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Emma set her cup down on the table and opened her laptop. She could hear the kids arguing upstairs as they got ready for school. Jenna needed to be picked up after soccer practice, and Harvey still needed to finish his science project or he’d get an incomplete. Emma’s phone pinged. Her mother’s tests came back. The cancer had returned. Holding back the tears, Emma scrolled through her news feed. She clutched at her life spinning out of control, desperately grasping at something to ground her. She read the headlines. So much political in-fighting. Too many vapid celebrity news stories. One heading came from her local newspaper: Volunteer Receives City Council Award. Emma paused for a second, and then scrolled on.

For years, I thought that any story on a volunteer would produce a tsunami of people trampling each other to join our team. “I want to be just like Herman, or Zafir, or Maria,” they’d proclaim, their fresh smiling faces eager to give back. “Pick me! OOOOOhhh, pick me!” They’d come in wearing t-shirts sporting the face of my smiling volunteer. It would be cult-like, but so what, my volunteer was a star!

Having press cover volunteers was so rare, that once a reporter showed up, I was slobbery grateful for any mention at all. I grovelled at the reporter’s Birkenstocks. And so, stories about volunteers receiving some plaque or attaining some milestone were all I could get. I never challenged the content and I always suspected the reporter was being punished by doing a “filler” or “human interest” story and really wanted to get on to digging out news stories about that bank robber wearing the Nixon mask or the mayor’s brother suddenly being awarded a lucrative city contract.

While scrolling through news-feeds this week, it felt like the I was back in the 90’s. I could hear Alanis Morissette singing in the background. Ironically, the overwhelming majority of volunteer news stories are identical to the ones written about my volunteers 20 years ago. Here are some news-feed headlines from just two days worth of searching articles: (names and places removed)

    • Seniors recognized for volunteer work
    • Doing what comes next: Man keeps working, volunteering
    • Volunteering “immensely rewarding” for local woman
    • Duo shares gifts through volunteering
    • Local woman finds volunteering a positive influence
    • Local man honored for volunteering by Service Center
    • Couple’s love of volunteering keeps them on the go
    • SENIOR SPOTLIGHT: Volunteering can have numerous benefits
    • Volunteer receives medal for dedication
    • These volunteers provide help, friendship

Have you nodded off yet? And to think I used to titter excitedly, “my volunteer in the newspaper, wow, we’re at the summit of the recruitment mountain! Break out the oxygen!” Seriously, what was wrong with me?

I’ve been reading targeted news-feeds for years. Anything of real substance I share on my Pinterest site, Volunteer Management Talk. But most articles on actual volunteers by actual reporters are frothy little yawn-fests. Yes, they’re positive. Yes, they paint volunteerism in a good light.

But where are the meaty stories that outline the results of volunteering? Where are the intriguing headlines that proclaim, “These Volunteers are Alleviating Homelessness,” or “These Volunteers Are Creatively Saving the Wetlands,” instead of “These Volunteers Have Really Big Hearts and Are as Boring as Their Organization’s Website.” (ok, sure, I made up the last part-sorta)

I was wrong about the recruitment potential of the few articles that were published in my local press. There was no mad rush to volunteer. I didn’t see our phone lines light up, or volunteers stampede in with news that their friends and neighbors were outside, clamoring to join our awesome team. I didn’t yell, “Put more coffee on, guys, it’s going to be a long night!”

In retrospect, I failed to get the real message out. The real message is the impact.
Volunteer managers everywhere are fighting to elevate the volunteer role by changing the perception of volunteer contributions and volunteers. If we want volunteers to be recognized for their work, we have to take volunteers out of the “human interest” column and push it into the “news” division. But, how?

When a reporter shows up to cover that award or story about Jane and Hermione, partners and your volunteers for 10 years, ask the reporter these questions:

      • “Where does this story fit in your publication’s divisions? Why?”
      • “What is the end game of this story? What do you want readers to take away?”
      • “Do you want to know the bigger story, that of the impact on our community?” (be prepared to offer relevant information and if you can, an interview with someone helped by your volunteer)
      • “Can you come back and do a follow-up story on the results of the volunteers’ work? We have some juicy human interest stories to share about the people who have been impacted by our volunteers.
      • If the reporter is doing a story on a particular volunteer or volunteers, (let’s take life partners, Jane and Hermione) prepare some eye-opening stats about them. “Yes, it’s true that Jane and Hermione have been here for 10 years, but here are the stats and stories on the impact they’ve had on our homeless population and by the way, that’s the reason they’ve been here for 10 years. “

I know you’ve experienced this. A volunteer is chosen as the subject of a local newspaper piece because of an award or milestone. The humble volunteer doesn’t want to be the center of attention. The reporter is just on an assignment. You convince the volunteer to do it because it will inspire others to volunteer. You tell them that whatever they say will be inspiring, because hey, they are a great representative of the work, right? Well, maybe they really don’t know what to say.

Well, why not take it one step further and plan with the volunteer what he/she will talk about? Pick out real impact stories to focus on and explain to the volunteer that these stories are the impetus for encouraging others to get involved. Tell them to turn the interview message around from “you can be like me,” to “you can impact our clients too, in these ways.” And throw in, “we can sure use more help.”

Why not help the reporter see that they could turn the story into something more, something with real substance? Plant that “juicy” story in their heads.

There’s a complex mathematical equation that explains the phenomena surrounding news stories about volunteers: It’s tricky and complicated, but it goes like this:

Press Stories on Volunteer+Fluff=Where are the new volunteers?

We have more than just our organizations needing to be convinced that volunteers are not just decorative marshmallows of pillowy goodness. We also have to target press, media and the community.

I’m disappointed and sorry I didn’t do anything about this disconnect before. But, the perception of volunteer contributions needs to change, both within and without. I think that together, we can change this perception, one story at a time.