If non-profits were a video game, the mechanics would be pretty simple. Everyone in the game would stick to their function. Clinical staff would stick to their missions. Support staff would stay in their lane and build home base. Fundraisers would hold tightly onto asking everyone for money. Volunteers would be the toolbox like the above picture that could be summoned up when needed.
But the world is changing and volunteer programs are the place to test new ideas, pilot new programs and find innovative solutions. Our volunteers are a sandbox gift that non-profits can either set aside or open up to a world of new possibilities.
Innovative companies continually set new directions. They pay employees to pilot initiatives that will help their companies expand and grow. Non-profits don’t have that luxury so they tend to recycle the same methods that may have worked years ago. And tragically, non-profits tend to overlook the impact potential of their volunteer programs.
But the more we push our organizations to view volunteers as solutions, the more we volunteer managers must be able to put reasonable limits on volunteer requests. We can’t do everything. We are not an infinite open world. If we insist that our volunteers want to be creative, expect to be episodic, then our organizations will counter with, “hey, if your volunteers are so creative and skilled, why can’t I find a creative type who will jump at a last minute assignment?” We have to change the narrative.
But what is the current narrative? Volunteers are the ultimate support toolbox, right? They aim to please, right? They think we’re goodness personified so they want to help in any way they can, even if it means putting off necessary surgery for our walk/run, right?
Championing a sandbox does not mean offering an anything goes program. It means redefining the purpose of volunteer involvement. Even open world games have limits and and it is up to the volunteer manager to successfully set volunteer program limits while focusing on the modern volunteer’s role. How do we do that?
- Elevate mission priorities. Ask, how does this request further the mission? For example, does asking volunteers to drop everything for a last minute event request rank as high in the mission as placing volunteers with clients? (for more on this, see The Volunteer Department Has Ground Rules)
- Be clear about volunteer availability. Don’t lump all volunteers into one vague number. Instead, categorize volunteers into groups based on location, training, interests, etc, which gives a clearer availability picture. (for more on this see The Dangerous Numbers Game)
- Be unapologetic when explaining volunteer preferences. Methodically dispel the mindset that volunteers are willing to do whatever they are asked. (for more on this, see Expecting Different Volunteering Results is Organizational Insanity)
- Push back against unreasonable or frequent changes to volunteer requests. Explain that any change pushes the request back in priority. (for more on this see The Disruptive Volunteer Manager )
The point is, we need not be afraid to offer volunteer solutions based on engaging modern volunteers. We need to realize that our roles as volunteer managers must change from implementing volunteer programs to controlling the direction of volunteer programs. In the non-profit video game, we must take the lead in programming volunteer involvement. If we take the steps towards controlling our programs and the perceptions surrounding our volunteers, then we can offer more volunteer help without being overwhelmed by unreasonable expectations. (for more on this see, Do volunteer managers implement or manage volunteer programs)
Let’s invite the non-profit world to come play in a volunteer sandbox that we create and manage, one that engages today’s volunteers. Let’s forge a new narrative and help further our missions by offering the best our volunteers have to offer.
Let’s move our volunteer programs from one of toolboxes to one that reflects modern volunteers and their tremendous potential.