A simple, but profound, change in how we think about volunteers
After 22 years in the fields of volunteer program management and nonprofit administration, I’m often asked by colleagues in the sector for advice on how they can improve the volunteer program in their organization. Before responding, I ask them questions about the roles they have for volunteers, how they recruit volunteers, how volunteers are “on-boarded” to the organization, who supervises them and how, and how successful they are at retaining volunteers.
The feedback that I then give almost always follows a consistent theme – “Your program has the potential to be dramatically improved if you stop needing and using volunteers.” This usually elicits some looks of shock and surprise until I elaborate further and explain that I’m not proposing that they cease to engage the community in their work through volunteerism but, rather, that they modify how they think about volunteers in their organization. The simple, but profound, key is to change the semantics – to talk in terms of “wanting” and “engaging” volunteers rather than “needing” and “using” them.
During the introductions in my workshops, I always ask participants to share with me two or three adjectives that describe how they felt as the result of a particularly rewarding experience that they have had as a volunteer. A small sample of the positive words they have shared include: empowered, humbled, motivated, grateful, awed, helpful, effective, connected, valuable, and inspired. Not once have I had anyone share that they felt “used” or “utilized.” As they share more about their rewarding experiences, they often talk about the joy of working along paid staff members as a team, knowing how they were contributing to the mission, and seeing the positive results of their work. They also share that they felt wanted and appreciated.
When I hear colleagues in our sector talking about volunteers, though, I hear statements such as “we need to use volunteers on this project” or “that program has to utilize more volunteers in order to do that event.” This way of thinking about and describing volunteerism is in stark contrast to how volunteers feel after rewarding service experiences.
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In the publication “Strategic Volunteer Engagement: A Guide for Nonprofit and Public Sector Leaders,” Sarah Jane Rehnberg, PhD, and her colleagues describe the Cycle of Poorly Managed Volunteer Engagement. The cycle’s key theme is that volunteer engagement is unsuccessful when organizations decide to use volunteers when they find themselves without sufficient financial resources and see volunteers as the “free labor” that they need in order to solve their resource problem. They then bring in volunteers without first setting up the appropriate infrastructure to orient, train, supervise, and recognize them properly. The results are, as you can imagine, disappointing and the volunteer program falls apart.
Those organizations that are successful in engaging the community in their mission through meaningful volunteerism set the stage by thinking and talking about how they want to involve volunteers and the positive things that will happen for the organization and its constituents as a result. They strive to make volunteers feel a part of the team from the beginning with structured and comprehensive orientation and training. This is further supported through effective supervision and regular recognition that is carried out not only by the designated “volunteer coordinator” but by staff members throughout the organization.
Such organizations answer with an emphatic “yes!” when asked if they would still engage volunteers in their work even if they had adequate financial resources to hire paid staff to fill every role. Further, they can describe numerous advantages to both the organization and its constituents and the positive impact that occurs as a result of involving volunteers in the work of achieving their mission.
Organizations such as the Taproot Foundation, Points of Light, HandsOn Network, and DoSomething.org provide programs, examples ,and resources that help nonprofit organizations involve volunteers of all ages in creative, meaningful, and impactful ways. Each of these is paving the way with new and rewarding opportunities for community engagement that create a win-win situation for both nonprofit organizations and volunteers.
Thus, my challenge to all of us in the nonprofit sector is to stop needing and using volunteers and to, instead, encourage everyone in our organizations to shift their thinking and behavior to a practice of wanting and engaging the community in our work through volunteerism. This simple change may just bring profound results!
Lisa Humenik has a master’s degree in public administration with a concentration in nonprofit leadership and has been a member of the faculty for the nonprofit management certificate program at Iowa State University Extension and for the volunteer management certificate program at the Union Institute in Cincinnati. She is currently the President of the Sigma Kappa National Housing Corporation and previously served as President & CEO of Volunteer Southern Arizona, Executive Director of the Amphitheater Public Schools Foundation, and Director of a school-based mentoring program serving 22 districts in eastern Iowa. She has also worked as the Director of Volunteer Services for health systems in Iowa, Ohio, and Illinois and as a Special Projects Manager for Points of Light/HandsOn Network. She currently teaches NMI 104: Managing Staff and Volunteers for the ASU Lodestar Center.