In my last blog, I noted how important it was to take the long view when planning. While short-term action plans are valuable, they should not be the only way your organization works to move into the future. As part of the planning process, you also need to keep in mind the people that make your mission and vision realities. These are not just employees or customers, but also the valuable base of volunteers that work to help you achieve your goals.
What is a Volunteer?
Volunteers are something we hear about our entire lives. Whether you are at church, home, school, or some other place, everyone is always asking for someone to help out. It is always implied that this help is free and that you will be helping in some fundamental way to achieve goals. In simplest terms, a volunteer is “a person who freely offers to take part in an enterprise or undertake a task.” As we grow older, volunteering becomes a lot more focused around certain groups/organizations and it becomes more of a cost-saving measure than a true determination of involved individuals wanting to complete a task.
But why does this change happen? When we are young, it not only helps us meet the goals of our organization, but it teaches people about the importance of service as well vital skills that communities are now saying they lack in their residents and workers, i.e. the soft skills. It would seem that by the time we become adults, there is a fundamental shift in how we see volunteerism and what that means for us, as either dictated by our interests, jobs, relationships, etc.
Volunteer vs. Voluntold
The major difference between when we are young and when we get older is the nature of volunteering being “freely offered.” As children, we get the decision (most times) to volunteer and it becomes a more complete and rewarding experience for us. Most parents and adults take the time to tell us why the goals are needing to be met and how the work we can do helps us achieve that goal AND how we can learn some skills on our own.
But flash forward to being an adult. While we still have that option, we generally don’t have the same mentors helping us along the way, explaining the overarching goals and need and the ways in which it can help us develop personally. Additionally, a lot of employers “require” volunteer efforts from their staff and some even assign people. While these people are helping meet the goals of a volunteer effort, they are not a true volunteer. They are not giving freely of their time to do something.
That is what it means to be a voluntold. A voluntold is someone who is doing “volunteer” work because they were told to do so or expected to do so by some other entity. This demeans the whole point of the “freely offers” nature of volunteering. It can bring people into the fold that are less engaged and can actually make it harder to accomplish goals in the meantime, including recruiting other volunteers. If your volunteers are only there because they have to be there, it can send the wrong message when marketing to a wider swath of volunteers.
What’s the Benefit of a Volunteer?
The main benefit that most people see of utilizing a volunteer is that they can get work done towards achieving a goal and they don’t have to pay the person. Because of this capitalistic approach to volunteering, volunteers are more closely associated with non-profits. Non-profits generally are organizations that do not have large enough budgets to hire an army of warriors so they work to create them through their outreach to volunteers. But what makes a volunteer want to help out?
Generally, volunteers help out because they believe in the mission and goals of a vision. This is why having plans are important. If you can show someone your end goal and tell them the steps you plan to take to get there, you are more likely to earn their cooperation and their motivation. When you have a motivated volunteer, a lot can be accomplished. If you can help them develop, gain new skills, reach goals, etc., you are going to have a much easier time with recruitment and retention of other volunteers, which can continue this process indefinitely if well done.
However, there are so many ways that volunteers are underutilized and underappreciated. They have become synonymous with free labor or mindless drones, which can dehumanize their efforts. Look around your community to find easy examples. Are there fewer local T-ball teams in the summer even though the amount of kids have remained the same? This can usually be attributed to something like a lack of parents willing to volunteer to coach. Do you see the same faces at every local event in town? This could be due to a lack of new blood helping out their organization or event. Start looking around with a critical eye and you can see that the once great days of volunteering are starting to decay and become a thing of the past. It’s important to remember that “No one is more cherished in this world than someone who lightens the burden of another.” (Author Unknown)
Watch For My Next Blog!
In my next blog, I will talk more about what you can do to attract volunteers again and keep them engaged and moving forward. I will talk about different sectors where volunteerism can work outside of the traditional non-profit approach.