Photo Credit: CurbsideClassic.com
Jarvis is a volunteer coordinator for a small non-profit that works with homeless families.
“I’ve been here for five years, now. I pretty much know how our system works, what our volunteers are allowed to do, what they are not allowed to do and how their volunteering actually helps. When I talk to prospective volunteers, I love to sincerely tell them how meaningful their contributions really are to our clients. I feel that, I see that everyday, the ways our volunteers interact with our clients and how they truly help them. It’s so darn inspiring, I just can’t help but impart that to new volunteers.
But just lately, our organization’s leadership asked me to recruit some new volunteers. We are adding a new way to attract donors and that includes serving coffee and scones at informational meetings. It’s all white glove and very elegant looking. These new volunteers are the ones to prepare and serve the coffee, tea and scones. They’re expected to wear black pants, white shirts and to host or hostess and serve the potential donors while the marketing department does their thing.
At first, I happily recruited several volunteers, both new and existing for this role. I thought long and hard about what to say to show them the worth of this job and everything started out well, But after a bit, the volunteers started calling in sick and sometimes I would have to go down and fill in for their shift. I gotta tell you, it felt like meaningless, boring, demeaning work. I smiled and served tea and really just felt like I was being used, that the organization could have hired some professional folks to do this. It felt like they were cheapening out and I was the hack who let them cheapen out. I see why the volunteers are calling in sick and not showing up.”
Jarvis sighed. “I’m really uncomfortable asking volunteers to sign up for this position, especially when we need volunteers to do the meaningful work and especially since that’s what volunteers sign up for anyway. I feel like if I talk this position up, just to fill it, I will be guilty of bait and switch, you know what I mean?”
Hmmmmmmmm. Our job, when pared down to its base, is to recruit and train volunteers for established roles. We all know that this is incredibly nuanced work. We use words, images, stories and motivations to attract people to provide free, but worthwhile services. We show volunteers the meaning of their contributions and the benefits they will personally reap. It helps immensely if we believe not only in the mission, but in the roles we are recruiting volunteers for. But what happens to our spiel when we realize that a volunteer position is really just a cost saver? What if we secretly feel that a volunteer position is beneath our volunteers’ time? Do we just parrot the tired old “and it really makes a difference in our clients’ lives” and then go home feeling oily, like a huckster? And what if we voice our concerns to senior management and they not only dismiss those concerns, but send the message that, “if you don’t agree with this big picture, then you should probably leave.”
So this begs the question: Who are we really? Are we used car salesmen or are we Mother Teresa or are we somewhere in between? How do we sell a role we don’t believe in and are we allowed to not believe in a role? Do we not know our volunteers and potential volunteers better than anyone in our organizations? How should we advocate for meaningful roles vs. roles designed to save a few bucks here and there?
This is a tough one, because when we firmly advocate for our volunteers and their involvement, we tend to ruffle senior management feathers. We can be viewed as negative or unwilling instead of thoughtful and proactive. And sometimes, even though our approach is delivered well and backed up by evidence, our appeals can be swept aside with a cavalier “boy, that’s not a team player attitude, is it?”
What can we do? Firstly, show them, show them and show them some more. We all have to become experts at crunching everything into data, sort of like a human paper shredder that spits out supporting evidence. Write down exactly why volunteers don’t like a position and keep it in a file. On the flip side, record every wonderful thing your volunteers are doing with positions that truly make a difference. Record comments from grateful clients. Jot down anecdotes from staff who witness volunteer interaction. Note the positive and negative to build a case for your vision of volunteering. Advocate strongly for your volunteers, but in a professional, whine free manner. Dazzle them with your supporting evidence.
When senior management says, “c’mon, you have 100 or 300 or 8,000 volunteers, why can’t you find one to clean up after our staff party?”, you can come back with a “because no one wants to clean up after YOU people.” But even though it may be true, you will be viewed as unwilling, negative, and a poor team player. Instead come back with, “well, I called 50 volunteers and no one is available; as a matter of fact, 38 of them said that they were already busy helping our clients.” Now, you can’t just say this, you have to actually call 50 volunteers, but the extra work may just pay off eventually. Refusing to get a volunteer is vastly different from volunteers refusing to do a menial job.
In my experience, for what it is worth, I’ve found that my judgements on volunteer positions should not stop me from doing my job. I learned to let the volunteers make that judgement, not me. I simply ask them, “would you be willing to come in on Friday and help with a tea?” Sometimes, I am wrong and volunteers are willing to do the menial tasks. So, I can’t make that judgement for them nor should I.
So, remove your personal judgement and ask, really ask volunteers to do each job that comes along. Record their responses and follow-up with them to find out how they felt about a job. It will not only help you understand volunteer motivations and willingness, but you may also find yourself in a position one day to dazzle your organization with a volunteer services show and tell.
Due diligence and substantial evidence can help you formulate the volunteer positions of the future for your volunteers.