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“So, you’re a volunteer manager; what do you do, exactly?” We’ve all been asked the question and then that moment follows when we pause and mutter, “ummmmm,” because we really can’t explain volunteer engagement and impact in a few short sentences. Could we explain it in a paragraph or two? A book? An encyclopedia? Probably not, at least not in-depth. So, where does that leave us? Always shrugging our shoulders and feeling misunderstood because no one gets volunteer engagement the way we do? 

Maybe we’re approaching this explaining challenge with too many expectations. Maybe we should look at it differently. Instead of an all or nothing approach, i.e. “you get it or you don”t,” why don’t we aim for something more attainable like an appreciation of volunteer engagement and impact. Maybe before we introduce folks to a college course on volunteer management, we should help them appreciate it first.

Think of all the things we appreciate but maybe don’t fully comprehend or understand, such as,

Our vehicles: Sure, we basically get how cars and trucks and SUV’s work, but do we truly understand electric motors versus combustion engines (and what is the four stroke process again)? 

A good bottle of wine: Ok, we can pretend all we want, but do we really know what a hint of oakey or buttery (or waxy for all I know-yes I buy wine in the box) means?  

Our animal friends: Do we really know why our dog won’t play with the green Frisbee but loves the yellow one or why our cat loudly meows down the hallway at night (jeesh, that can be unsettling) at unseen forces? 

No, we pretty much appreciate things without having to know all and everything about them. We can do the same with volunteer management because what do the three examples above have in common? We appreciate transportation and fine wine and animals because they enhance our lives. Vehicles transport us around, open the world to us. Wine gives us pleasure. Animal friends provide us with companionship, entertainment, love etc.

In short, we appreciate the things we deem beneficial. So, the five words to untangle volunteer management from not being understandable to at least being appreciated are: “What’s in it for me?” 

The more we show people how they benefit from volunteer involvement, the more appreciation they will have for volunteering, volunteers and the people who make it all happen (that’s us in case you weren’t sure). That’s why I believe we must add volunteer impact into our volunteer engagement conversations because impact holds the key to showing benefits. Instead of continually trying to “educate” others on the complexities of engaging volunteers, let’s show them the “what’s in it for me” volunteer impact first.

Volunteer impact is the concrete result of a volunteer’s time, talents and efforts. And since we, volunteer managers see all the positive results, we can translate these results into impact.

For example, traditional volunteer reporting says to the manager of fundraising, “our volunteer Jenny spent 26 hours last month helping make phone calls and putting together donation packets.” Then we normally add, “we need to keep Jenny engaged so that she continues to do this job.” 

But by emphasizing volunteer impact, we point to the benefit of having Jenny volunteer by saying, “because our volunteer Jenny came in regularly last month to make phone calls and put together packets, the fundraising staff was able to spend 26 more hours on cultivating key donors. Last month they brought in 2 new large donations by donors who are now pledging to give regularly.”

Volunteer impact shows a direct correlation between a volunteer’s efforts and beneficial results. A volunteer impact equation looks something like this:

Volunteer time/talent/ideas/efforts/work = staff time saved/work accomplished/extra manpower = desired outcomes/goals met/mission fulfilled//new benefits/increased awareness/staff support/etc.

The key here is the addition of outcomes that dive deep into meeting mission goals and objectives. 

Instead of skimming the surface by equating hours with money saved or time spent, volunteer impact directly connects a volunteer’s time to the goals of organizational missions. For example:

  • volunteers create valuable time for staff to accomplish critical work (because volunteer Sheri spent 6 hours this week training event volunteers, our event staff was able to spend 6 more hours preparing for the annual fundraiser, thus assuring a smooth event. The positive comments from attendees include, “such a wonderful event, the volunteer ushers provided us with so much information on the organization. We are impressed.”)  
  • volunteers spend unhampered time working with clients, thus aiding staff in creating an atmosphere in which clinical staff can better do their jobs (because volunteer Juan spent 8 hours last month sitting with our client, Emanuel, clinical staff was able to spend 8 uninterrupted hours with Emanuel’s children, thus equipping the family with the coping tools they need to navigate their situation)
  • volunteers are “eyes and ears” for busy staff and can alert staff to potential problems, thus reducing valuable staff time spent in fixing problems and free them up to meet objectives (our volunteer Nan, during her docent shift was alerted to a hazard outside an exhibit and due to her quick reporting, saved us from a potential accident with legal implications. This gave staff the ability to quickly rectify the situation in keeping with our objective of providing a safe environment for learning and return to their crucial duties)  

Using a volunteer impact equation means going beyond volunteer hours. The equation deep dives and reveals the impact of time donated and is the key to appreciating volunteers. It’s a fundamental shift. Instead of appreciating volunteers for the giving of their time, we are appreciating volunteers for the beneficial impact their volunteer hours have on our missions.

It is up to us to restructure our reporting and connect our volunteers’ time with mission impact. In the examples above, what is the impact?

  • Jenny’s time resulted in the cultivation of 2 new donors (mission goal: increased donations to continue the work)
  • Sheri’s time resulted in (documented by comments) a well run event and increased awareness (department objective: well-run event to increase awareness)
  • Juan’s time resulted in a family’s increased ability to cope (mission goal: equip families with the tools needed to cope)
  • Nan’s time resulted in a potential accident and lawsuit thwarted (organizational objective: provide a safe environment for learning)

Reporting impact requires a strong connection with staff and departments utilizing volunteer services so that we are privy to goals, objectives and direction. This is actually a good thing, for the more we connect with staff within our organizations, the more we receive helpful feedback, input and suggestions for volunteer involvement. From these connections, we can structure volunteer roles for maximum support. And, when it comes time to report on volunteer hours, we can then show the direct correlation between a volunteer’s time and the attaining of mission goals.

Existing in silos no longer serves us or our volunteers. As leaders, we can demonstrate the way for our organizations to grow is through partnerships between departments. Based on showing how our volunteers meet and exceed objectives and goals, we can then advocate for more volunteer involvement and for better organization wide engagement of our volunteers.

If we work towards an appreciation of volunteerism by answering five simple words, “What’s in it for me,” then, we just might begin to hear 5 other words, “We need to engage volunteers.”