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hands volunteering2So, I’m going to pretend for a moment that I deeply understand chaos theory, deterministic systems, and linear functions. I’m going to try to sound really, really smart here, so please don’t laugh too hard when I use fancy phrases like “and so in conclusion,” “what I’m trying to point out.” and “holy crap this is hard!”
But volunteering I think needs to have its own theory. A few years ago, I developed the firecracker theory that says you will get in big, big trouble if you set off a string of lady fingers outside the door of your boss’ office. It’s related somehow to string theory, but that’s for another day.
I’ve observed (which you might notice is a great physics term) that a lot of really smart people look at volunteering and the recruitment of volunteers in a very linear way. Their theory goes something like this:
Volunteer Manager (VM) sitting at desk. A long line of prospective volunteers stand outside the door patiently waiting for their turn to do good.
VM: Who’s next? May I help you?
New Volunteer Jeremy (J): Hi, I’m answering your ad for volunteer help. Can you tell me more about it? I really want to do good.
VM: Why yes, we need someone every Tuesday to help put up supplies.
J: Oh my gosh, this is unbelievable, I have a Master’s Degree in putting up supplies! I’ve put up supplies for most of my life. I love nothing more than to put up supplies! When can I start to do some good?
VM: Well, you first have to go through some orientation and training. There’s four sessions starting tomorrow. That might be a bit last-minute.
J: Tomorrow, huh? Well I had some important surgery scheduled for tomorrow, but I think I’ll reschedule that. To do good by putting up supplies is far more important.
VM: Wonderful. After that we need to do a background check.
J: No problem! After we speak, I will go to the police station and have that done. I’ll pay for that myself. While I’m there, do you want me to pay for some other volunteers?
VM: No, that’s not necessary, but thank you. Are you then available to work on Tuesdays?
J: Wow, Tuesdays, huh? That’s the only day I have to take my elderly Mother out of the nursing home. She really loves our outings, but hey, what the heck, putting up supplies for you guys is so much more important. I’ll be here every Tuesday doing good! By the way, what kind of supplies are we talking about?
VM: Well, our organization gets shipments of office supplies on Tuesdays. No one here is willing to do that work.
J: Office supplies, is it, go figure, my thesis was on the body mechanics of putting up office supplies! This is amazing! I can’t wait!
VM: You do know, Jeremy that you will have to work alone in a hallway closet. There’s not much light or air, but that’s where the supplies are kept. Is that all right?
J: I can’t believe this! My minor in college was working alone in a closet, how perfect is this opportunity for me?
VM: Great, we will see you tomorrow. Thanks so much for volunteering. Next!

So, in this linear theory, volunteers pretty much show up, get oriented, complete all steps and faithfully volunteer. It’s a lovely parallel universe, one with giant blue people and shimmering unicorns who love to do good.

Recently, I attended a volunteer orientation for another organization. Of the seven people who took the evening class, I was the only one to show up at the meeting the next week. What happened to the rest? What mean and evil butterfly in Brazil kept them from doing good?

Well, to that question I say, Holy crap, this is hard! See, I told you there would be some fancy phrases here. I can’t even begin to list all the variables that prevent volunteers from becoming linear, but here are a few. I’m sure you could add countless more.
I want to volunteer but:
I just lost my job or I just got a job.
I got sick. I’ll try to come back, but it depends.
I have to move or I just moved.
I have no transportation, my car broke down.
I have to watch my grand kids now that my daughter went back to work.
I just had a significant death in my family.
I just got divorced.
I don’t think this is for me, sorry, but I thought it would be different.
I completed my task and I’m moving on.
I bit off more than I can chew-yes, sorry, my intentions are good, but I just can’t seem to find the time.
I’m not getting what I need. Sorry, I thought it was just about doing good, but maybe I need more.
I have to tie up some loose ends at home, then I’ll be back.
I’m really looking for a job and it looks like there are none here.
I burned out on all this saying yes.
I’m going to disappear now and you’ll never know why.

What determines the likelihood that Jeremy will volunteer? Luck, hard work on our parts, a perfect universe? Is it random no matter what we do? And, should we blame ourselves when not every prospective volunteer turns out to be volunteer of the year? Does a physicist blame himself because there are so many variables or does he accept the fact while learning from it?

So, if we start to accept the intricate theory of volunteering, then does that not elevate the role of the volunteer manager who must be an analytical leader?

Volunteering truly is like the famous Edward Lorenz quote, “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”
Whether or not someone volunteers may not be dependent upon a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil, but sometimes a random call from a relative thousands of miles away can alter our volunteers’ lives in an instant and therefore impact their ability to volunteer.

Hmmmm. And so, in conclusion, because volunteer managers work with these variables every day and still inspire vibrant forces of people doing good, I think some real credit is in order. Go ahead, flap your wings, butterfly. We’ve got this.