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baseball bleachers chairs close up

Photo by Bahram Jamalov on Pexels.com

Niko looked down at her t-shirt that read “Children’s Zoo Volunteer.” She forgot that she still had it on. The older lady in front of her in the checkout line, had turned and smiled. “I like your shirt. Have long you volunteered there?

“Thank you.” Niko shyly replied. “It’s been about three years.”

“I take my grandkids there all the time,” the lady said as she put her groceries on the conveyor belt. “They especially love the polar bear habitat. I’m excited about the new interactive childrens’ corner. Do you know when that opens?”

Niko moved up. “I think they’ve scheduled it for this fall.”

“Maybe we’ll see you there sometime.” The lady pushed her carton of orange juice forward. “It really is a wonderful zoo.”

“It is.” Niko returned. “They do a great job, don’t they?”

Do our volunteers use the term “we” when referring to our organizations? Do they include themselves when speaking of organizational accomplishments, or fielding praise and questions? Or do these words come out of them? “I’m just a volunteer.”

We, volunteer managers often say, “we want our volunteers to feel included.” This is a little bit like saying, “I want my child to think I love him.” Creating an atmosphere in which someone feels something does not guarantee those feelings are based on something tangible. Rather, those feelings could be based on surface ideas and token gestures instead of deeply ingrained truths.

Maybe instead, we should state, “we want our volunteers to know they are included,” or “we want our volunteers to be included.” It’s a subtle, but important difference.

Perpetuating outdated ways of thinking will not move volunteer engagement forward. Inclusion is not about the emotions involved and whether or not we imagine that volunteers feel included. It’s about knowing they are included. It’s about stepping up and putting words into action and creating a foundation of inclusion versus symbolic gestures.

It’s about a commitment to shifting our paradigm.  It’s about going beyond the appearances of inclusion that typically include:

  • Yearly volunteer thank you luncheons (as a separate group)
  • Volunteer mentions in the newsletter (as a separate group)
  • Volunteer awards (as a separate group)

If volunteers are part of the “team,” then we have to ask: Why are they always referred to as an aside? Just for the heck of it, let’s look at a different kind of team and consider this recap of a baseball game.

The Otters beat the Pelicans 5-4 in a wild game on Saturday. Addison (Shortstop) and Javier (Second Base) turned an incredible double play with the bases loaded, robbing the Pelicans of a chance to take the lead in the 9th inning. Two of the Otters’ starting lineup hit home runs in the 5th: Jason (Right Field) and Billy (Left Field). In the 7th, Ron (Third Base) dove headfirst ahead of the tag into home plate on Ernie’s (First Base) perfectly placed bunt. The pitcher, Fergie had 11 strikeouts and credited his catcher, Wilson for calling a great game. Afterwards, manager Leo said of his team, “We got the job done. I’m proud of the way the team worked together.”

So, what does this baseball analogy have to do with volunteering? Well, what if each position on a baseball team was treated as a separate entity? The reporting would look like this:

  • In shortstop news, Addison made an incredible play.
  • In second base news, Javier made a great play.
  • In Right Field news, Jason hit a home run in the 5th.
  • In Left Field news, Billy hit a home run in the 5th.
  • In Third Base news, Ron scored a run.
  • In First Base news, Ernie executed a perfect bunt.
  • In Pitching news, Fergie had 11 strikeouts.
  • In Catching news, Wilson called a great game.

Doesn’t sound so much like a team effort anymore, does it?

Truly integrating volunteers into the team means including them as partners in our accomplishments. Sure, we can identify them as volunteers, just as we identify a baseball player’s position. And including them in our accomplishments in no way detracts from the accomplishments of hard-working staff.

It simply indicates that our organization is a team, working together. It shows we are generous with our credit and that we want to expand our support in the ongoing effort to accomplish our goals. It shows that outcomes are the objective, not ownership or martyrdom or personal praise. Inclusion shows potential volunteers, staff members, board members, clients and even donors that we are the very essence of charitable.

When we send out our glossy newsletters, is there a volunteer spotlight within or are the volunteers incorporated into the meaty stories about how the team has made inroads into stopping illiteracy, or providing meals to vulnerable populations? Do volunteers’ names appear in the same sentence as staff members or donors?

We can plead that “our volunteers should feel included,” until we are hoarse, but until our volunteers are included, we will be stuck with balloons and t-shirts and volunteers who say “they.”