Absolutely. I would love it if you followed me all day and summarized my long-winded phrases into one sentence. I was like, why didn’t I just say that.


Speaker 1 : Oh, yeah. What he said. Alright, final question here, Gary what is something that you think either you or your organization should stop doing? We are always deluged with longer and longer to-do lists, but what is something you think either you and or your organization should stop doing?


Speaker 2 : Wow, you know, I, you had sent me that question, and I thought a lot about it, and I became sort of less tactical, and I, you know, in my way, it was less about a thing we should stop doing, but in terms of a function, I think one of the things that’s happened is in an engagement world we can adopt an apologetic tone. Like, we know you’re busy, but if you can help blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And that sort of we don’t want to interfere with your busy lives, and I think a lot of nonprofits have that, you know, but it’s, I feel like New York Cares, one question that always comes to mind for me is, you know, how much sort of inefficiency here, how many things are we doing because we’re not more direct in our requests, our demands, and our advocacy to people. So, I bet if we look around I wonder, sort of on the customer service side, if we’re doing some things we don’t need to do, because of that tone. I know that’s a little, it’s not a Peter Drucker answer but…


Speaker 1 : No, I think that’s a wonderful answer. That is a you know what, that is a right here, right now. I think most of the people listening, I myself am like, oh my gosh, like that should be tattooed on the side of at least bathroom stall in every non-profit, just to remind people, don’t apologize, you have to go to the bathroom. Don’t apologize, you’re doing great work.


Speaker 2 : You’re doing great work.


Speaker 1 : Gary, thank you so much, as a final sign off, how do people find you, how do people help you?


Speaker 2 : Anyone can visit our website, which is newyorkcares.org all spelled out. You can do everything there, from learn more about our work in general to sign up to volunteer in the coming week. You know, we, people drive our work by their gifts of time, their gifts of stuff, like coats at holiday time, and gifts of course of money, that keeps sort of the gas in the car as we’re driving around here. So, you know, any way that, I think one of the things I also love about the organization that I would say in closing is that there are so many ways to engage with us and I hope people will begin their journey and figure out if this is an organization they can engage with and take advantage of in whatever way they’re able.


Speaker 1 : Well I’d be surprised if anyone after looking at how methodical you all are about using metrics and tracking outcomes would even second guess giving money to you. Thanks for joining us, and thanks for sharing your wisdom here.


Speaker 2 : Thank you, have a great day George.