Racial Equity in Volunteer Engagement

By Lisa Joyslin, Equity and Inclusion Manager, MAVA

I had the privilege of presenting a webinar for CVC-Twin Cities this month on the research the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) has been conducting on making volunteerism more inclusive and racially equitable. For those unable to attend, here is a summary of the key concepts along with some resources for learning more.

Language around volunteerism

Many people who work in volunteer management are surprised to learn that the word “volunteer” is often the first barrier to engaging BIPOC communities. BIPOC individuals do volunteer – as in, they help others without being paid – but they often to not label it as such. For some communities, there isn’t a word in their native language that directly translates to “volunteer.” For others, volunteering is associated with court-ordered service. And for others, “volunteer” is associated with a white savior complex where someone from outside the community comes in to “help those less fortunate.”

This isn’t to say we should eliminate the word “volunteer” from our vocabularies. Rather, we need to be mindful that it may have different meanings across cultures. And perhaps more importantly, we need to be aware of the way we frame the work of volunteers. Very often we discuss how a person can volunteer “for an organization.” But for individuals from the communities being served, or those with ties to the communities being served, volunteering “for an organization” often isn’t compelling. Focus your language around the communities and individuals your organization supports, not the organization itself.

Building relationships

Many people across cultures say they would volunteer if they were asked, but they aren’t asked. Building relationships is the first step toward making that ask.

All communities are different. You need to identify the specific communities you’re hoping to engage and build relationships in each of those communities. There are no shortcuts, and it is hard work. Be prepared for that.

What helps is authenticity. Be sure you can articulate why you want to engage a particular community – to yourself, to your organization, and to the community. Many BIPOC communities have had the unfortunate experience of being approached so someone can “check a box.” They’ve been asked their opinion, only to see no action or change happen in response. This means you may need to work extra hard to build trust and show that you have an authentic interest in their opinions, skills, and contributions.

Some ideas for building relationships include attending cultural events or celebrations, reaching out to culturally-specific organizations, hosting a community open house, partnering with places of worship, and having a booth at your local farmer’s market.

Systemic Racism in Volunteer Engagement

Formal volunteerism – engaging volunteers through a nonprofit organization – was predominately created by and for privileged people. Because of this, volunteerism today often works well for those with privilege – usually affluent white individuals – but not always for everyone else.

There is a key question we need to be discussing more in all areas of volunteerism:

What systems and structures in volunteer engagement reinforce inequity?

When you start digging into this, you’ll discover there are a lot. A few examples include:

  • Formalized systems that require written application, in-person interview, extensive training, etc.
  • Required background checks for all volunteers
  • Lack of flexibility in scheduling or time commitment
  • Staff and board that do not reflect racial diversity of the community served
  • Emphasis on resources/skills more readily found in privileged communities (i.e. money, higher education, power)

And this only scratches the surface. Volunteer engagement systems demonstrate many characteristics of white supremacy culture, and this needs to be addressed before we can truly move forward with racial equity.

Power and Privilege

Substantial, lasting change is not about small tweaks, but about tackling multiple layers of inequity in a complex system. That system includes many players, including nonprofits, corporations, volunteers, communities, funders, and more.

It’s no secret that money and funding bring power and privilege. You likely understand the power you hold in volunteer systems. But have you thought about how you can use that power to advance racial equity?

Here are a few ideas for both corporations and nonprofits:


  • Do you offer paid volunteer time for your employees? If so, does this also extend to activities outside the formal nonprofit structure, like helping neighbors or assisting at community events? Many companies are beginning to look at ways to allow employees to engage in volunteerism on their terms – whether that be protesting, shopping for a neighbor, or serving at a nonprofit.
  • When planning group projects, do you focus on the needs of your company and its volunteers, or do you prioritize the needs of the community being supported? Many nonprofits go out of their way to accommodate corporate volunteerism requests (that’s power and money at play), and you can use this power to place the priority back on the community.
  • Have you discussed volunteerism with your BIPOC employees? It’s important that these discussions be optional, paid, and led by an outside facilitator. Listening to BIPOC voices often the best way to learn how to center racial equity in your corporate volunteer efforts. But don’t expect your BIPOC employees to do all the work around racial equity. Racism in this country is a problem created by white people, and it will take a diverse team of committed leaders to develop solutions.


  • Take a look at the ways you go about recruiting new volunteers. Do your efforts require someone to identify themselves as a “volunteer”? If so, how can you work to build relationships with people who may value helping others but not feel “volunteering” is for them?
  • Take a close look at your policies and procedures around volunteerism. Do you allow clients to volunteer? Why or why not? Do you allow for flexible schedules? Why or why not? Many of these policies create barriers for BIPOC communities to engage. What barriers are you putting up through the systems you use to onboard and engage volunteers?
  • Before you put effort into recruiting and engaging BIPOC volunteers, it’s important that you assess your internal culture. Are there BIPOC staff? Are there BIPOC leaders and board members? Have volunteers had training on diversity, equity and inclusion topics such as privilege and power, unconscious bias, and microaggressions? You have to create an inclusive culture before successfully engaging volunteers from all backgrounds.

We’ll be exploring racial equity and volunteerism further at MAVA’s Virtual Conference this November on “Re-Defining Volunteerism: Dismantling Inequities.” Learn more and join us!


Lisa Joyslin is the Equity and Inclusion Manager at the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA).  Her work is focused on learning how to address systemic inequities in volunteer engagement systems to better engage communities of color as volunteers at nonprofit and government organizations.  Lisa has worked in the field of volunteer engagement for nearly 15 years, including 4 years as the Volunteer Services Officer for the Red Cross Minnesota Region and positions at multiple volunteer centers. She holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the University of Minnesota.

Lisa is a white woman. While MAVA’s work is done in partnership with communities of color, it is vital that you also read the viewpoints of those with lived experience as people of color. We recommend the following as a starting point:

The Centuries Old Invisible Forces that May Be Undermining Your Volunteer Engagement by Jerome Tennille on Responsible AF blog

Confronting White Supremacy in the Workplace, by Caroline Taiwo on Pollen Midwest

Have nonprofit and philanthropy become the white moderate Dr. King warned us about? by Vu Le on NonprofitAF blog

Dismantling White Supremacy in Nonprofits: A Starting Point, by Jarell Skinner-Roy on the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network-Twin Cities blog


The Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) connects, educates, strengthens and advocates for volunteer engagement leaders and their organizations to positively impact communities. Learn more about MAVA and our Inclusive Volunteerism Program here.