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Sometimes I wonder if we should automate the volunteer inquiry process. Could we cut corners by creating an answering machine interview system for prospective volunteers? By eliminating the personal touch spent cultivating each new volunteer, I estimate we would save, like 16.9 years of our lives.

And heck, I’ve used every personality questionnaire out there, even the ones guaranteed to weed out “the potentially destructive personality.” I’ve asked “what kind of tree are you,” and “what would you do if you were in charge of the world,” and “who would you save if you had to throw someone off an overcrowded lifeboat.” (Hint: Watch out for the guy that says, “everyone else, including you.”)

So, if someone did create an automated answering machine system, would it sound something like this?

“Hello, you have reached the volunteer hotline. Please listen carefully with the listening skills you would hopefully use with our clients and select the number that best describes your desire to volunteer. Someone will get back with you shortly. As demand for our super duper meaningful volunteer positions is at an all time high, your expected wait time is 3 minutes.” (this is a blatant lie, but c’mon, it’s just the old marketing scheme that makes people think the volunteer positions are so popular that they’d better get one now before they run out). After some peppy music, “thank you for your interest in volunteering for our organization. Please select from the following options.”

“Press 1 if you have a sincere desire to help. You have no underlying reasons to volunteer other than you want to give back. You listen to directions, offer constructive criticisms and are punctual. You communicate well, take your volunteer position seriously and love being part of a team. Your expected call back time is 5 minutes or less. Actually, don’t hang up! A volunteer manager will pick up right now ’cause we can’t lose you! Hang on!”

Press 2 if friends always tell you you’re a good person. Sometimes they tell you you’re too good for your own good. Maybe you are a bit hesitant, unsure of what you are getting into, but want to give us a try. You would love to socialize in a helping atmosphere. Your expected call back time is 20 minutes or less so stay put and start brewing a celebratory latte because you sound perfect!”

Press 3 if you are saying you want to help because you think our volunteers are all nicey-nice and that’s what we want to hear. If you’re brutally honest, you need to be needed. Pressing the “like” button on socially relevant issues makes you happy, but only when you get a “like” for your “like.” Phrases such as “we couldn’t have done it without your help” make you tingly all over. Taking selfies with people in need ups your cred. Your expected call back time is 5 days or more. You might get bored in those 5 days and move on to something else, but, we’ll take that chance.

Press 4 if you are the leader of a group such as a club, team or corporation. Now go back and press 1 if you sincerely want to partner with us and help because we would love to partner with you. You can do team building and everything. We’re down with that. If you kinda just want to use use us for PR and you expect us to accommodate all of your expectations because hey, it’s free help and we should be grateful, right, then stay on the line and listen to our canned music for awhile. Your expected call back time is 2 weeks or maybe a bit more.

Press 5 if you have court ordered community service and you’re angry about it and will make sure to take it out on us or if you are under 18 and your mom is making you do this cause you were suspended from school and she is fooling herself into thinking this will actually help you get into college to learn something useful. You really hate the idea of being forced to endure all this feel good hokum and you laugh at us non-profit types because we are full of sh… sugary sweet stuff that gags you and robs you of your edginess. Your expected call back time is 10 weeks or more. A lot more.

Press 6 if you can’t wait to get in here and straighten us out. You have the need to control and criticize and really want to run the show. You are unwilling to apply for a job in this organization, but would rather back door yourself in as a volunteer, cleverly thinking that we would never fire a volunteer, no matter how destructive they might turn out to be. You sling passive-aggressive phrases like a boomerang of hurt, saying “helpful” things such as, “no wonder it’s chaos in here,” and “who set up this god-awful training, I didn’t learn a thing!” You burrowed into your last volunteer position and waited, spider style until an unsuspecting staff member or other volunteer got tangled in your verbal stings.  Your expected call back time is, well, let’s just say your information will just magically get lost in a trash web of our own. But thanks for calling!””

I suppose we could cut corners and just automate the upfront work we put into developing volunteers, but it wouldn’t work. No robotic system can come close to how good we are at fleshing out volunteer motivations and personalities. Maybe someday AI can learn to match volunteers with the role that will create a synergy between meaningful work that keeps the volunteer coming back while making a profound difference in the lives of those we serve. Maybe someday, but not today.

Maybe we are a lot more valuable than we think.


this is an update from an old post. Like almost 5 years ago…woah.