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For years, volunteer departments have mainly operated in an old school linear manner. It reminds me of the first video games. If volunteer management were a video game, it would be the equivalent of a linear game like the original Super Mario Brothers or the game Pitfall. Move along a predetermined line (no allowance for straying off that line) to complete the course.

A linear volunteer department operates very much like a linear video game: Request for volunteers->recruit volunteers->fill tasks->complete assignment.

That linear model worked for volunteers in the past, but the modern volunteer wants to play a different type of game. The modern volunteer is not looking for a narrow experience along a predetermined route, but rather they have more of a sandbox mindset in which their volunteering encompasses a much broader world of possibilities.

Modern volunteers find meaning in creativity and want the freedom to explore their skills and passions. They are looking at a bigger picture, and are interested in organizational transparency and their own secondary reasons to volunteer. It’s no longer considered ‘selfish’ to want more from their volunteering experience. Showing impact to both modern volunteers and to their organizations can no longer be determined by linear boxes checked such as time spent or dollars saved.

The challenge for leaders of volunteers is in making a sandbox mode work for us. It has to work from both the volunteer perspective and from the organizational perspective. Changing from a linear model and setting a new normal takes courage, conviction and the will to succeed.

Let’s first look at a sandbox from the volunteer perspective. How is this different from the old linear model?

  • Volunteers are looking to utilize their skills and passions versus fitting a predetermined role.
  • Volunteers are more interested in how organizations are perceived, how they behave and how they utilize resources versus assuming that the organization does good work just simply by existing.
  • Volunteers rely on social media for information, appreciation, instruction and ease in finding a fit versus a more lengthy and time-consuming process.
  • Volunteers expect organizations to earn their loyalty versus signing on for the long haul.
  • Volunteers crave flexibility and shorter assignments versus commitments.
  • Volunteers want fulfillment from learning new skills to exploring job opportunities versus just filling a task.
  • Volunteers want meaningful recognition, an accounting of their contributions and input into organizational direction versus symbolic appreciation.

This doesn’t mean that we have to discard every volunteer role and start anew. It means we must be aware of how modern volunteers view volunteering and prepare to integrate them into our programs. And here’s where a sandbox mode fits beautifully within a volunteer initiative: The testing ground.

  • Does your organization struggle with a challenge? A volunteer pilot program can work on the challenge without hiring extra staff or overloading existing staff with new duties.
  • Do you have volunteers with a particular skill or talent or interest? A volunteer pilot program can introduce new ways to engage volunteers and at the same time create new avenues to help clients and the organization.
  • Does your organization strive to increase awareness? Engaging corporate groups, or students or episodic volunteers can expand the scope of community awareness and increase donations.
  • Does your organization struggle to find funds for expert training and consultation services? Engaging skilled volunteers to teach corporate leadership, productivity, wellness and other subjects is a win-win for willing volunteers and the organization.

We, volunteer managers can start small and introduce the sandbox one step at a time. Then, with each positive gain, we can introduce another pilot program or innovative solution and lay the foundation to create a new normal, one in which volunteers are viewed as more than a linear character on a straight line.

The key is to show the impact of each new pilot program or innovative solution. It’s akin to earning coins, or tokens or points in a video game and these “volunteer initiative tokens” can be spent on opening up an organizations’ perception of volunteers and volunteer programs.

Next time: Sandboxes are not infinite and not open world. How to balance the other side of the concept so it works for us.