downturn in the economy is proving to be a boon to volunteerism. It
won’t matter. Most non profits are egregiously under-resourced in
staff, dollars and expertise. Here are six reasons why most volunteer
experiences will inoculate people against ever coming back.
The Push-and-Pull Effect
I am more than enthused about President Obama’s national call to service. Almost 1.3 million hours have been pledged on the Starbucks Pledge3 site alone. According to Tara Weiss, in an article posted today on Forbes.com;
“The Ronald McDonald House of New York has had a 10% increase in
volunteers since this time last year.” In Boston, the United Way, Big
Sisters and Boston Cares all report significant increases in volunteer numbers.
Rick Wallwork, the Associate Director of Boston Cares, reflects that
although February is usually pretty quiet, “the numbers are through the
roof. We have more than 1900 volunteers signed up for month of February
compared with 1150 volunteers throughout the month last year. That
represents a 65 percent increase over last year.” (read the full article on wbur.org)
it has during past recessions, volunteerism is surging. The Corporation
for National and Community Service (the federal agency that tracks
volunteer numbers) estimates that one million people participated in
January’s Martin Luther King Day of Service, which is double the
numbers for 2008.
a federal agency promoting volunteerism, has received three times the
applications this year compared to 2008. Even applications to the Peace
Corps spiked by 37%, most notably during the days before and after
President Obama’s inauguration. (read the full article by The Canadian Press)
the Obama Effect is pulling people into the arena of community
service….but there is also a pretty strong push which we’re all too
familiar with: unemployment.
Taproot is a US non-profit
that matches skilled professionals with non-profits that need their
expertise. In the last few months they have seen a whopping 171%
increase in applications. Aaron Hurst, Taproot’s president believes
this increase to be due in part to Obama’s national call to service,
but due to information captured on the intake forms, he also knows that
it is largely due to layoffs. (read the full Rueters article)
Bagley, the director of New York Cares recently remarked, “We can’t
open the doors wide enough. Everything we’re doing is full. Our
orientations are booked three weeks in advance.” He was curious as to
why there was such a drastic increase in the number of volunteers he
was seeing, so he began surveying the applicants. About 60% had
experienced a change in their work situation, or were now unemployed. (read the full article by The Canadian Press)
Six reasons why you’ll probably never volunteer again
listing numerous reasons why people might want to volunteer and
outlining the benefits that lay in store for those who make the choice,
Tara Weiss offers six steps to successful volunteering.
(It’s set up like a slide show, but first you’ll have to turn off the
annoying video advertising on the Forbes.com landing page.) Based on my
experience, what Weiss has ironically (and maybe accidentally?)
uncovered are six systemic flaws among most non-profits, including the
reasons why most people will have an dissatisfying, if not downright
So, here are Weiss’ six steps, and my six, “Yeah, but…” responses.
Step One: Set your goals
what you want to get out of a volunteer experience. Most people
volunteer because they want to make a difference. But there are other
things you may want too, such as: getting out from behind your computer
and among people; networking; sharpening your professional skills; and
learning new skills. Decide which are the most important and choose
your volunteer position accordingly.”
Problem One: Non-profits are focused on agency goals – not yours.
most people volunteer because they want to make a difference,
but…most non-profits are structured to utilize volunteers so that
they (the org) can make a difference. These two objectives are often at
odds and can consequently create hard feelings. On the other hand, you
may be able to find a task that not only suits you, but achieves some
goals you have around learning new skills. More likely, you’ll have to
take whatever job you’re given.
Rebeca Holloway tried
volunteering at a hospital after being laid off. At first, it was quite
promising, but soon she, “absolutely hated it” and, “dreaded going into
the office every week.” Why? “It takes energy to delegate and sometimes
it’s easier for people to do it themselves,” said Holloway. “They had
big plans for me, but it didn’t work out.” In the end, Rebeca found
herself doing, “excruciatingly boring grunt work two days a week.” (read the full NY Times article)
Step Two: Make a time commitment
much time can you devote to volunteering? Answer honestly, since you
don’t want to overcommit and then disappoint the organization. Consider
how often you go on job interviews and how your schedule will change
once you get a paid job.”
Problem Two: Non-profits don’t have the resources to commit to you.
a clear understanding of your ability to commit to a community
organization is essential to a good experience. The problem these days,
is that the non-profits cannot afford the same courtesy to those who
sign up to volunteer with them. Why? Besides being notoriously
underfunded when it comes to infrastructure, non-profits are reeling
from the surge of good will. The result, according to Bertina
Ceccarelli, a senior vice president at the United Way in New York, is
that volunteers have entire weeks of time to fill. The problem she
says, “It’s almost more work to find something for a volunteer to do
than to just turn them away.” (read the full NY Times article)
Step Three: Face-to-face or virtual? “Some
volunteer positions don’t require any face-to-face contact,
particularly ones that involve professional services. If you sit at
your computer for hours searching for jobs, face-to-face contact may be
a welcome reprieve. But some people prefer working alone at least some
of the time.”
Problem Three: Due to Risk Management, you may not be allowed interaction with clients, anyway.
there is a fundamental lack of understanding regarding the reasons why
people volunteer. Volunteering is about relationship and real-time,
meaningful encounters. Remove the people and the real-life issue, and
volunteering becomes pretty damn optional. Good volunteer opportunities
connect with internal motivations in volunteers. Telling people it’s a
“good” thing, while leaving the motivators at an external level, will
inevitably result in volunteers opting out when something more
important comes along.
