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Opening her laptop, Yvonne peered at a tiny picture in the daily feed. She studied the photograph of the child in a hospital bed and something inside of her clicked so she opened a new tab and searched for “hospital volunteers needed.” Numerous volunteer ads popped up.

“Volunteer with us, bring your caring heart.”

“The life you change may just be your own.”

“Our volunteers are priceless.”

“Take that first step and volunteer to help.”

Yvonne took in the photos of volunteers working together, triumphant smiles on their busy faces. She imagined how dynamic these volunteers must be, and here she was, shy, insecure, and full of doubts. She wasn’t like them. They were so…amazing and who was she kidding, she was just stumbling through life. With a wistful sigh, Yvonne closed the tab and moved on.

Social comparisons: How do we know if we’re good, or smart or accomplished? We compare. We look for people who are similar to us or are in a similar arena. We look at our lives and the lives of others around us and sometimes we win and sometimes we fail miserably. (all in our heads of course)

There are a huge variety of reasons folks don’t volunteer. Heck, volunteer managers twist into knots trying to make everything perfect to attract volunteers. Beyond the changing volunteer needs such as flexible schedules, meaningful experiences and episodic or virtual opportunities, is Yvonne’s reason another one to consider?

I remember a conversation I had a while back with a friend, Judy. I had been trying to get Judy to volunteer for years. She would be perfect, I always thought. Funny, no-nonsense, industrious, she would bring an air of authenticity.

“No,” she said emphatically. “I’m not volunteering. You guys are all so, I don’t know, smiley.” At the time I laughed, but Judy’s perception stayed in my head. And it made me wonder if there were others like Judy out there.

Do they think “That’s not me. I’m not that selfless, or happy or giving or whole. I look at volunteer pictures on websites, or Facebook and see volunteers, arms around each other as they pose in front of the playground they built or the building they painted or the kids they saved and I think, “I can’t be that. I’m flawed.”

Do they read the newspaper and see volunteers receiving awards and think, “Good for them. They must be perfect. It’s too hard for me.”

Does posting pictures of our photographic moments set up some people to fail at social comparison? Do we sometimes erroneously assume anyone who looks at the pictures will automatically want to be one of those volunteers? Maybe we could add in some other words or images to connect with hesitant prospective volunteers.

Today in advertising, real people have mostly replaced the old, stereotypical perfect people. Is there a way to re-imagine popular volunteer slogans to appeal to the “I’m not perfect like them” prospective volunteer?

  • Volunteering, a Work of Heart = Volunteering is not easy, it can be sad and frustrating and exhilarating all at the same time. Nothing is perfect, not the work, not the clients, not the organization, and we don’t expect you to be perfect either. That’s the real beauty of it. It’s real, just like you.
  • Help Others, Help Yourself or The Life You Change Might Be Your Own = We kinda think volunteering can be a great experience, but we can’t promise it. We can promise though, that we’ll work with you to make sure you get something pretty awesome from it. It’s sort of like a treasure hunt, we don’t exactly know what you’ll get out of it, but it could be pretty great like meeting some fascinating new people, finding out some neat stuff about yourself, or discovering how people, even thought they may seem vastly different are pretty much alike when you boil it all down. 
  • Volunteers are Priceless = Yeah, this is pretty meaningless, we know. We do pledge however, to not waste your time because your time is valuable and we want to make sure that you feel as though your time was spent wisely.
  • A Volunteer Journey Begins With a Single Step = Ok, this is true. We all took that first step. It wasn’t easy, we were scared, and didn’t know what to expect. But once we took that step, it got a little easier. You can bail out anytime, so keep that in mind. We’re not superhuman and don’t expect you to be either. Trust me, you’re not alone, we will take that first step with you. 
  • Just Bring a Caring Heart = Look, it’s a fallacy that all these volunteers are so perfect and love everybody all the time. We all do rotten things once in a while, have lousy thoughts, get mad and grumpy too. But together we can figure it out because we are humans, flawed and imperfect and maybe that’s the point.

I’d like to offer another ad here. This one isn’t based on some traditional volunteer slogan. It’s based on something I’ve observed over many years of on-boarding volunteers: The new volunteer who is hesitant, unsure, somewhat nervous about his/her abilities, the one who took a little longer to feel comfortable usually turned out to be an outstanding volunteer. So this “pitch” is for them.

Hello you. I’m speaking to you. You may see yourself as inadequate, unable and unworthy. What do we see? We see someone who is open and thoughtful and considerate.

You may imagine that you’ll fail at volunteering because there’s some magical skill you need and you don’t have it. What do we imagine? That you’ll bring a unique perspective to our mission, that you’ll fit in because all of us here are unique too. A lot of us are downright quirky and stumbling if you want the honest truth.

You may think we want you to be perfect. What do we want? We want to do some good in this crazy world and we don’t have all the answers. We’re not looking for perfection. We’re looking for you.  

So, should we now just post pictures of volunteers milling around looking lost and unhappy? (maybe snap a few pics of volunteers trying to find where they’re supposed to be stationed at the next big function)

No, but just as we don’t view ourselves as one-dimensional, prospective volunteers see themselves as complex too. And a few of them might need to know that volunteers aren’t these super human people who have it all together all the time.

There might just be a message for prospective volunteers like Yvonne: We want you-imperfect and quirky and full of potential.

Kinda like the rest of us.


This is an update from a post in 2015: Dieting, Models and Volunteering