Step Four: Understand the cause “Once
you’re attracted to an organization, make sure you really know its
mission and goals. If it’s not a cause that strongly appeals to you,
you probably won’t enjoy the experience. Find something you feel
Problem Four: Due to being chronically overworked, few non-profits have the time to enliven a volunteer’s passion.
absolutely agree with Weiss’ ‘step four.’ In order for volunteers to
choose a cause they’re passionate about, the work of an organization
needs to be clearly communicated to them. Incidentally, this does not
mean handing out a Publisher pamphlet outlining the
mission/vision/values. To truly understand an organization’s worth,
people need to hear stories. Reading stories is fine, but somewhere
along the line we all need to internalize the life of the non-profit.
The work, the people, and the issues need to become part of the
volunteer’s own narrative – and this requires dialogue. So what’s the
problem? Most non-profits simply do not understand how essential verbal
story telling is to volunteers. What’s worse, often there is little or
no space provided for these stories to be told intentionally.
Step Five: Make sure there’s structure “Find
out if the organization you’d like to volunteer for has the structure
to support volunteer efforts. Your time will be best served if they’ve
had volunteers before and know how to place them in the right roles. If
it looks like there won’t be anyone to supervise you, you likely won’t
have a rewarding experience.”
Problem Five: No one donates money to build the appropriate structure for managing volunteers.
I agree with Weiss. Most volunteer positions offer a less than
rewarding experience. This is exactly the reason: a severe lack of
essential structures focused on the volunteers themselves. When an
already precarious structure receives an influx of new volunteers, you
have a recipe for disaster. The NY Times reports
that “Smaller organizations, with staffs of fewer than 20 and no
full-time volunteer coordinator, have struggled to absorb the influx,
especially since many of them have simultaneously had to cut back on
projects in the face of dwindling donations and government grants.” Too
many volunteers, insufficient funding spent on managing volunteers
(especially these days), and you’ll find nonprofit executives begging
to stop the phones from ringing with offers to help.
Firestone, who manages pro bono projects for Taproot, said the
organization had scaled back recruitment this year after attracting
more volunteers than it could possibly accommodate. “It’s like a Greek
tragedy,” she said. “We’re thrilled to have all of these volunteers.
But now organizations are stuck not being able to take advantage of it
because they don’t have adequate funding.” (read the full article here).
may actually be the exception to the rule in this case. At Taproot,
volunteers are a primary goal of the organization, but most non-profits
are forced to see volunteers as a means to an end. Sure, good
volunteers are always welcome, but non-profits often have little
patience or permission to work with the neophytes. That’s because
funders want results, or they get bored and disabused of the importance
of the work.
Step Six: Be open-minded “Many
organizations need volunteers, and most of them you’ve never heard of.
Before you turn one down, learn about it. If you can, meet with staff
to hear about what they do. You just might discover the ideal
Problem Six: It is very difficult to volunteer these days. Even before the financial collapse and the Obama Effect.
to the virtually non-existent interest among donors to fund
infrastructure, marketing, internet presence or solid skills training
for volunteer management, it is very difficult for the average person
to find a place to volunteer – let alone figure out what’s going on
before they show up. Non-profits are usually resourced to run ‘sexy’
programs, with most of the money targeted to deliverables (none of
which seem to include the above items). The result is a veritable
ghetto of skills among the rank and file non-profits in the US and
Canada (I think it is a bit different in the UK and Australia).
upon reflecting on the less than stellar experience that she was able
to offer at the United Way, Ms Ceccarelli said, “My hope is when they
decide it’s time to do something else, they have fond memories of what
they learned at United Way.” After a moment, she continued, “Maybe
they’ll even become a donor. I’ll tell you, there isn’t an executive
director in town who doesn’t think that way.” And there it is.
Volunteers are fine, but money is always better. (read the full NY Times article)
Volunteers, better than money and easier to get
6 problems listed above are not always true everywhere you go. There
are great non-profit organizations out there who know exactly what they
are doing and are thereby leading the way out of the old “Charity”
model – where volunteers are seen as a means to an end (until you raise
enough money and can hire staff).
For my part, personal
experience allows me to believe in and advocate the ideals. At Realized
Worth, we utilize an approach that achieves the following;
FULLY AUTOMATED VOLUNTEER RECRUITING AND SCREENING. Remove
time and personnel barriers by making everything from recruiting and
screening to job assignment and evaluation automatic. (It’s not as
difficult as it sounds – promise.)
CONNECT THE ORGANIZATIONS OBJECTIVES WITH THOSE OF THE VOLUNTEER. Acknowledge
what the volunteer wants to do (which will be all the wrong things, of
course) and start there. (What they want isn’t what you need, but start
TASKS AND ASSIGNMENTS PERFECTLY SUITED TO INDIVIDUAL VOLUNTEERS.
You’ll only drive yourself nuts looking for the perfect volunteer, so
build jobs around the people that show up. (If you look long and hard
enough, you can find something close to the perfect volunteer, but it’s
always too little, too late.)
ATTRACT THE BEST VOLUNTEERS, AND KEEP THEM.
The most destructive part of most volunteer programs is treating
everyone the same. Giving everyone equal say, equal privilege, equal
leadership and equal recognition is a recipe for disaster. You will
overwork the best and bore the hell out of the most promising.
LIMITED STAFF ARE REQUIRED. Re-write
the job description of every staff member you have. In order to run an
excellent volunteer program your staff must see themselves as
facilitators of volunteers rather than “bosses” working to get a job
done. Staff make it possible for volunteers to do the work, not the
other way around.
A SUPERIOR VOLUNTEER MANAGEMENT PROCESS.
I know you have a ‘primary audience’ with whom you work, whether it be
diabetics or homeless youth. Your mission has got to include the
broader population (stakeholders, if you want). You need them to buy in
to your cause and push for long term, societal and political changes.
Volunteers are as much the recipients of your good work as the
‘clients’ with whom you work.
I encourage you to read our six part series on achieving these goals for your own organization. And as always, I’m more than happy to answer questions. Contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.